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In 1994, a mysteriously unauthorized 18-minute bootleg live recording of Bill Clinton playing the saxophone at a Prague jazz club ends up on a CD and gets distributed nationally. The music is awkward, the guy who released it is a total weirdo, and the fact that nobody cared at all is unacceptably, and un-Americanly, lame. It’s a puzzling story with no dearth of implications about mail-order music’s humble decline, public image on the campaign trail, and international relations.
On January 11, 1994, then US President Bill Clinton met with then Czech President Václav Havel in Prague. Havel had only recently become the first democratically elected president of the Czech Republic after the Czech-Slovak split, so this visit was a pretty important victory for foreign relations between newly-allied democracies. The visit culminated in a social trip to the Reduta Jazz Club (Albright in tow) to see one of the country’s national icon jazz bands perform a set filled with American standards and Czech traditional marches.
Havel presents Clinton with a custom engraved tenor saxophone as a gift, hilariously referring to it as “Czech-made product” (yeah, that’s on the album), and encourages him to jam with the band. They then jammed out renditions of “Summertime” and “My Funny Valentine” and the whole evening was caught on tape by Czech Radio for a programmed radio segment. Somehow, New York-based Stash Records founder Bernard Brightman hears a tape of the performance and decides to release it through his mail-order jazz catalog.
Thus begins the story of Bill Clinton Jam Session: The Pres Blows.
Clinton jams at the Reduta Jazz Club in Prague in January, 1994.
The music: well, honestly, it’s not that bad! I mean, it’s a new horn with new reeds and frankly, it’s slightly out of tune and squeaky the whole time, but there are interesting peaks. “Summertime” is confusing with two tenor saxophones (Clinton and Stěpán Markovič), yet on the next and final track Markovič allows Mr. President all tenor responsibilities. On “Summertime”, Clinton keeps up with the changes pretty well, and the band creates a bed for him to solo over for a few bars where he can shine. He ends the tune with a fanfare akin to his Arsenio Hall Show performance in 1992 (watch that below!).
The laziness here (a mere 1.5 songs into his jam) is just splendid.
“My Funny Valentine” is simultaneously both more lackadaisical and complex, which makes it much more of a pleasure to listen through. Here, Clinton’s sound is only slightly competing with Jan Konopásek’s baritone sax, but they give each other a ton of space, and the rest of the band shows their teeth beautifully in Stanislav Mácha’s prettily understated piano solo and Robert Balcar’s sombre upright bass playing.
At 7:19, Clinton comes back in with one of the least creative, tired, and half-out of breath solos I’ve heard on a saxophone ever. The laziness here (a mere 1.5 songs into his jam) is just splendid. And that sort of sets the tone for the rest of this story to come, a slow, sloppy fade out as we slip out of our strange romance with Clinton’s brass and back into our non-jazzy real lives.
“The Sax Life of Bill Clinton”
Aptly and infectiously titled to foreshadowing perfection, The Pres Blows humorously captures the tone of the constant allegations of sexual misconduct that would plague Clinton’s presidency from that moment on. May of 1994 was both when this album was being prepped for release, and when Paula Jones officially filed her sexual harassment suit against the President. A review of the album by the LA Times was published with the headline, “The Sax Life of Bill Clinton”, and the Milwaukee Journal’s headline read, “Pucker Up and Blow”.
But how could Brightman have possibly predicted the fellatio incidents with Monica Lewinsky which would only surface three years later? In reality, he did not, but he did manage to ace the use of pun in his title. It’s worth mentioning that the locally-distributed Czech release of this album was both inaccurately and quite dully titled Two Presidents’ Jam Session: Praha ‘94. And that “Pres” is actually a reference to tenor saxophonist Lester Young’s nickname. (The funny thing is that the reference was lost on most journalists at the time, though it likely played well to Brightman’s die-hards.)
Brightman didn’t have to stretch his imagination too far, however, since the now-defunct Stash Records had for almost twenty years become synonymous with publishing compilations of vintage music about sex and drug use. And although he smartly left all traces of Stash off of this CD — putting it out discretely to make it look like a charity product — he was still able to frame this harmless recording through his lens of cult weirdness. Some might say, only in the 90s.
It’s hard to imagine that in 1992, the media-courting campaign trail antics so common today were still in their nascence. George H. W. Bush and Ross Perot both ran on promises of fiscal responsibility and executive experience. Boring was in. This very special bootleg recording highlights a unique moment in history when Clinton actually leveraged his character quirks (and flaws, inclusive of allegations that he dodged the draft during the Vietnam War, smoked marijuana, and was having an extramarital affair while in office as Governor of Arkansas) to make himself stand out .
Then there was the famous Arsenio Hall Show appearance, which some attribute Clinton’s electoral victory to entirely, as it amplified his connection with young voters, shifting his national popularity immensely. Watch Clinton wail out on his epic sax:
Bill Clinton plays the sax on the Arsenio Hall Show, during his 1992 Presidential Campaign
Falling Short of Cult Status
Looking deeper into how this album came about has unfastened some intriguing rivets on this story. Stash distributed a lot of obscure records that they weren’t totally sure there was a market for, or that they could access. Some of the record labels appearing in their catalogue were notoriously difficult to trace the origins of, and many of them turned out to be invented, direct-to-consumer sub-labels of overarching Stash-Daybreak, including Natasha Imports and Jass Records. Brightman would also hide off-brand titles behind disparate catalog numbers, such as PRES001 (when was there ever going to be a PRES002?).
All kinds of things made Stash Records one of the more bizarre labels in history — their 666 phone number (1-800-666-JASS), their hedonistic compilation albums of vintage-era swing songs about sex and drugs, and the overt exploitation of sketchily-obtained bootleg recordings (one of the weirdest being early 1940s cuts of Charlie Parker recorded in a hotel room in Kansas City). Yet their distro inventory rivaled some of the best corporate jazz distros out there.
Distributing music via mail- or phone-order catalogues was one of the best pre-internet options for low-market weird music, and it had a pretty good run. Now, of course, some of those distros still exist but have shifted online, making their inventory that much more visible to larger audiences, albeit slightly less poetically complicated.
There was something so backwardly honest about flipping through paper catalogues, filling out an order form, calculating shipping costs and mailing a check with your order. In high school, I ran up a $60 per month bill at Midheaven M.O., since for some of my stranger obsessions, it was the only place to obtain my fix. But this isn’t a nostalgia piece, so let’s get back to Stash. Brightman tried a lot of things to increase sales of the weird, archival, lost-and-found albums he put out, but by the 90s the audience for his collectibles started to wear thin.
The LA Times critiqued Clinton’s ‘repetitious riffing’ and ‘agitated trilling.’ The New York Daily News actually had the gall to say it was ‘sure to bypass platinum and go straight to aluminum.’
The label and shop closed shortly after, and this one must have hit him hard. I speculate that The Pres Blows may have been one of Brightman’s last hurrahs at Stash-Daybreak, possibly even the nail that sealed the coffin on a fledgling mail-order no longer able to push copies to the changing musical landscape around him. Stash never officially made it to “cult status” in my mind. Had the label focused on recordings like The Pres Blows and become a reputable place to discover unique recordings found nowhere else, they may have been able to survive to the end of the decade.
But if Brightman actually wanted The Pres Blows to stand the test of time as a collectible, he could’ve at least put a bit more effort into the design and layout! It’s awful. Plus, he didn’t even bother to find out who the flugelhorn player was that night at Reduta. He just leaves that player as “unidentified” in the back cover notes. It was Juraj Bartos, by the way.
The Hilarious Nonchalance of the American Reaction
I wouldn’t go so far to say that if this album was released today it would be a hit, but America totally missed the point in 1994! Here’s how little America cared about The Pres Blows.
Brightman tried contacting both the Democratic National Committee and the President’s legal defense requesting to make the CD available as promotional item to raise funds, and nobody even responded. On top of the White House ignoring his request to endorse this disc, they didn’t even bother to condemn it as an illegally sold bootleg recording. His efforts did manage to adopt a cordial response from the White House Press Secretary, Dee Dee Myers, who only half-heartedly mentioned that everyone “who received a copy enjoyed it.”
By October, 1994 the CD had only sold 5,000 copies and garnered very little positive press attention. The LA Times critiqued Clinton’s “repetitious riffing” and “agitated trilling.” The New York Daily News actually had the gall to say it was “sure to bypass platinum and go straight to aluminum”, and an unnamed reviewer noted that “if companies are going to start bootlegging the President, he was in better form — and better musical company — at his June 93 White House jam.” Supposedly Manhattan’s Tower Records tried selling it in the comedy section. Come on, America!
A portion of the sales proceeds of this album originally trickled down to the Coalition for the Homeless. While it’s uncertain how direct the relationship is between the Clintons and the Coalition, in a December 1993 speech, the President called homelessness “one of our most embarrassing social problems.” And then this live recording took place just two weeks later. Brightman must have tried to use this charity as a leverage to get any promotional attention at all.
Why were jazz critics so unbearably harsh? I personally love this album and I keep listening to it, mainly because it’s the only CD in my car right now.
Perhaps all this American disinterest stems from the jazz listening public’s lack of exposure to or familiarity with Czech jazz at the time, or a popular misunderstanding that the disc was some kind of weird Democratic Party promotional thing. Or, it could have been the all-out media takeover of the Paula Jones scandal that most probably trivialized the goofy musical ramblings of a President with his back against the wall.
I mean, The Pres Blows is what it is, an impromptu jam session that was never supposed to leave the room in which it was recorded. It’s not like Bill flew to Prague to record an album, and it’s not like he had a ton of time in the White House to practice his horn-playing, so why were jazz critics so unbearably harsh? I personally love this album and I keep listening to it, mainly because it’s the only CD in my car right now.
To any enterprising label owners out there though, I bet that Cesky Rozhlas (Czech Radio) still owns the master tapes and the rights to these recordings. Anyone willing to contact them and negotiate some kind of re-publishing terms, the challenge is out there. Go forth and conquer. Make something of this historic mess.
Did we miss your favorite Bill Clinton musical moment? Share it in the comments below!
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