The most popular band in the U.S. during the 1920s was Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra. Though Whiteman was known during his time as the “King of Jazz,” he is a controversial figure to jazz historians today. One reason is because his orchestra for the most part didn’t play what today we think of as real jazz. Their music was completely arranged, the crucial improvisational aspect of jazz almost completely removed. Much of their music bears a greater resemblance to Lawrence Welk than to, say, Benny Goodman.
Nonetheless, Paul Whiteman can be credited with taking the jazz idiom from the dives and juke joints of New Orleans and Chicago and popularizing it among a nationwide, and eventually worldwide, audience.
In 1926, Whiteman contributed a three-part series to the Post simply titled “Jazz,” in which he, along with Mary Margaret McBride — who, over a 40-year career as a radio interviewer, earned the title “The First Lady of Radio” — explains what jazz is and how he came to be the “King of Jazz.”
In the following excerpts from Part I, Whiteman talks about the years leading up to the Roaring Twenties, detailing how he discovered jazz and the hardships and lucky breaks that ultimately led to the creation of his jazz orchestra and its first recording contracts.
This post was published to mark National Jazz Appreciation Month. We’ll publish more historical articles about jazz greats as the month progresses, and you can catch them all in “Jazz History by Men Who Made It.”
Jazz, Part I
By Paul Whiteman and Mary Margaret McBride
Originally published on February 27, 1926
There was every reason why jazz should have burst forth at the touch of a hundred or more orchestra leaders in 1915. The time was ripe for almost any explosion. The war spirit was on the loose. The whole tempo of the country was speeded up. Wheels turned like mad. Every factory was manned by night and day shifts. Americans — and the term included Slavs, Teutons, Orientals, Latins welded into one great mass as if by the gigantic machines they tended — lived harder, faster than ever before. They could not go on so without some new outlet. Work was not enough. And America had not yet found out how to play; the hard-pressed, hard-working young country had no folk songs, no village dances on the green.
A showman, Joseph K. Gorham, gets credit for first realizing the possibilities of the underworld waif. Gorham, a newcomer to New Orleans, heard a group of musicians playing on the street to advertise a prize fight. He was halted first by the perspiring, grotesque energy of the four players. They shook, they pranced, they twisted their lean legs and arms, they swayed like madmen to a fantastic measure wrung from a trombone, clarinet, cornet, and drum. They even tore off their collars, coats, and hats to free themselves for a very frenzy of syncopation. As a finger-snapping black hearer put it, they played “like all de debbils was atter ’em.”
Mr. Gorham, with the sure instinct of the good showman, pushed his way through the excited crowd and interviewed the leader. He discovered that not one of the players in Brown’s Orchestra, as they called themselves, could read a note of music. Nevertheless, the showman knew that he had made a find, and he listed the conductor’s name with an address on Camp Street for future reference.
Brown’s Orchestra was not the first to wear the name “jazz.” Bert Kelly, of Chicago, is credited with inventing the term “jazz band.” He used it to describe a group of musicians that he hired out to the Boosters’ Club at the Morrison Hotel in Chicago. The Boosters’ Club promptly raised all its prices, alleging that this newfangled jazz came high.
Meantime, Brown’s Orchestra had been taken over by Mr. Gorham and placed at Lamb’s Café in Chicago. The players burst upon an unsuspecting world with a bang that nearly shattered Lamb’s roof. The manager hastily telegraphed Mr. Gorham to call off his jazz babies. Gorham instead urged patience and advised the band to “ease down a little.” They did so with great profit to themselves, for soon crowds were being turned away in droves. This, so far as cabaret history goes, was the first official appearance of a jazz band.
Since Mr. Kelly’s experiment with the word, there have been hundreds of attempts to find a new name for modern American music, but the public refuses them all. They are used to “jazz,” and the word expresses something to them that the music seems to mean.
I cannot see that it matters much. Sometimes I regret the origin of the word because I think it probably has stirred up sentiment against the music. But if jazz turns out to be a good product, it won’t really make much difference what it is called. Words, like men, climb up or slip down in the world, and when a word has made good and stands for something real and worthwhile, I am not one to bring up its past against it.
It is a relief to be able to prove at last that I did not invent jazz. I took it where I found it, and I sometimes wish the preachers and club-lady uplifters who put jazz on the grill wouldn’t concentrate on me. I really don’t deserve it. I don’t deserve the snorting editorials in newspapers from Burma to Sydney either.
All I did was to orchestrate jazz. If I had not done it, somebody else would have. The time was ripe for that. Conditions produce the men, not men the conditions. It merely happened that I was the fortunate person who combined the idea, the place, and the time. At least I think I was fortunate. Others are not so sanguine.
I guess it is a good thing I inherited a certain musical knack from my parents, for I lack stick-to-itiveness. Yet I invariably admire the things that are hardest to do. That is what first attracted me to jazz. The popular idea is that jazz is a snap to play. This is all wrong. After you have mastered your instrument, it is easy enough to qualify in a symphony by following the score as written. But a jazz score can never be played as it is written. The musician has to know how to give the jazz effect.
At 16, I started ragging — of course we had not heard of “jazzing” then — the classics. A friend and I won a good deal of notice with this trick from the older members of the Denver Symphony, in which I had then begun to play. They used to keep us at it for hours. Our favorite classic for jazzing was “The Poet and Peasant Overture.”
When Jazz Banishes the Blues
The warden of the Nebraska Insane Asylum heard us and thought our music might soothe his patients. He invited us down for a weekend at the asylum, and we played all the pieces we knew. We made a great hit, especially with an old fellow who thought he was Nero. He was so fascinated with the intricacies of ragtime that he tried to play it on a fiddle he carried around with him, and after that, we had the daily spectacle of watching Nero jazz it up while — he said — Rome burned.
I got my musical education from my father and teachers he selected. All were serious and talented musicians. One was Max Bendix, for whom I worked later in the San Francisco Symphony. I can’t remember the time when I didn’t know the feel of a bow in my hand, and my first lessons were taken from my father when I was such a baby that I actually have no recollection of them.
At 17, I was chief viola player in the Denver Symphony, and five years later went to the Pacific Coast to seek adventure. I finally found the excitement I craved in the San Francisco Exposition and played with the World’s Fair orchestra until the exposition closed. I was at the same time a member of the Minetti String Quartet. When the exposition closed, I looked around for something new to do. By that time I was thoroughly dissatisfied with symphony work. The pay was poor and there was little chance for initiative. And then — along came jazz.
We first met — jazz and I — at a dance dive on the Barbary Coast. It screeched and bellowed at me from a trick platform in the middle of a smoke-hazed, beer-fumed room. And it hit me hard. I had been blue all day, starting with the morning, when I got out on the wrong side of the bed. I’m superstitious sometimes, and that was one of them. I cracked my shaving mirror; there was a button off my coat; my coffee was cold; my three-minute egg hard-boiled; I spilled the salt; it rained; at rehearsal my fiddle went blooey; a wisdom tooth jumped. When the old second violinist moaned that a musician’s life is a dog’s life, I agreed.
By evening I wanted only bed or the Bay. Then Walter Bell, a fellow musician, dropped in and said, “Let’s make a night of it.”
“You may make a whole week of it if you like,” I grouched. “I’m going to bed.”
He was set on taking me out with him, even if he took me on a stretcher.
Brute force finally won. He picked the jazziest of the jazz places — to cheer me up, he said. We ambled at length into a madhouse. Men and women were whirling and twirling feverishly there. Sometimes they snapped their fingers and yelled loud enough to drown the music — if music it was.
My whole body began to sit up and take notice. It was like coming out of blackness into bright light. My blues evaporated when treated by the Georgia Blues that some trombonist was wailing about. My head was dizzy, but my feet seemed to understand that tune. They began to pat wildly. I wanted to whoop. I wanted to dance. I wanted to sing. I did them all. Raucous? Yes. Crude? Undoubtedly. Unmusical? Sure thing. But rhythmic, catching as the smallpox, and spirit-lifting. That was jazz then. I liked it, though it puzzled me. Even then it seemed to me to have vitality, sincerity and truth in it. In spite of its uncouthness, it was trying to say something peculiarly American, just as an uneducated man struggles ungrammatically to express an original and true idea. I wanted to know jazz better.
It was immediately clear that I was going to. Coming as I did from an environment where music was taken for granted as a sort of daily necessity, jazz never did shock me. It only worried and obsessed me. The fantastic beat drummed in my ears long after the strident echoes had died, and sleep for nights became a syncopated mockery. Strains pestered me like a hunch you can’t get the hang of.
In those first days I never thought seriously of taking up jazz playing, yet in the back of my mind was the conviction that I’d have to turn over a new leaf soon if I really wanted to amount to anything. It was the crisis in my life. Spiritually, though there was no reason or excuse for it that I can think of now, I was becoming a loafer, without ambition or purpose. The easy, comfortable, dependent days of my childhood could never come back again. I was out on my own and fast making a mess of life. Perhaps most young men go through the stage. It may be that to all youngsters there comes a time when they wear out their interest in the things they are used to doing and need something fresh and exciting. At least it was so with me.
If I stayed with the symphony I was pretty sure to continue following the line of no resistance. A viola player could go little further than I had already gone. Ready-made scores, study, and methods of playing made it unnecessary for me to attempt any originality. And I had such stores of vitality which had to be turned into some channel. If there was no chance for it to go into my work, it was likely that I would divert it to wild parties and drink.
Don’t imagine for a moment that I thought all this out clearly. I only knew that I was listless, dissatisfied and despondent. Of course, I had money troubles too. All of us did. We often took extra jobs to make ends meet. I drove a taxicab myself for a while and, at that, was usually broke. Then jazz stepped in.
Learning Jazz by Observation
I have to smile when I start presenting jazz in the role of reformer. I began to experiment with the new music because it was interesting. That is to say, soon after I heard jazz for the first time, I resigned my job with the symphony and applied at Tait’s for a place in a jazz band.
I got it, and for two days lived in a sort of daze. The thing that rattled round me like hail wasn’t music in the sense I had known it. I couldn’t understand it — couldn’t get the hang of it. But others were getting it — fat-faced businessmen who had never in their lives listened to any music except cheap, thin, popular tunes; rouged, young-old women who had never once heard a real concert. Something happened to them, just as it happened to me that first night — something that shook off their false faces and made them real and human, spontaneous and alive for once. What on earth was it?
“Jazz it up, jazz it up,” the conductor would snort impatiently at about this point in my reflections. And I would try, but I couldn’t. It was as if something held me too tight inside. I wanted to give myself up to the rhythm like the other players. I wanted to sway and pat and enjoy myself just as they seemed to be doing. But it was no good. The second day the director fired me. He was kind enough, but brief.
“You can’t jazz, that’s all,” he told me. I nodded dully, watching the red hat of a girl at the other end of the room bobbing in an ecstasy of syncopation. Then I walked out of Tait’s, mild as milk, and went home to my hall bedroom on Eddy Street and slept. I slept clear around the clock. When I woke up I was mad.
So they said I couldn’t jazz, did they? Well, I’d show ’em. I’d learn to jazz. I’d learn if it took a year.
You know the thirst for knowledge that always seems to attack the ambitious young man in the advertisement when he reads of mail-order training courses. I felt just like that, but though there are plenty of them now, there were no mail jazz courses then, so I had to invent a method of educating myself. This was to visit the restaurants where jazz was being played. A difficulty arose here. I had no money, and they expected you to order food and drink in all those places. My old awe for head waiters increased during this time about a thousandfold. They were so muscular. I had never noticed what brawny fellows a restaurant uses for head waitering. In an argument with them, one would be nowhere at all.
Luckily I had a fairly presentable dress suit left over from symphony days. In this I made a moderately prosperous-looking figure, and there really was no way that a head waiter who didn’t know me could tell that I hadn’t a dime in my broadcloth pockets. My cue was to appear when the music was at its height. I would hang around the entrance as though waiting for somebody, but really studying the orchestra. If necessary, I would make an effort to get a special kind of table, such as head waiters give only to best-paying patrons. Of course without the proffer of kale [money] I had no chance, and thus my way would be paved for an indignant retreat. The drawback was that this trick couldn’t be used more than once on a restaurant.
These mere snatches of study I eked out with experiments in my hall bedroom. Two landladies put me out during this period on complaint of tenants above and below, for I experimented with my violin as well as pencil and paper. There were no saxophone-proof apartments in those days. No wonder the architect who invented them stands to make a fortune.
After many attempts, I finally worked out an orchestration and learned what I wanted to know about faking. Faking was what the early jazz orchestras relied upon. That is, they had no scores, each man working out his part for himself, faking as he went along. Up to that time, there had never been a jazz orchestration. I made the first and started in the jazz-orchestra business. That sounds simple. But it wasn’t. The first hundred days of any business have their discouragements, and there was nobody hankering for the opportunity to finance my jazz band — not after I had got myself fired because I couldn’t play jazz. However, I managed to borrow a few hundred dollars on personal credit to guarantee my men’s salaries. What I could scrape together was not enough to guarantee any salary for myself though, and so in those days I learned a good deal about plain living and high thinking.
It was slow work gathering men, because I wanted only those who could realize what I was trying to do. I hardly knew myself, except that I saw possibilities in the music if it could be put on a scored, trained basis. The usual jazz orchestra gang was no good for my purpose, and neither were the more set-in-their-way symphony players. I needed musically trained youngsters who were ambitious, slightly discontented, and willing to adventure a little.
In San Francisco band circles, I became known as a sort of nut. Leaders sent the men they discharged and those that they couldn’t handle because of stubborn or freak streaks to me with the message, “Here’s another nut.” Occasionally one of these did fit into my scheme exactly as if he had been created for it. At last I had seven men of spirit and enterprise, all anxious to start.
Then the war broke out. We got the news in the midst of a rehearsal. And that, of course, ended that. In the following 24 hours, I tried all recruiting stations within walking distance and got turned down. In spite of recent thin living, I weighed 300 pounds, and the rules said I was “no good for combatant purposes.”
A Slim Chance of Keeping Fat
After much argument, Washington ruled that I could enlist as a band leader, and I finally put on a Navy uniform, especially made. I had lost my seven picked men, but the Navy had plenty of material for experimentation. Best of all, we had discipline, so that the trombonist couldn’t get off practice whenever he had been out late the night before, and the French horn dared not pipe a word about headaches.
It was a grilling sort of life, and after I was out, I was all nerves. I was short of funds, too, so there was no chance of starting my own orchestra again, and I took charge of the Fairmont Hotel orchestra in San Francisco. I would direct a punchy jazz number and then I would go out of sight and cry for 10 minutes. This went on until I lost exactly a hundred pounds, falling off in three months from 285 to 185. When I went to a doctor, he told me to stop working and worrying.
There I was, a ham symphony player, determined to break into something that the best people then considered the lowest of the low. It didn’t look like much of a future, did it? Yet not long before in New York, if I had only known it, something had happened that showed the mango magic was working.
The original Dixieland Jazz Band went East and was hired by the Reisenweber Café. Remember, up to then, New York had never heard any jazz. Chicago had and New Orleans and San Francisco, but not New York. The café made something of a point of the band’s debut — raised the cover charge and boosted the food prices. The dancers came, too, but when they heard the music, they didn’t know what to make of it.
The band played an entire jazz selection. Not a soul stepped out on the floor. The café manager, standing on the sidelines, was ready to weep with wretchedness. The men guests were suddenly conscious of their high collars and the women of shoes that hurt. And there sat the unhappy band, banging away, surrounded by a scene as festive as a funeral.
Finally the manager, desperate, dry lipped but determined, raised an arm to halt the incomprehensible music. “This is jazz, ladies and gentlemen,” he pleaded. “It’s to be danced to.”
Perhaps it was his woebegone countenance that relieved the strain. At any rate, somebody laughed and every gentleman grabbed his lady and began to cavort. Bang, bang, slap-bang, hip hooray! Jazz had hit New York and New York had gone down before it! In two years, the thing had sprung from New Orleans to Chicago, from Chicago to San Francisco, had taken rough form and overrun the continent, had captured New York and spread from North to South and from East to West, with only isolated portions of New England and New Englandism holding out against it.
A Symphony Past and Jazz Future
A reporter who once came to get a success story from me complained bitterly that I hadn’t undergone enough hardships. He explained that to be of any real value for his kind of tale, I should have started to work at 12 to support an invalid mother and 14 small brothers and sisters. Another thing he deplored was that I hadn’t “fought my way up.” In fact, he intimated that it looked to him as if I’d risen without much trouble and then gone down again of my own accord. That was his opinion of jazz, and he’s not alone in it.
Every day or so somebody emphasizes my horrible jazz present by referring to my honorable symphony and string-quartet past. There are plenty of people who carry around that double-edged knife and use it any time to stab jazz and the leaders of the jazz movement simultaneously.
I am less vulnerable to such digs, now that I’m standing on my own legs with a clear idea of what I am trying to do. And I don’t mind admitting that having the price of a good-sized meal in my pocket adds a lot to my self-confidence. You can’t get away from human nature — at least I can’t — and I have no patience with the idea that art and starvation are twin sisters.
There was a time when legs and pockets gave out all at once. That was after the war, when I broke down at the Fairmont and had to give up my orchestra and take to bed for several months. For a while then, I really did debate whether I hadn’t better let the I-told-you-sos who said jazz would bring me to no good end have it their own way.
I didn’t, but when I finally got well, I hadn’t a penny and was warned by my doctor not to take on much responsibility or hard work for a while. I finally set out to build up a band at the Potter Hotel in Santa Barbara. My old prewar men were too expensive to be thought of in this venture, and so I had to make a new start with raw recruits.
These came chiefly from the high school. Bright, ambitious, nice youngsters they were, thrilled about jazz and eager to learn. The trouble was, not one of them had been taught to read music. Our rehearsals had to be conducted by ear, and I had to build my boys into my musical idea without a trace of musical foundation. It was like making writers of free verse out of children who didn’t know the alphabet. When a lad who could read notes applied for a job, I hailed him as manna from heaven — and he turned out to be the worst of the lot. He knew no more about music than a parrot knows about grammar.
Those untrained children with their desire to learn made me realize what could be done by the schools if they would only take hold. It’s my idea that every child ought to go to school with books under one arm and a horn or some other instrument under the other. Music — that is, music they play themselves — arouses the interest of boys and girls alike and may, I believe, make the bad ones good and the good ones better.
From what I have seen, it seems to me that most music teachers must be teaching music as Latin teachers teach Latin — as though it were a dead language — something without any meaning in real life, something to be learned by rote. Music is a language all right, but a living, changing, vital language. The solemn respect some people give it belongs only to things dead and canonized.
When the Dancers Paid the Fiddler
Hardly a day passed that I didn’t get some new idea for scoring or instrumentation, but I didn’t have, and couldn’t get, an adequate laboratory for testing my inventions. The more I worked with jazz, the surer I was that its authentic vitality would take root and develop on what I called a symphonic basis. I was longing to try it anyway.
Saving money became suddenly a passion with me — spendthrift and wastrel that I had always been. I wanted to save now because I wanted to be able to afford a good orchestra. For a while I led a sort of wandering minstrel life, directing bands in Pasadena, Los Angeles, and San Francisco as opportunity came.
Intent on making as much money as I could as quickly as possible, I joined a group which played for dancing at the beach hotels on a the-dancer-pays-the-fiddler plan. We musicians were equipped with a big can into which our patrons threw dollars in return for jazz. At first this made me miserably ashamed. I felt as if I were acting the cap-holding monkey for the hand-organ grinder on a street corner. But my need for money was so strong just then that when I saw the coins pouring in, I abandoned my scruples.
We players walked about among the crowd, and when one piece was finished, we waited for somebody to feed the can before we started another. The movie folks were good customers — so good that we often allowed credit to the more reliable ones, including Charlie Chaplin. When they were dancing with someone they liked they would hold up their fingers to indicate how much they were willing to pay to have the dance prolonged. We followed them around with our eyes, and as long as they’d continue to hold up fingers from time to time, we continued to play. We enjoyed it — and if some little girl from the provinces was dancing with a movie hero, she certainly did too.
Once it cost an Iowa grocer $60 to keep a famous film vamp for six dances. When we had played four dances without a pause between, people began to drop away. During the fifth, only a few couples still hung on, and when we were going fervently on into the sixth, the last of them puffed off the floor — and still that Iowa grocer danced. But he was fat and perhaps thrift began to stir in the back of his mind, for during the sixth, he held up no more fingers. When we stopped, he came breathless off the floor, and we tackled him for our money. He tried to shade the price until one of our number basely suggested that perhaps he would rather have us send the bill back to his hometown. Then he came through.
A Chance with a Real Orchestra
It wasn’t pretty, but it was certainly life — absurd, chaotic, full of vigor, change, excitement, and battle. Meantime, I was slowly piling up some money, which mostly had to go to pay my debts, and hanging doggedly on to my ambition. It takes money to hold a first-class orchestra together, and there weren’t many people in those days who believed in jazz enough to back it. Not my kind of jazz anyway, for I was regarded as one who had highfaluting and impractical ideas.
One day when I was feeling particularly broke — a new dun had just arrived — he came to see me.
“Think you could make good with a real orchestra if you got the chance?” he asked after a little casual talk.
“Aw, what’s the use?” I muttered, not even looking at hum. “I haven’t got the chance!”
“Are you so sure about that?” he flung back, and there was something in his voice that startled me. I grabbed him by the arm just as he was pretending to walk off.
“What do you mean?” I begged, and I expect he has a scar today from my grip.
“Well,” said he, preparing to dodge thanks by fleeing round the corner. “I’ve just guaranteed your orchestra salaries for a month to the management of the Alexandria in Los Angeles. You start the 13th.”
Another time, that 13th might have given me superstitious pause, but on this one occasion I didn’t even think of it. Moreover, we did open on the 13th, and I’ll never forget the first night if I live to be a million.
Word had got about among some of my friends in the movies that I was going to make my “debut” at the Alexandria, so a lot of the picture people showed up. More than that, they acted as if they were crazy about our music and clapped so much that we were delirious with happiness and played better than we ever did in our lives before.
I think some of them went out between dances and telephoned to friends, because couples kept pouring in. I guess there never was a more generous orchestra than we were that night. We kept playing encore after encore until even the most insatiable dancers cried enough. You see, in spite of the stories about its illicit gayety, Hollywood gets pretty dull of evenings, and the stars were glad enough to have something new to do.
Of course, we were pleased that the first night went off so well, but we knew we weren’t out of the woods yet by a long shot; so the next day and the next, we tried harder and harder. I suppose I must have slept some during that time, but I can’t remember any periods of sweet, dreamless ease. Our first-night customers stayed with us, though, and at the end of the month, John Hernan was told we had made good, and at the end of the year, symphonic jazz had proved so attractive that the Alexandria’s cover receipts had considerably more than doubled.
The Short End of Cooperation
It would seem that I should have been earning plenty of money by this time, but I was not. Starting on a shoestring as I had, we adopted the cooperative plan in the orchestra. I was to have the largest share. That was all right as far as it went, but the difficulty was that whenever one of my men threatened to accept a better offer, I had to take something off my own salary to keep him satisfied.
One day a fellow came up with a telegram. Without a word, he handed it to me and I read an offer from another leader at $25 a week more than he was getting.
“Well?” he prompted, when I didn’t speak.
The reason I didn’t speak was that I was figuring how much I could cut down on what I was getting and still eat regularly. He was a good man and I wanted to be fair with him.
Finally I said, “Will a $30 raise be all right?”
He thought it would and hurried off, jubilant. That week, and for many weeks following, I paid him $30 of my own money — until one day I found out he had faked the telegram. He hadn’t even had another offer.
It was not until much later, when we began to make records, that dissatisfaction arose among the men over the cooperative system and we gave it up. It wasn’t very fair. For instance, in making a record the drummer, who might strike his cymbal once in an entire number, got the same as the man who played five or six instruments and worked every second of the time. After that, I paid the men a straight salary, varying according to ability and usefulness. And from that time I began to make some real money myself.
For quite a while I did the arrangements and orchestrations as well as the conducting, but it was too much for one man; so we took on Ferdie Grofé, symphony player and composer. Now the two of us work out our ideas together.
The chance for the orchestra — or band, we called it then — to go East came when the Ambassador Hotel at Atlantic City was opened. Until we went to Atlantic City, the only recognition we had won, aside from the approval of those who danced to our music, came from persons interested in our trick of jazzing the classics; that is, of applying our peculiar treatment of rhythm and color to well-known masterpieces.
The notice this brought us was not always of the pleasantest. Certain correspondents called us scoundrels and desecrators, and one man described us as ghouls “bestializing the world’s sweetest harmonies” — rather a mixed metaphor, it seemed to me. Seven different kinds of hell were predicted for us, and one woman with a gift of epithet termed us “vultures, devouring the dead masters.”
I don’t get mad at these communications, and I always read them. Sometimes even I can see justice in them. Besides, it’s good to know the worst that people think of us. But of course I don’t agree that we have done such very terrible things to the classics.
I worship certain of the classics myself and respect them all. But I doubt if it hurts Tchaikovsky or even Bach when we rearrange what they have written — provided we choose appropriate compositions of theirs — and play it to people who have not heard it before. I have never had the feeling that I must keep my hands off the dead masters, as people feel that they must not speak the truth of the dead unless it is a complimentary truth.
Atlantic City was like a new world — a world we didn’t like so well at first. After a few weeks of it, the boys wanted to go back to the Coast. The golden sunshine and the wholehearted camaraderie of California had taken on increased enchantment as the distance between us widened. In short, they were homesick.
Even though we eventually did well at the Ambassador, we might have gone home if a phonograph concern had not held a convention at Atlantic City. A representative of the company happened to lunch at the Ambassador and heard us play. It was a good deal like being rushed for a fraternity at college. He came up and urgently insisted that we do nothing about a phonograph contract until he had time to communicate with his firm. Only six of our men had yet come on and I suggested that he wait until he could hear us all.
“We’re much better full force,” I argued.
“Nonsense!” he surprised us by saying. “You can’t be much better than you are now!”
And in a few days we had a nice, fat, two-year contract. After that we got used to cyclone happenings. The Palais Royal Café in New York City also waved a contract at us. Vaudeville scouts approached us. Our pictures were in the papers. The slings and arrows of fortune still pierced us occasionally, but on the whole we were almost surfeited with applause.
Into the midst of our already busy days came now a contract for a season with the Ziegfeld Follies. The first night we played with them was one of the most miserable I ever spent.
We were seated on a platform designed to move forward. When the time came for it to start, it didn’t. We had stage fright anyway, and the failure of the mechanism to work on schedule fairly froze the smiles on our faces. We played on, but I thought we sounded worse than the worst dress rehearsal we had ever had. And then, when we weren’t expecting it, the platform gave a leap like a skittish colt, flinging us forward and almost knocking our teeth loose. I thought, of course, we were a flop, and wouldn’t even read the papers next day. But to my surprise, I heard they had spoken very well of us, and the next night we got on all right.
The Fad for the Foreign
New York is a queer city. I have the theory that novelty, not luck or ability, is what gets by there. New York doesn’t seem to care about merit so much as it does about something new to tickle its eyes, its palate, or its ears.
We knew that to New York we were just a novelty at a dull season, something to make the great city stop, listen, and dance for the time. We had a hankering to be taken seriously. We had an idea that there was something worthwhile about jazz — danceable as it was. We were doing the best we could with it, and once in a while there was the satisfaction of hearing a flapper humming really good music without knowing it was good— something we had sold her.
But no one took us seriously. At that stage, it wouldn’t have done to say anything about jazz being an art, even a lively one. The artistic would merely have scoffed and the flapper and her beau would have looked sheepish at being accused of a liking for anything highbrow.
I thought it would be a good thing to get out of New York for a while. Besides, I had seen, as everybody must see, the American adoration for the European. I knew singers, nice American boys and girls, who were unable to get a hearing in their own country until they had studied in Italy or France. They were not particularly improved by the European period that I could see. On the contrary, they usually lost something — whatever it was that made them distinctive. But the point was, they had gained what the public wanted them to have — foreign flavor — especially if they returned wearing a foreign name.
I figured that my orchestra would probably get more serious consideration for what was in the back of my head to do if we obtained a little of the foreign stamp ourselves. And we wouldn’t need to bring back any Russian prefixes or French suffixes either. The end of it was that we sailed for Europe March 3, 1923. We were a strictly American bunch. Most of us had never been abroad. Wild Westerners all, we had managed to adapt ourselves to Broadway, but Europe was something else again.
There was a terrified lump in my throat as the Statue of Liberty curtsied out of sight. I had a premonition we had better have stayed at home. The boys were excited and confident.
“Lookut what we did to New York,” one encouraged me on a seasick day, when I was proclaiming quite audibly that I wished we had never come.