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Jeff Castleman: bass player and lone survivor

Jeff Castleman is in the white jacket, far left. This photo was taken at the White House March 27, 1968.
Jeff Castleman is in the white jacket, far left. This photo was taken at the White House March 27, 1968.

Forty years ago to the day, a young bass player named Jeff Castleman posed for a group photo with his band … and a few other notables. Take a close look – you might recognize them.

To the far right, yep, that’s Hubert and Muriel Humphrey.

In the middle, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson.

Next to them is the president of Liberia at the time and his wife.

And to her left, you guessed it, jazz great Duke Ellington.

Jeff is the young black-haired kid in the white jacket standing in front of the piano next to the maestro. Behind them is the rest of their eight-member band.

It was March 27, 1968. Jeff was just 22.

Little did he know at the time that he would become the photo’s lone survivor.

“It wasn’t until someone told me that Lady Bird had passed recently that I even thought about it,” said Castleman, 62. He’s now a top-selling piano salesman at Schmitt Music in Minnetonka. His glory days with Ellington may be in the distant past, but his memories of that performance in the White House have yet to fade.

“Duke started playing ‘The A Train.’ I played eight bars and broke a bass string. It went right in the direction of the president, who was seated in the front row. I was just really having a hard time, and all of a sudden there was a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and here is a great big Marine, six-foot-four, and he handed me a world-class string bass that was tuned to the piano. Where but the White House would you get that?”

(It just so happened that the Marine band had finished playing in another room in the White House and had been listening in the wings.)
An encounter with HHH
And then there was his encounter with the vice president.

“After the concert he shook my hand and said, ‘You know Jeff, you went to school with a relative of mine at the University of California Riverside.’ That really surprised me. Hubert Humphrey knew something about every member of our band. Usually, musicians weren’t treated that well. It was basically finish the gig and get on the bus.”

But not this time.

“We finished the concert and Duke asked me to stay behind with the drummer and the tenor saxophonist. We set up in the foyer just as the steps go up in the private quarters, and President Johnson and Lady Bird danced in their stocking feet to our quartet until one in the morning.”
So how does one go from performing with luminaries before dignitaries to selling instruments in a Minnesota suburb? Granted, 40 years is a long time. And for Castleman the journey from there to here was a long road of making some right and some wrong choices.

Three years with Ellington
He spent just three years with Duke Ellington, missing out on returning to the White House for Ellington’s 70th birthday tribute in 1969. The great composer, who first came to prominence in Harlem’s famed Cotton Club, would be dead five years later, from lung cancer.

“I had suspected he was ill and if I had known, I would have stayed.”

Castleman, a third-generation musician, went on to make a career for himself as a meat-and-potatoes studio bass player — always in the shadows, just inches from the spotlight. His name is listed in album credits next to those of Ellington and Frank Sinatra. He played on “Hollywood Squares,” Bob Hope specials and a tour with Don Ho before moving to Minnesota in the late ’80s to run his father-in-law’s liquor store in Brooklyn Park. After a short stint as an art framer, he landed at Schmitt Music a few years ago.

He hasn’t picked up a bass in 20 years, but he recently dusted off an old electric guitar; he plans to brush up on it and sometime this year record a few Duke Ellington songs.

In one of the music store’s showrooms is another photo, a large framed black-and-white picture of a much younger Castleman on stage with his big bass standing next to Ellington.

“It’s just a copy. I willed the original photo to the Smithsonian, and it hangs in the Ellington exhibit in Washington, D.C.,” he said.

Just blocks from a memorable stop on this Minnesota music man’s journey.

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