The White House Gigs

I used this photo in a recent post about meeting Rosalyn Carter. I gigged in the White House twice. This is the story of the gigs.

When I moved back home after college, I played rock ‘n’roll in my basement. After I moved out, I switched to playing Renaissance and Baroque music. My parents wished I’d played the quiet stuff at home. I mainly played an instrument called a viola da gamba, also known as a viol. It’s an instrument used mainly in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The range I played, the most common one, bass, is about the size of a cello. It has sloping shoulders like a modern double bass (which is the only modern stringed instrument descended from that family), six strings though there were some later ones that had seven, and seven tied frets made out of old strings. Above those frets the instrument is fretless. Tuning bottom to top is DGCEAD, a lot like a guitar a step lower but with the major third in the middle instead of to one side. The instrument is bowed underhand, sort of like a German grip on a double bass, and the instrument has no end pins, though when it was in use cellos didn’t use them either. We hold the instrument in our legs, da gamba meaning of the legs. The end pin started when a cello player was too obese to hold the cello with his legs. Once in a while I played recorders but we had plenty of recorder players.

The Renaissance music group I played with was called the DuPont Circle Consortium and was based in Washington, DC. There was an instrumental group, a dance troupe that came on some gigs, and a semi-attached choral group that we occasionally gigged with. The size of the instrumental group fluctuated depending on who showed up. I was part of the core who always showed up.

The head of the group, Frank, pictured at left, taught Renaissance dances, and he was a recorder player. At one point he taught a class that included a couple of teachers from a gifted kids’ class out of George Washington University. That class included the two daughters of the then British ambassador and Amy Carter, then I think about thirteen. The kids were doing a Shakespeare project that would result in a performance. Frank got called in to teach them a simple dance. He reasoned, correctly, that when they performed they’d need musicians.

A performance was scheduled at the British embassy. Cool place. One of Amy’s parents was supposed to attend the performance but, as it stood, neither could make it. This was a disappointment to all, presumably including Amy. And so, on fairly short notice, a second performance was scheduled at the White House. I think we got cleared easily because our lutenist was a U2 photograph analyst for the CIA. We go in with a lot of musicians because everyone who ever plays with us wants to play in the White House. No dancers or singers on this one, but we usually play without them.

The day comes, I load a few musicians into my Volvo, and we drive to the White House, where we’re admitted and park on the grounds. When we enter the White House, I don’t see any metal detectors. I am not asked to open my gamba case. Keep in mind that a gamba is roughly cello-sized. I could have fit a small bazooka in there. However, being a Democrat, that would not have been my inclination. I was a fan of the President.

We change, we’re led to the East Room where the performance will take place, and we’re seated in a row of seats across the front facing the audience. We’re warming up and playing. I glance up from my music and I involuntarily jerk, because the President of the United States is standing about ten feet in front of us looking at us and smiling. I don’t care how jaded you think you are. That’s a shock. I look down the line at my friend Fred, the tall guy in the back in the photo, probably the best recorder player in the group, to wonder if he’s noticed the President yet. Then I see him jerk. Yup. The President has to get a kick out of doing this. We finish playing. The President says “sounds good.” Fred says “Thank you, Sir.”

The audience is probably about seventy people, mainly parents of the kids. I see Brzezinsky standing in the back. The kids do a great job, three little girls in witches’ costumes saying Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble,” a kid that does mime that follows a string around the room, including through the President’s legs. The President laughs at all the appropriate places. We have a great time.

We get dressed, we go out to the car, and a Secret Service guy says to me: “Drive VERY slowly. The President’s out jogging.”

We get invited back for a staff Christmas party, which is where this photo comes from. I’m not sure if my mother has the picture from the first performance, the one that includes the President. This is completely different. We’re off to the side playing background music, this is a bit later in the administration and the Iran hostage crisis is happening. It’s an honor to be there but it’s nothing like the first time. We play for perhaps 2 1/2 hours. They don’t offer us anything to drink. I’m a string player but this is difficult for the wind players.

One of our players, Peter, goes home and when his father asks him how it went he bitches about not being offered anything to drink. A friend of his father’s is present.

A bit later, Frank gets a phone call from an irritated social secretary at the White House. It seems the friend of Peter’s father took it into his head to get outraged and he writes a really nasty letter to the White House about it. “What are you going to pay these kids with, peanuts?” Gee thanks. We don’t get invited back a third time.