The very first jazz group to perform in the White House was the Paul Winter Sextet, invited by John and Jackie Kennedy.
Our Take: Tragedy, Hope & Jazz – 1968
I was 10 when John F. Kennedy was elected President. Thirteen when he was assassinated. His life and the life of Bobby Kennedy have fascinated me ever since. So much good. So much tragedy. So much that was questionable. Yet, through it all, there was grandeur, idealism, style and the hope of eternal youth. There are no images of John or Bobby as old men. They are remembered as vital, virile and very powerful figures.
Did you know that John F. Kennedy was a huge jazz fan? Well, he was. In fact, he and Jackie are responsible for the very first jazz group to perform in the White House, the Paul Winter Sextet. While attending Northwestern University, Paul Winter spent time in the jazz clubs of Chicago. In 1961, his jazz sextet won the Intercollegiate Jazz Festival, signed a recording contract and headed to Latin America for a 6-month goodwill tour. The success of this tour led to an invitation from the Kennedys to play at the White House on Nov. 19, 1962. Paul was just 23 years old.
One year and three days later, JFK was assassinated. Paul Winter went on to win 7 Grammy Awards, create “earth music” and record more than 40 albums.
In January 1968, along with a young lady from Kansas City, I represented Missouri in the William Randolph Hearst United States Senate Youth Foundation program. One hundred high school seniors, two from each state, gathered in Washington, D.C. for a weeklong tour and symposium. To this day, I have no idea what was the goal of this event, but it included a top-drawer week in the Nation’s Capital and a $2,000 scholarship for college. Worked for me. That scholarship would not cover much tuition today, but, back then, it nearly paid for my freshman year.
That week was memorable, not only for the students involved, but for the nation. Just before we arrived in D.C., the USS Pueblo, a Navy spy ship, was captured by North Korea. The Pueblo Incident would dominate the news for months. President Johnson addressed our group that week and you could see that the crisis weighed heavily upon him.
In a completely different setting, perhaps the most famous college basketball game was played. UCLA versus Houston. The Game of the Century. Lew Alcindor versus Elvin Hayes. A sold-out Astrodome. I remember crowding into one of my fellow student’s hotel room to watch the game. You knew it was special, but only later in life was that game “knighted” and revered. I rooted for Alcindor, who famously became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Besides being one of the greatest basketball players ever, Kareem is a major jazz fan and supporter of the genre. He hosts jazz festivals and events in Los Angeles on a regular basis.
But, for me, that week will be remembered simply as the week that I met Bobby Kennedy. He was Senator Bobby Kennedy then. There were some competitions set up among the 100 students and the “prizes” were various special meetings and invitations. I and four others were lucky enough to spend some time with Bobby. Magical, imposing, scary and highly entertaining. Fifty-two years later, I can remember each minute.
A few months after that visit, two high school friends and I would begin to work on Bobby’s Presidential campaign. After his assassination in June 1968, we pivoted and our office became a McCarthy for President headquarters. Our ideals were keener than our political acumen. In those days, backing the party favorites was frowned upon by fellow teens. The Vietnam War occupied our minds. As an 18-year-old male in the United States, no other issue mattered.
I have no idea if Bobby Kennedy liked jazz. I doubt that he sat long enough to enjoy any kind of music. But one thing is certain, the folks who loved him were the kind of folks for whom jazz would resonate. You can debate how he got there or even “why,” but, at that time, he spoke for a generation of young people who cared about the important things in life, being inclusive and caring about others.
For a few months in 1968, his image and his passions dominated my life. At least, that is how I choose to remember those days. The privilege of getting older.
Our Take is written by Michael Lazaroff, Executive Director of The Jazz Cruise, The Smooth Jazz Cruise and Blue Note at Sea. Feel free to express your views or pose questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yesterday’s Scheduling Announcement
Yesterday, we announced that our jazz cruise programs scheduled for 2021 have been rescheduled for 2022. In that message to our jazz cruise community, we explain that, in order to establish the necessary safety precautions, cruise lines will be required to reduce capacities in terms of passenger count and venue size.
While vitally necessary for safety, the limitations being considered for the time that our ’21 cruises would have been sailing would make it impossible to provide the level of entertainment we have delivered for two decades. Conventional wisdom says that, by the time we sail in 2022, those limitations will be negligible, if at all. Though it saddens us to forego an entire cruise season, unless we can ensure the safety and enjoyment of our programs, we will not sail. Our guests deserve the very best.