Richard Nixon photo

Remarks on Presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Duke Ellington.

April 29, 1969

Ladies and gentlemen:

As you can probably surmise, this is a very unusual and, for us, a special evening at the White House in this great room.

Before the entertainment begins, we have a presentation to make. I was looking at this name on here. It says, "Edward Kennedy Ellington."

For the first time during this administration, I have the honor of presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I think it is most appropriate that that medal be presented to Duke Ellington.

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.

Because he has an unusual gift, a gift that he has shared with us, his own fellow citizens, and with the citizens of the world, we believe that this citation fits him particularly well. I will read it to you.

"The President of the United States of America awards this Presidential Medal of Freedom to Edward Kennedy Ellington. Edward Kennedy Ellington, pianist, composer, and orchestra leader, has long enhanced American music with his unique style, his intelligence, his impeccable taste. For more than 40 years he has helped to expand the frontiers of jazz, while at the same time retaining in his music the individuality and freedom of expression that are the soul of jazz. In the royalty of American music, no man swings more or stands higher than the Duke."

MR. ELLINGTON. Thank you very much, Mr. President. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.

This is the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And the word "freedom" is one, coincidentally, that we are using at the moment in our sacred concert.

And, of course, we speak of freedom of expression and we speak of freedom generally as being something very sweet and fat and things like that. In the end when we get down to the payoff, what we actually say is that we would like very much to mention the four major freedoms that my friend and writing-and-arranging composer, Billy Strayhorn, lived by and enjoyed.

That was freedom from hate, unconditionally; freedom from self-pity; freedom from fear of possibly doing something that may help someone else more than it would him; and freedom from the kind of pride that could make a man feel that he is better than his brother.

THE PRESIDENT. Ladies and gentlemen, please don't go away. Duke was asking earlier if I would play, and I said I had never done so yet in the White House. But it did occur to me as I looked at the magnificent program prepared for us that one number was missing.

You see, this is his birthday. Now, Duke Ellington is ageless, but would you all stand and sing "Happy Birthday" to him. And, please, in the key of G. [Laughter]

[At this point the President played the piano and sang along with the guests in honor of Mr. Ellington's 70th birthday.]

Note: The President spoke at 10:36 p.m. in the East Room at the White House.

Richard Nixon, Remarks on Presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Duke Ellington. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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