President and Mrs. Eisenhower attending My Fair Lady in New York. Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library
While neither President nor Mrs. Eisenhower was especially knowledgeable in European classical music, they recognized the value of the music of their own nation and placed more emphasis than any of their predecessors on White House programs that reflected its colorful variety. The Eisenhowers were the first to bring Broadway musical theater to the White House in an after-dinner program for Chief Justice Earl Warren in 1958. They were also especially proud of the nation’s military ensembles, and brought to the White House choral and instrumental groups from the Army, Navy and Air Force, as well as the United States Marine Band, which had been performing at the White House from the time of John Adams. President Eisenhower also initiated the current concept of roving musicians, notably the Air Force Strolling Strings, who performed at the state dinner for the king of Saudi Arabia in 1957. Guest artists under the Eisenhowers also included Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, Guy Lombardo, and the world-renowned pianist Artur Rubinstein in his only White House concert.
Elise Kirk, Musical Highlights from the White House, 130-134.
Landmark Era Performance › 1958: The Eisenhowers were the first to bring Broadway musical theater to the White House in an after-dinner program for Chief Justice Earl Warren in 1958.
Violinist Isaac Stern chats with the Kennedys after his program in 1962. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library
Although guest artists had been entertaining at the White House for more than a century, President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy made the White House a true showcase for the performing arts and their creativity and dedication provided a model for succeeding administrations to the present day. By inviting the media to White House cultural events, they placed a spotlight on the White House and demonstrated that the Executive Mansion could indeed be an influence in encouraging public acceptance of the arts. Reflecting Jacqueline Kennedy’s assertion that she wanted "only the best," America’s finest performing arts organizations were featured: The Metropolitan Opera Studio, Jerome Robbins Ballet, American Ballet Theater, American Shakespeare Festival, New York City Center Light Opera Company and many others. When Lyndon Johnson became president upon John Kennedy’s tragic death in 1963, many White House performances comprised such a large cast that they were held outdoors on a special stage or indoors in the East Room on a portable stage donated by the Harkness Ballet in 1965.
Elise Kirk, Musical Highlights from the White House, 135-145.
President Nixon accompanies Pearl Bailey at a reception in 1974. National Archives
Music in the White House during the administrations of Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter reflected a wider segment of American culture than ever before, with the appearance of jazz, gospel, ragtime, and popular song, as well as classical concert and vocal forms. Following various official state dinners, Pearl Bailey, with Richard Nixon at the piano, sang for President Pompidou of France; The Captain and Tennille performed for the Queen of England, President and Mrs. Ford and their guests: and Sarah Vaughn, Dizzy Gillespie and Earl Hines entertained Shah Reza Pahlevi of Iran under Jimmy Carter. But the most important musical event of this period was the inauguration of the first PBS series of five hour-long programs broadcast from the East Room [see more below].
Elise Kirk, Musical Highlights from the White House, 146-158.
Landmark Era Performances ›
1968-1973: Music in the White House during this period reflected a wide segment of American culture. The birthday dinner and Medal of Freedom presentation to Duke Ellington turned into a massive jam session with jazz luminaries. President and Mrs. Ford were especially successful in matching the musical programs to the interests of the many heads of state who visited the United States. For the blues loving French president Giscard d'Estang, Earl Hines performed and Van Cliburn interpreted Chopin, Schuman and Debussy during the first White House entertainment for a reigning Japanese emperor.
1976-1980: The most important musical event of the Carter administration was the inauguration of the first PBS series of five hour-long programs broadcast nationally and throughout Europe from the East Room. Initiated by President and Mrs. Carter in 1978, the first series comprised Vladimir Horowitz, Leontyne Price, Mikhail Baryshnikov with Patricia McBride, Mstislav Rostropovich and Andres Segovia.
President Reagan introduces old friends, Frank Sinatra and Perry Como before a White House performance in 1982. Ronald Reagan Presidential Library
Called "In Performance from the White House," the PBS programs from the White House during the two administrations of Ronald Reagan broadened to include not only classical styles as seen under the Carters, but Broadway, country, jazz and gospel, always with creative theatrical flair. One of the Reagans’ most successful televised series, "A Tribute to American Music," took place from fall 1986 to summer 1988 on the White House lawn. The series featured the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Rodgers and Hart with the final evening showcasing scenes from various current Broadway musicals in festive costumes and dance. Other outdoor concerts celebrated distinguished American symphony orchestras, such as the Boston Pops Orchestra and New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra. Whether to enliven parties for children, holiday fetes, or Congressional picnics, music was vital to the Reagan White House. Not only the nostalgic Beach Boys performed their spirited rock music on the South Lawn, but artists, such as Pinchas Zuckerman (1982), Frank Sinatra (1982), Jessye Norman (1986), Lionel Hampton (1987), and many others continued the long tradition of after-dinner concerts held in the East Room to honor important heads of state.
Elise Kirk, Musical Highlights from the White House, 160-164.
Landmark Era Performance › 1988: President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan joined composer Marvin Hamlisch, an alumni cast of A Chorus Line, entertainers Shirley Jones, Stubby Kaye, Lee Roy Reams, and the Marine Band at the taping of "In Performance at the White House," August 10, 1988.
Barbara Bush and Betty Ford applaud the Boys choir of Harlem. Carol Powers, The White House
President and Mrs. George Bush recognized music as a supreme American gesture, a vital symbol of American life as it underscored every important national event, social cause and ceremonial mood in the White House. Today, the United States Marine Band, America’s oldest musical organization, numbers 140 musicians and plays at the White House more than 150 times a year. From early 1993 to late 1998 under the Clintons, nearly 100 musical events featuring guest artists appeared at the White House. President and Mrs. Clinton’s enjoyment of traditional and popular American music was reflected especially in their WETA "In Performance at the White House" series [see more below]. Concert and opera stars, Irish music, rhythm and blues were a few more of the kaleidoscopic musical moods of the White House as the millennium rapidly approached.
Elise Kirk, Musical Highlights from the White House, 164-170.
Landmark Era Performances ›
1989-1992: President and Mrs. George Bush arranged for a variety of performers to appear in the East Room after state dinners, including singer Maureen McGovern and Harry Connick, Jr., cellist Mstislav Rostropovic, violinists Itzhak Perlman and Isaac Stern, and the Harlem Boys Choir.
1998: The WETA "In Performance at the White House" series included a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Newport Jazz Festival; Aretha Franklin; "Women of Country"; and seventeen dancers illustrating varied styles of dance during the telecast of March 1998.
Regina Belle performs for President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush during a Black Music Month celebration in the East Room of the White House on June 30, 2001. White House Photo by Paul Morse
In June 2001, President Bush proclaimed the month of June, “Black Music Month,” encouraging “all Americans to learn more about the contributions of black artists to America's musical heritage and to celebrate their remarkable role in shaping our history and culture.” Performers Lionel Hampton, Shirley Caesar, Bobby Jones, James Brown, the Blind Boys of Alabama, and the Harlem Jazz Museum Artists attended the ceremony in the East Room [see more below].
During their first year in the White House, President and Mrs. Obama hosted a celebration of the music of Stevie Wonder, and welcomed Festiva Latina. Both events were part of the PBS series In Performance at the White House [see more below].
In the East Room, President Obama presented to Mr. Wonder the second annual Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, an award that honors artists “whose creative output transcends distinctions . . . , brings diverse listeners together, and fosters mutual understanding and appreciation.” In addition to Stevie Wonder, performers included India.Arie; Tony Bennett; Wayne Brady; Anita Johnson; Diana Krall; Mary Mary; Martina McBride; Rickey Minor; Paul Simon; Esperanza Spalding; and Will.i.am.
Festiva Latina, a concert dedicated to Hispanic musical heritage, took place on the South Lawn of the White House. Performers included Marc Anthony, Jimmy Smits, Eva Longoria Parker, Pete Escovedo, Gloria Estefan, José Feliciano, George Lopez, Thalía, Tito "El Bambino", Aventura, and Los Lobos. Sheila E. was musical director.
Landmark Era Performances ›
2001: George W. Bush proclaimed June as Black Music month and honored jazz legend Lionel Hampton in an East Room celebration that included performances by Regina Belle and Take 6.
2009: President and Mrs. Obama hosted a celebration of the music of Stevie Wonder on February 25, 2009, and welcomed Festiva Latina on October 14, 2009. Both events were part of the PBS series In Performance at the White House, which dates to 1978.
Sources: Elise K. Kirk, Music at the White House: A History of the American Spirit. University of Illinois, 1986 and Musical Highlights from the White House. Florida: Krieger Publishing Company, 1992.
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