President Richard Nixon presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Duke Ellington on the music legend’s 70th Birthday, April 29, 1969.

By Chris Barber

A close look at President Nixon will reveal a man who grew up with a great sense of admiration for music. An avid student of the craft from an early age– playing by the ear even before taking a lesson–RN developed a keen ability with the piano and violin.

His mother, Hannah, recalled that the young Nixon’s ear for music began at a very early age.

“By the time he was quite small, he loved the music, he could play almost anything he heard…at the age of we [would go] out, come home and he would go on the piano. And then he began taking lessons–he was an apt music pupil.”

He played so well that a teacher at Whittier College urged him to take on music as a profession.
In a 1983 interview, Frank Gannon, a White House Fellow during the Nixon administration, asked the former President whether he ever considered a career in music.

“Oh yes, yes,” replied the elder statesman emphatically. “I have always had a feeling that I’d like to be able to express myself in music, to be able to compose it…I like organ music, particularly in the great cathedrals in Europe. And in this country as well…and I always felt how great it would be to be able to play a great organ, and to improvise and compose. I’ve also had a sort of secret yearning to really direct a great symphony orchestra, but all of that’s by the boards now…I mean it never came to pass.”

Yet his passion for music never withered. Even during the White House years, RN never ceased to recognize the greatness of his ability, such that on one occasion he found it very appropriate to honor one of music’s greatest 45 years ago this week.

On April 29, 1969, President Nixon hosted a ceremonial birthday dinner for Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington at the White House, recognizing the versatile composer and musician for his life’s work producing arguably America’s most influential jazz rhythms. Honoring the Duke’s knack for creating a unique American music genre in a career that spanned over 50 years, President Nixon awarded him a grand birthday gift: the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It was the Nixon administration’s first presentation of the Medal of Freedom–perhaps personifying the 37th president’s love for music and, on this night, his appreciation of jazz.

When we think of freedom, we think of many things. But Duke Ellington is one who has carried the message of freedom to all the nations of the world through music, through understanding, understanding that reaches over all national boundaries and over all boundaries of prejudice and over all boundaries of language.

Upon receiving the highest civilian honor, the Duke shared some wisdom passed on from his late friend and composer Billy Strayhorn.

And, of course, we speak of freedom of expression and we speak of freedom generally as being something very sweet and fat and things like that. In the end when we get down to the payoff, what we actually say is that we would like very much to mention the four major freedoms that my friend and writing-and-arranging composer, Billy Strayhorn, lived by and enjoyed.

That was freedom from hate, unconditionally; freedom from self-pity; freedom from fear of possibly doing something that may help someone else more than it would him; and freedom from the kind of pride that could make a man feel that he is better than his brother.

After the presentation, President Nixon asked all of his guests in the East Room to join him in singing “Happy Birthday” to the Duke. The President, taking his position at the piano, led the crowd through the score and was later joined on the piano bench by the legend Ellington himself.


President Nixon playing the piano in the East Room with the legendary company of Duke Ellington.

Though RN never saw to his secret passion of directing a great symphony orchestra, he still played side by side with perhaps the greatest improviser and composer of the 20th century.

It was certainly a grand night, straight from a scene at a lavish New York City jazz lounge. Except in this case, all the living jazz legends came together in one place–the White House–to jam the night away with the Duke.

Below, watch footage of the White House event honoring Ellington. Among the President’s distinguished guests at the White House on this night were Jazz legends Louis Bellson, Bill Berry, Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Dizzy Gillespie, Urbie Green, Jim Hall, Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, Milt Hinton, J.J. Johnson, Hand Jones, Mary Mayo, Gerry Mulligan Willy “The Lion” Smith, Billy Taylor, Clark Terry, Joe Williams, George Wein, and Willis Conover.