The Duke and the Reds
In 1969, Duke Ellington celebrated his 70th birthday at the White House, where President Nixon threw a star-studded party and presented him with a Medal of Freedom. Only four years earlier, the greatest jazz composer of the 20th century had been passed over for a special Pulitzer Prize in recognition of his musical achievements. Hence the significance of the party, which was seen not merely as a tribute to Ellington but to jazz itself. As Ralph Ellison put it, “That which our institutions dedicated to the recognition of artistic achievement have been too prejudiced, negligent, or concerned with European models and styles to do is finally being done by presidents.”
Cynics took it for granted that Nixon’s purposes were purely political. If, on the other hand, they had had access to Ellington’s FBI file, it might have puzzled them that so prominent an opponent of Soviet Communism had chosen to honor an artist who appeared to have once had close ties to the American Communist Party. The file, opened in 1953, showed that throughout the 1930s and 40s, Ellington regularly performed for or sponsored such well-known Communist-front groups as the Artists’ Front to Win the War and the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship.
About the Author
Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.