The Jazz Pianist That John F. Kennedy Saved
Fifty years ago this week, John F. Kennedy granted a presidential pardon to jazz pianist Hampton Hawes—and helped make him a legend.
Millions of Americans found inspiration in John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address, but few responded more enthusiastically than jazz pianist Hampton Hawes. Hawes watched the speech from a federal prison hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, where he was serving a 10-year sentence on drug charges. “That’s the right cat,” he later described his reaction to the new president. “Looks like he got some soul and might listen.”
The following day, Hawes told a prison official that he wanted to apply for a presidential pardon. “That’s the root of your trouble, Hampton,” the official responded. “You refuse to be realistic. When you leave here, you’re probably going back to dope because you’ll still be thinking unrealistic.”
More than a year elapsed before Hawes found an attorney willing to handle the pardon request. Finally, toward the close of 1962, a stack of pages arrived in the mail, but this massive “Application for Executive Clemency” was just the start of more work. Hawes spent countless hours filling in the blanks and answering the questions, even adding some Latin phrases (“heavy legal shit,” as he later described it) he got out of the prison library. The pianist also secured 18 letters of recommendation to accompany his request for a pardon.
Hawes then sent it off to Washington, D.C., and waited.
Against all odds, President Kennedy responded. Although many major jazz stars spent time in prison on narcotics charges during the middle decades of the 20th century, only Hawes received a presidential pardon. Fifty years ago, on August 16, 1963, JFK granted executive clemency to the pianist, and thus allowed one of the most talented jazz artists of the era to resume his career.