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Jazz Corner: My Near Trysts with Jazz, Three Near Presidents… And an Actual One!

This account involves a jazz trumpet player, a saxophonist, a jazz legend and a used car. We think it is appropriate to say that the cynically hearted should use their discretion before reading any further

Sunil Sampat Dec 21, 2020

(From left) Jazz musicians Dizzy Gillespie, Igor Butman and Duke Ellington. Photos: Roland Godefroy/GFDL/CC BY 3.0/Wikimedia Commons (Gillespie); Narendra Dangiya (Butman)

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At the outset a disclaimer: This comes from an era when Fake News hadn’t been invented. Truth and veracity guaranteed.

The large hoardings or billboards, if you please, had the face of Richard Milhous “tricky Dicky” Nixon, looking generally quite menacing, scheming and mean, a sure-fire recipe for a mistrust. This hoarding was put up by the rival political party, the Democrats and under the face, in bold print was the question, “Would you buy a used car from this man?”

For the good of democracy, all future elections should make it a requirement for all candidates to have an unflattering picture so that voters will know what they are getting into! The used car is redundant.

Back to the Nixon billboard. It was a perfectly hard-hitting political rhetorical question posed to potential voters and would discredit the rival. Vote for a man you can’t trust? A rhetorical question and not in need of a response except at the ballot box. I saw this hoarding several times traveling through the U.S. I don’t think anybody actually bought a car from Nixon. I did!

I bought a used car, a 1950 Dodge (appropriate name), a six-cylinder sedan from Mr. Nixon. Absolute fact. His first name though was Mike, not Richard. He was a red-haired Irishman. A small technicality, certainly not worth quibbling about here. For the record, I would not have bought a used – or any car from Richard Milhous Nixon. That was one Presidential candidate.

Then there was Kennedy, another aspirant for the American Presidential throne. This was not John F., but his brother Robert. Bobby Kennedy it is who’s my reference point in this narrative.

Before he was an aspirant for the Democratic nomination (for the 1968 elections), Bobby Kennedy was running for Senator from New York. This was in 1964. At my university campus in upstate New York, a large campaign center had been set up for promoting the candidacy of Bobby Kennedy.

The month was February, it was bitterly cold and the campaign booth served hot coffee. With a few friends, all of us wanting to get out of the wicked weather, I walked into Bobby’s election booth. As potential voters, we were greeted by a very efficient looking campaign manager, a lady who spoke to us about the importance of voting for RFK. “Any questions, gentlemen?” she asked. Remember, we were there for the warmth and the coffee, so were not prepared with questions!

Angling for a refill of my coffee and getting it, I asked this formidable lady, “Who in your opinion is America’s greatest Kennedy?” Armed with every political answer, she was quite lost with this one, but without missing a beat she said, “I’m not sure Sir, but feel that you might have the answer.” She walked into it! “It is obvious to me,” I said. “It has to be Edward Kennedy Ellington.” That’s Duke Ellington’s name, folks.

The lady, for once, was at a loss for words; this is what we call in India, ‘out of syllabus.’ She must have thought life was unfair. I bet she thought of that response for a long time. We had a good laugh as we left the campaign tent. There is another tale concerning Duke Ellington… this time with the Pope! This guy Ellington gets everywhere, especially for someone who wrote the song – “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” However, that tale can wait for another time.

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But also, in 1964 were the U.S. Presidential elections. People will remember that Lyndon Johnson, the incumbent was one candidate. The Republicans had nominated Barry Goldwater as theirs. Goldwater was an ultra-right-wing senator about whom someone had quipped, “He might use nuclear weapons in the war on poverty!”

These choices were quite depressing. There was the above-mentioned Barry Goldwater, quite extreme (one of his quotes is: “Extremism in the cause of liberty is no vice, it is indeed a virtue.” Then there was the incumbent Lyndon Johnson, who was John F. Kennedy’s Vice President and inherited the Oval Office when JFK was assassinated in 1963.

The third candidate was John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie, jazz trumpeter and humanist extraordinaire. In fact, in January 1964, Dizzy Gillespie, the great jazz trumpet player and humanist made a comment, “this choice is so bad, it would be better to keep the White House empty for four years.” Many would have agreed with him!

In the event, Dizzy Gillespie threw his hat in the ring as an independent Presidential candidate. It may have been a symbolic gesture from Mr. Gillespie but his was a strong statement about the awful choice in front of the American people. The long-established machinery of the Republican and Democratic parties were way too powerful for Dizzy to have even a semblance of a chance. In the event, Dizzy Gillespie pulled out of the Presidential race saying that he didn’t believe in war or international boundaries and that all humanity was one. He even said that if all people liked jazz there would never be another war. The man was way ahead of his time!

In the event, I had a badge, about three inches in diameter with the legend “Dizzy For President.” I wore it proudly and regularly with great pride. I wish I had preserved this badge.

I got to meet Dizzy a few times since – always at jazz concerts and have often wondered how much nicer and saner the world would have been if we had a President like John Birks Gillespie. I’d vote for such a leader today, no questions asked.

These were all American Presidential aspirants. Move over you guys, it’s time for a real President in office to enter this tale. And this time not an American. Big league time!

In 2012, a friend and I had established an ambitious endeavor in Mumbai called Jazz Addicts; this organization was intended to bring top-quality jazz artists and acts to India; it was a setup, not necessarily created as a commercial enterprise but rather one for the sake of bringing the best international jazz talent to India. We felt that there was enough demand for top quality jazz in India and that Jazz Addicts could thus be a self-sustaining platform for the foreseeable future.

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One jazz performer had proved hugely popular with audiences here. He plays the tenor saxophone and his efforts are always focused on entertaining the audience. Thus Igor Butman, a musician from Russia had been a successful import. Although from Russia, Butman had lived and played in America for several years and with some top jazz musicians of contemporary times. U.S. President Bill Clinton (himself a bit of a jazz saxophonist) was known to be a fan of Igor Butman. There I go name dropping about Presidents. However, Clinton is just an innocent bystander in this narrative. He’s leaving the story now.

Butman was invited to play three concerts on his 2014 trip, the first one in Mumbai at the NCPA and on the next two days were scheduled a concert each at New Delhi and Gurugram.

His band played a brilliant set at the NCPA with the beautiful Fantine on vocals plus trumpet, piano, bass and drums with Igor of course on the tenor saxophone. Igor had the audience eating out of his hands, as he often does.

However, Mr. Butman had dropped a king-sized bombshell on us just before the concert started. It was right out of a James Bond movie. He had received a phone call and summons from, of all people the Russian President Vladimir Putin! The Prez was celebrating his birthday the next day in the resort town of Sochi in Russia; he asked Igor Butman to be there to perform at his birthday party!

It was an offer Butman couldn’t refuse – especially if he knew what was good for him. What’s more, Putin was sending his private jet to Mumbai to pick Igor up that very evening and fly him straight to Sochi. Igor was going to leave for the airport directly after the concert! Fortunately, the rest of his band would not be traveling with him and would play in New Delhi the next day.

To continue with this James Bond style of functioning, Putin’s plane would then fly him back to New Delhi in time for the scheduled concert in Gurugram. Talk of the jet setting lifestyle! This one was hard to beat.

After the success of the brilliant NCPA concert, Jazz Addicts faced plenty of flak from the angry organizers of the New Delhi concert – and it came with a considerable cost cut. The New Delhi organizers had paid for Igor Butman and were not going to accept the weakened group without a substantial price cut, which Jazz Addicts would have to bear.

Putin wasn’t paying Jazz Addicts for this loss. Ah well! It was our birthday present to the Russian Prez… Many happy returns tovarish.

Sunil Sampat is a jazz critic and Contributing Editor of Rolling Stone India. Write to Sunil at [email protected]

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