At a recent “Thinking About Jazz” gathering at Westminster Church, 400 I St SW, some 150 music fans paid tribute to an American legend who had also been honored 45 years ago at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW. On February 22nd, author Edward Allan Faine was on hand to discuss his book, “Ellington at the White House 1969”, which details the evening of April 29th, 1969, when President Richard Nixon awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Duke Ellington on his 70th birthday. The book, which features numerous photos, is a highly-detailed account of the behind-the-scenes preparations and the event itself. During his presentation, the author showed portions of the official White House documentary of that extraordinary night, when jazz artists, music legends, celebrities, and senior government officials all saluted the many contributions of the Duke.

It’s been said that it was a night of many “firsts” – the first time the nation’s highest civilian honor was bestowed upon an African-American, and to a jazz musician. In addition, it was the first time cameras were allowed inside the White House to televise an after dinner concert for the evening news, and to film a documentary to be seen by millions worldwide.

This TAJ program was special for a number of reasons. Vyllorya Evans, whose task it was to organize the event, used Faine’s book as a guide to add several unique touches to the afternoon’s program. In a nod to the Ellington dinner, eleven tables with yellow tablecloths were used. Decorating the tables were fresh floral centerpieces, using flowers identical to the dinner (including orange lilies, yellow roses and snapdragons, and orange and white carnations). When “guests” arrived, they were seated at tables bearing place cards with the names of the celebrated attendees in calligraphy. The White House menu was used as an inspiration for the meal, which included beef bordelaise, potatoes parmentier, and glace nougatine. In extra-special touch, the afternoon’s proceedings were captured by the lens of Sharon Farmer, former Director of White House Photography during the Clinton Administration.

During the program, door prizes of autographed books were given away, along with a CD of the 1969 All-Star White House Tribute to Duke Ellington.

“Thinking About Jazz” is a (free) bi-monthly program of the Southwest Renaissance Development Corp., housed at Westminster, which takes place on Saturdays from 1:00 – 3:00 p.m. The next program, “Mingus Speaks”, will take place on April 26th.  Author John Goodman presents Charles Mingus in his new book by the same title. Based on extensive interviews with the iconic bass player, the book offers an intimate look at Mingus’ views on jazz, his work, other jazz players, and the music business as well as social issues that concerned him: race, war, women, and much more.

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