Richard Nixon and the Piano
"Playing the piano is a way of expressing oneself that is perhaps even more fulfilling than writing or speaking… I think that to create great music is one of the highest aspirations man can set for himself."
-RN The Memoirs of Richard Nixon
Pictured: In 1969, President Nixon plays “Happy Birthday” on the piano for Duke Ellington.
-from the Nixon Library
"In the royalty of American music, no man swings more or stands higher than the Duke.”
— Richard Nixon
On this day in 1899, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was born in Washington, D.C. Seventy years later, Ellington celebrated his 70th birthday at the White House where he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Ellington was a personal hero to Richard Nixon, who had played the piano since childhood. Afterwards, the President played “Happy Birthday” on the piano for the Duke while guests at the White House sang along.
-from the Nixon Library
Wish-I-was-there history for the day: Dave Brubeck at the White House
Dave Brubeck and George Wein (founder of the Newport Jazz Festival) at the piano performing for Duke Ellington’s 70th birthday at the White House. A U.S. Marine Band member plays bass in the foreground.
At the party, Duke Ellington was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Richard Nixon in the East Room. It was the first of Nixon’s Presidency.
Other guests included John B. “Dizzy” Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Mahalia Jackson, and Lou Rawls. You can see the complete list of attendees and performers in President Nixon’s Daily Diary from April 29, 1969.
More photos honoring Dave Brubeck and other jazz legends from the Nixon Library here
Jazz legend Duke Ellington died on this day, May 24, 1974
On April 24, 1969, Ellington celebrated his 70th birthday at the White House where he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The medal was presented by President Richard Nixon, who himself had played the piano since childhood. From the President’s remarks:
"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..
In the royalty of American music, no man swings more or stands higher than the Duke.”
Afterwards, the President played “Happy Birthday” on the piano for the Duke while guests at the White House sang along.
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington
April 29, 1899 - May 24, 1974
"My choice early in life was either to be a piano player in a whorehouse or a politician. And to tell the truth, there’s hardly any difference."
Harry S Truman
Bacall and Truman are at the National Press Club canteen, February 12, 1945.
Lauren Bacall and Harry S. Truman
The Grand Ole Opry House has seen the likes of Hank Williams, The Carter Family, Patsy Cline, and even President Richard Nixon perform on its stage in Nashville, Tennessee. On March 16, 1974, the new Grand Ole Opry House was dedicated. President Richard Nixon spoke at the festivities, which fell on the same date as Mrs. Nixon’s birthday.
At the request of the Grand Ole Opry’s Roy Acuff, aka the King of Country Music, President Nixon played “Happy Birthday” on the piano for the First Lady. Nixon also played “My Wild Irish Rose” and “God Bless America.”
During some onstage banter, Mr. Acuff asked if Nixon was a member of the musician’s union, otherwise the Opry might catch grief from the other performers. Fortunately, Nixon declared he was an honorary member of the union in New York City.
Happy National Piano Month!
My choice early in life was either to be a piano player in a whorehouse or a politician. And to tell the truth, there’s hardly any difference.
-Harry S. Truman
September is National Piano Month, and Harry S. Truman is one of several Presidents to tickle the ivories!
Because of Truman’s poor eyesight, he couldn’t play sports like baseball or football as other young boys did. Instead, Truman took piano lessons, and took them very seriously. According to his childhood friend Henry Chiles, Harry took lessons almost every day, and could be seen on the street carrying his music portfolio.
Truman’s love of piano continued into his adult years, and he loved to go to the vaudeville theaters to hear musicians play. Among his favorite composers were Mozart, Chopin, and Beethoven.
Truman kept a piano in his personal reception room at the Truman Library and would often sit down and play for guests. This photo was taken when comedian Jack Benny came to the Truman Library to film an episode of his television show.
-Another gem courtesy of the Archivists at the Truman Library