The White House Jazz Festival in 1978 was a remarkable event in the history of American music. Hosted by then-President Jimmy Carter, it took place on June 18, 1978, and was one of the first major jazz events to be held at the White House. This festival was part of a series of cultural events initiated by Carter to honor various forms of American art.
The festival featured a wide array of jazz legends and rising stars, showcasing the diverse styles and rich history of jazz music. Among the notable musicians who performed were Ornette Coleman, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Cecil Taylor, Herbie Hancock, Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins. The event was seen as a significant recognition of jazz as a critical part of American culture and heritage.
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From all reports, the White House lawn vibrated with the pulse of America’s soul: jazz. A sea of faces, the largest ever for a White House event, swayed to the music’s hypnotic rhythms. Amidst the renowned names taking the stage stood Eubie Blake, a 95-year-old legend with melodies etched in his soul. Stepping inside the White House for the first time, he told bystanders, “Only ever hawked records to the inaugural crowd outside years ago, this feels like a dream come true.”
In the shadow of the White House, history brewed alongside jambalaya. 40 jazz legends, still buzzing from meeting President Carter and refining their musical alchemy, filled the air with an electric excitement. The occasion? A grand salute to the 25th anniversary of the Newport Jazz Festival, championed by its fearless leader, George Wein.
Representing nine decades of jazz were Katharine Handy Lewis, (daughter of W. C. Handy) Handy Lewis, Jo Jones, Clark Terry, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, George Benson, Dizzy Gillespie, Ornette Coleman, Stan Getz and Zoot Sims.
President Carter sat at a table in shirt sleeves, enjoying a Louisiana creole meal – jambalaya, pecan pie and a salad – while some of his invited guests crowded around, snapping photos, saying hello or just watching him eat. Some even stood on top of nearby tables to get a glimpse of the chief executive.
The concert was broadcast live by National Public Radio and recorded by the Voice of America.
The Festival was a tribute to the 25th Anniversary of the Newport Jazz Festival and according to the Producer George Wein, almost all the musicians paid their own way. Two musicians whom Wein sought had to send regrets – Count Basie, who had a heart condition, and Joe Venuti, who had a conflicting engagement. But the evening included a few memorable reunions, one between Sonny Rolins and Max Roach, and Stan Getz and Zoot Sims, who were sectionmates in the Woody Herman Orchestra in the late ’40s.