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Making a Mark Away from the Bandstand.

Leonard Garment, saxophonist and Nixon adviser.

John Robert Brown

Leonard Garment

Leonard Garment played saxophone in Henry Jerome's band. Then, after Law School and Wall Street, he served in Nixon's White House, and helped found the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.

He was born on May 11th 1924 in Brownsville, New York, the area of Brooklyn that adjoins Queens. His mother had emigrated from the Polish city of Przmezyl. When she first arrived in America, one of her jobs was as occasional babysitter to the Gershwin family's young son, George.

Garment's father came from Poltava, in central Ukraine. When still a boy, in his free time Leonard Garment worked in his father's dress factory. There, eighty men were employed. Garment hated the place. He took up the clarinet, a Buffet, in 1937, when he was thirteen. That year he went to hear Benny Goodman at the New York Paramount Theatre. He said: "I lived Benny, dreamed Benny, and memorized Goodman solos note-for-note." Later, Garment modestly described his own playing as aesthetic chutzpah, the whole better than its parts.

His first musical jobs came during three summers in the Catskills. In 1940, one colleague was Julius Gubenko, better known in jazz circles as Terry Gibbs, drummer and (later) xylophonist and vibes player. In his first years at Brooklyn College, Garment shifted from law to music. "Afternoons I spent at Local 802's cavernous hiring hall and at Nola's Studios in mid-Manhattan, where the big bands rehearsed and auditioned new players." He auditioned for Henry Jerome's sixteen-piece dance band for a long run at the Pelham Heath Inn, in the Bronx. Now playing tenor saxophone as well as clarinet, Garment earned $55 per week alongside drummer Tiny Kahn, seventeen-year old arranger and composer Johnny Mandel, drummer Stan Levey, saxophonists Gerry Mulligan and Al Cohn, and saxophonist/flautist Alan Greenspan, later to become chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.

By late 1943 Garment was achieving recognition as a jazz player. During that year he sat in with members of Woody Herman's band. Chubby Jackson, bassist and booker for the band, liked his playing. In 1944, between the departure of Vido Musso and the arrival of Flip Phillips, Garment was invited to join Woody Herman's First Herd.
The stint with Herman was a nightmare. "The saxophone leaked, my style was not what Woody wanted, and the Providence audience was furious to find that Musso, their hometown-hero saxophonist, had been replaced."

During the 1970s, critic Nat Hentoff doubted in print that the Nixon stalwart Garment could once have played with Herman. But he did; Hentoff was wrong. Indeed, later (in 1978) Garment was able to help challenge the sale by the Internal Revenue Service of Woody's home. "We kept Woody and his daughter in the house. I had the satisfaction of repaying him in part for all the mileage I made out of my brief appearance with his band in 1944."

At law school in 1949 Garment graduated first in his class. After a round of interviews he began life in the genteel, gentile Wall Street world of the famous New York law firm Mudge, Stern, Williams and Tucker, at sixty dollars a week. Nevertheless, Garment remained anchored by a culture of Jews, jokes and jazz. Through the fifties he tried cases, travelled on business, rose in the firm, made money, and moved to a spacious Central Park West apartment - where he kept the curtains closed because the light was too bright.

Richard Nixon appeared in Garment's life in 1963, when Nixon moved to New York to join the law firm to which Garment belonged. Garment organised a 'Meet Richard Nixon' party for area lawyers and judges. Between the mailing of invitations and the date of the party, John Kennedy was assassinated, on November 22nd 1963. Thus, Leonard Garment became a founding member of the then non-existing Nixon campaign team.

Richard Nixon was elected President in 1968. A year later, Leonard Garment joined Nixon's White House staff, as special consultant to the president.

The cultural high point of the Nixon administration occurred in April 1969, when a black-tie presidential dinner was given to celebrate the seventieth birthday of Duke Ellington. Ellington, Joe Williams and Gerry Mulligan performed, along with Dizzy Gillespie Clark Terry, Dave Brubeck and others. Leonard Garment took Earl Hines upstairs to the White House family quarters for a nightcap. There, Hines reminisced about his life in jazz. Leonard Garment remained in Washington until 1974. The National Jazz Museum in Harlem was founded by him in 1997.

Leonard Garment died, after an illness, in July 2013 at the age of 89. To the end Garment remained a keen advocate of mainstream jazz. In his 1997 biography, Crazy Rhythm, borrowing the title of the 1928 song by Joseph Meyer, Irving Caesar and Roger Wolfe Kahn, he wrote:
"For a couple of decades, mainstream jazz was drowned out by the pneumatic-drill noises of jazz screechers and rock-and-rollers. Classic forms, however, have a way of surviving. Jazz is now returning to its proper place in popular music, with assists by personalities from saxophonist Bill Clinton and jazz-classical trumpeter Wynton Marsalis to little Lisa, the saxophone-playing kid in the Simpson family cartoon."

John Robert Brown

First published in Jazz Journal, 29th August 2014. Used by kind permission. Reproduction forbidden.
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