In 1926, Paul Whiteman and Mary Margaret McBride contributed a three-part Post series about jazz, which at the time had only recently become widely popular in the U.S.
In Part I, “Paul Whiteman Builds His Jazz Orchestra,” Whiteman details his early years and the events leading up to the formation of his jazz orchestra just before the start of the Roaring ’20s.
Part II, “Jazz History: Paul Whiteman, George Gershwin, and the Stale Bread Orchestra,” discusses Whiteman’s early commercial success — including his orchestra’s premiere performance of Rhapsody in Blue — and places jazz within the larger continuum of artistic music.
In this third part, Whiteman gives readers a closer look at the makeup of his jazz orchestra and his place as bandleader within it. Then he concludes his contribution to the Post with a last look at the future of jazz and jazz education in America.
This post was published to mark National Jazz Appreciation Month. You can read more of the Post’s historical stories from and about jazz legends in “Jazz History by Men Who Made It.”
Jazz, Part III
By Paul Whiteman and Mary Margaret McBride
Originally published on March 13, 1926
Invariably the layman is amused to discover that the saxophone and the banjo, both regarded by him as essentials to jazz, were not included in the original jazz band at all. As a matter of fact, the saxophone, which was invented more than 75 years ago by Antoine Sax, was designed as a very serious instrument. It was heard oftener in church than anywhere else, and the story goes that Mendelssohn refused to allow it in his orchestra because it was too mournful.
The original jazz band consisted of a piano, a trombone, a cornet, a clarinet, and a drum. The fundamental harmony and rhythm were supplied by the piano, the player of which could usually read notes. The other performers had no notes, so it mattered not at all that they had never learned to read music. They simply filled in the harmonic parts and countermelodies by ear, interpolating whatever stunts in the way of gurgles, brays, squeals, and yells occurred to them, holding up the entire tune, though still keeping in the rhythm.
Those days are gone forever, or nearly so. Considered musically, the ideal orchestra is one which will contain a quartet of every kind of legitimate orchestral instrument, thus permitting a four-part harmony in every quality of musical tone. Although this does not prove entirely practical, it is still an ideal which every orchestra leader today sets for himself. The result, I will venture to say, is that the United States has a greater number of efficient, economical, small orchestras than has ever been known anywhere else.
The jazz orchestra of today differs from the symphony mainly in the fact that the foundation of the symphony is its strings. All other instruments are added for tone color. In the jazz orchestra, the saxophone has been developed to take the place of the cello. In fact, it has been developed to such a high degree that it can be used for the foundation of the entire orchestra, taking the place of second violin, violas, and cellos. The saxophone, then, is in a way king of the jazz orchestra. Because of this, such demands have been made on the saxophone player that the manufacturers of the instrument have had to develop it to meet the new needs. It was a very different product 20 or even 10 years ago from what it is now.
Some demon statistician has estimated that there are now 10,000,000 saxophone players in the world. The estimate probably falls far short of the reality. And those amateur music makers who are not playing the saxophone have taken to the banjo. They say some great genius always arises to meet any national need. Is it any wonder that the soundproof apartment is now a glorious reality?
Musicians recognize four general classes of instruments in speaking of the orchestra — strings, woodwinds, brasses, and the battery of traps, chiefly instruments of percussion. Of the woodwinds, my orchestra has four saxophones; that is, four saxophone players; but all of these play saxophones in various keys — with clarinet, the oboe, the English horn, the heckelphone, the octavin, the accordion, and piccolo. Of the brasses, we have the trumpets, trombones, French horn, and tubas.
Perhaps the most important instruments of the battery are the tympani or kettledrums, the side or snare drums, the bass drum, the tambourine, triangle, cymbals, tom-tom, Chinese drum, castanets, rattle, glockenspiel, xylophone, marimba, clappers, and bones. Of these, we have the celesta, two tympani, snare and bass drum and dozens of fixings for our special effects.
Muting the Clamors of Jazz
So far this seems to me a fairly satisfactory concert jazz orchestra. We are always trying out new instruments and discarding old ones, so that I do not feel we shall ever be satisfied to become static. For a dance orchestra, eight violins are an unnecessary number of strings. Also one of the pianos may be omitted and an extra banjo added. At one time I tried out the organ for a dance orchestra, but found it too heavy and overpowering for the kind of music we make — rather dreadful, in fact. Another instrument we have used is the harp, which gives a pleasant effect in certain pieces but is not useful enough to make it worth having in the average small orchestra. In the double reeds, I am planning to add a bassoon.
Jazz players have become so adept at handling their instruments that they nearly make each do the work of two. The tricks of the trade rapidly become public property, especially if they are put on the records. Thus the discoveries go East and West, North and South, to enrich the orchestras in remote spots. Many jazz conductors and arrangers can adapt an orchestration from hearing a record played. I have heard some of our arrangements which bands had obtained in that way, and they were well played too. Such adaptation needs, however, a good musical ear and considerable technical knowledge. I am told that when a record is made by certain Eastern orchestras, arrangers for orchestras in the West and Middle West gather around for the first playing with paper and pencil.
The various stunts with mutes, though pretty well known to those in the business, are important enough to speak of in some detail. The chief kinds of mutes now manufactured are made of metal and cardboard. Before clever manufacturers saw the possibilities of these bits of material, the players themselves were using ingenious contrivances to get the same effects.
The first time I ever heard what I call the wawa mutes used with the cornet was, I think, when we did “Cut Yourself a Piece of Cake.” The players got that effect by inverting glass tumblers over the bells of the instruments.
One of our trombonists has a special mute, such as I have never seen before, by which he gets a beautiful graduation of sound very like the voice of a sweet human baritone [sic]. In the case of most cup-shaped mutes, the air goes in and comes out the same way, but with this one, the air goes from one chamber into another and out.
One interesting device used with the trombone I must mention. This is achieved by holding the bell of the instrument to the small end of a phonograph horn, with a result that has almost the qualities of a barytone [sic] voice. Some trick stuff is all right and some is in the very worst possible taste. For instance, a man who wires a mouth organ to his face as a solo instrument and uses the piano to accompany himself is making himself ridiculous. If your trick stuff is clever, use it. If not, keep away.
One of the qualities in the musician that the jazz orchestra has developed is ingenuity. If he feels that he needs a certain sound from his instrument, he puts his hand or his foot in it, or goes and gets a beer bottle, if nothing else is at hand.
The Derby Mute
The orthodox have, I think, been pretty well shocked by the employment of curious devices for altering the tonal quality of certain ancient and respected instruments. Somebody has suggested that this is because the mechanism is often rather baldly exposed. As a matter of fact, not nearly all the jazz stunts are new. For instance, the derby mute goes back to 1832, when Hector Berlioz directed the clarinetist at a certain passage in his Lelio, Ou Le Retour À La Vie, to wrap the instrument in a leather bag to “give the sound of the clarinet an accent as vague and remote as possible.”
The glissando of the trombone occurs in the orchestral score of Schönberg’s Pelleas et Melisande, written in 1902 when jazz was as yet entirely unknown. Schönberg is also the father of the flutter on the trombone — that is, very rapid tonguing on the same note. And Stravinsky, in the days when jazz was still in its infancy, used muted trumpets. Yet jazz has developed much that is new, and this is its chief service to music. Music, like everything else, gets static in its development during any period when fresh tools are not being devised. From the way in which some of the jazz devices have been received, one might think that it was lese majesty [high treason] to make a pleasing sound in any way in which it had not been made before. Yet the development of music has gone hand in hand with the development of new instruments from the day when the savage first found that hitting a hollow log with a club made a sound that stirred human emotions.
There is a story somewhere to the effect that the man who first strung a gourd with catgut and made sounds upon it was put to death, because his fellowmen resented the introduction of a new noise into a world which they regarded as already overstocked with such. So you see there have always been cranks and reformers.
The Notorious Saxophone
The now notorious saxophone, in almost any of its sizes and keys, is one of the most useful of modern instruments. It is easy to learn — I believe there is a tradition that an ambitious boy can get the hang of it in 20 minutes — but difficult to master. But other instruments are still more difficult to master, and it is not necessary to master the saxophone to play dance music.
Saxophones supply the element of humor which American dancers insist upon having, and they are also extremely flexible, so that more or less difficult running passages may be played with ease. In skilled hands the saxophone is capable of smooth intonation in solo passages, though, like all reeds, the control of pitch is not easy.
With two or three saxophones for the same player, one may obtain a large variety of tone effects, shifting a melody into the deep bass with good effect, and then by picking up a smaller instrument, get a cold blue tone almost as pure as that of the flute. Or one may take the little top sax and push it up to super-acute register to make extremely funny noises. The collective compass of the soprano, alto, tenor, and barytone saxophones is a little more than four octaves, so there is sufficient territory for the complete performance of many pieces without the use of any other instruments.
The banjo, going on to the next typical jazz instrument, is of highest importance in our type of orchestra. Its tone is clear, snappy, and carries farther even than that of the piano. It is capable of rhythmic and harmonic effects that a leader is put to it to find in any other instrument.
You can get more pizzicato effects — you can get relatively greater volume with a single banjo than you can with a whole symphony load of violins and violas playing pizzicato, and you can play passages they wouldn’t dare to attempt. There is an example in a piece we used to be fond of playing, “On the Sip, Sip, Sippy Shore,” where “Turkey in the Straw” is introduced as a banjo solo. The pace is furious and the swift and flexible hands of the artist must move fast indeed. What symphony conductor would dare put such a passage as this in the hands of his strings? Yet the single instrument, in the dance orchestra, with one set of fingers is all that is required.
In the ensemble the banjo may be considered even more important than as a solo instrument. If it is a good timekeeper, it will tone down the piano, stop the traps from banging, and cause the whole organization, no matter how many instruments there are, to move on the beat like one man.
Obviously the jazz band has tried to develop extreme sounds. The deepest, the most piercing and the softest effects are produced, but any jazz-orchestra leader will soon learn that he gets his best effects if he plays softly. It is not necessary to bang to get your effect or to burst the instrument for volume. On the contrary, a good jazz orchestra is at its best and most seductive when at its quietest.
Made and Played in America
The early jazz was each man for himself and devil take the harmony. The demoniac energy, the fantastic riot of accents, and the humorous moods have all had to be toned down. I hope that in toning down we shall not, as some critics have predicted, take the life out of our music. I do not believe we shall. It seems to me that we have retained enough of the humor, rhythmic eccentricity, and pleasant informality to leave us still jazzing. And while we do not have so much unrestricted individualism as in the old days, every man must still be a virtuoso.
A critic has said that if jazz is to rise to the level of musical art, it must overthrow the government of the bass drum and the banjo and must permit itself to make excursions into the regions of elastic rhythms. Perhaps that is true. All I know is that if somebody will write us a different kind of music, we shall be glad to try to play it.
As I have tried to indicate, the modern jazz orchestra is an efficient arrangement. Every member knows exactly what he is to play every minute of the time. Even the smears are indicated in the music. Rehearsals are as thorough and frequent as in any symphony. The discipline of the orchestra, if it is a good one, must be complete. Yet there must be freedom such as I have never seen in any symphony. The men must get joy out of their work. They must have a good time and try to give their audience one.
Music is human. The character of the man that handles the instrument shows in his music just as his character shows in his handwriting. Every human being has his own value, his own character. It is when this variety is released into music that music thrives and grows. Jazz has forever ended the time when music was — to the average American — a series of black and white notes on white paper, to be learned by rote and played according to direction in a foreign language — staccato, legato, crescendo.
Americans know now that they may take any old thing that will make a sound that pleases them, and please themselves by expressing with it their own moods and characters in their own rhythms, thus making music. The saxophone, in spite of the fact that at one time it was used for church music, comes romping into the orchestra like a Wild Westerner into Boston society. Even the tin pan is not to be despised just because it was made originally to hold milk. Says jazz, put an old hat over a trumpet and make it sing as it never sang before. Who cares that it is only an old hat?
A Place in the Limelight
It was, after all, some very distinguished persons who started putting base agencies to work when they needed them. Schubert used to amuse his friends by wrapping tissue paper around a comb and singing the Erlking through it, and Tchaikovsky required the same implement to get his effects in the “Dance of the Mirlitons.” The highly respected orchestras of the ’70s employed cannon that broke all the crockery for miles around when they wished to get the effect of a battle.
The first essential of any good orchestra is that the human beings who compose it shall be musicians of the first water. But with a jazz orchestra this is not nearly enough. The players here must be masters not only of one but several instruments, so that a small group can produce the color and tone of a far larger one by doubling on two, three, or half a dozen instruments. Jazz players have to possess not merely musical knowledge and talent but musical intelligence as well, which is something else. In a symphony, the conductor’s is the only personality which stands out. In a jazz orchestra, every man is in the limelight. Therefore each man must be clever enough to sell himself to the audience. In other words, he must exhibit good showmanship by making his audience want what he has to give them.
He must have initiative, imagination and inventiveness amounting almost to genius. In the symphony, the composer invents. With us that job falls to the player. This versatile individual must also be young enough so that the spirit of adventure is still in him. He must be temperamental enough to feel and not too temperamental to be governed.
Perhaps the most important item of all is that each player must be an American. It is better if one is a native-born American and better still if one’s parents were born here, for then one has had the American environment for a lifetime, and that helps in playing jazz.
My men are of every kind of ancestry — Italian, German, French, English, Scandinavian. That does not matter. Nor does their religion. What does matter is that they are all American citizens and nearly all native-born.
I got a good many of my 25 men from symphonies. One of these is Walter Bell, who plays the bass and contrabassoon. He was in the San Francisco Symphony and has written two or three symphonies himself. He got his start playing the mandolin and guitar in an ice-cream parlor where the mice and rats were so thick that he had to put his feet upon a table to keep them from gnawing the leather of his shoes.
It was through him that I really got to know and like jazz, and I picked him for my own orchestra — mentally, of course, because I had no orchestra then and didn’t know that I ever would have — at a performance of the Symphony in San Francisco. Bell was playing bass, but the bassoon got sick and I, being the youngest member of the orchestra, was chased off to bring his instrument down for Bell to play. He played it and beautifully, but right in the midst of the Sixth Tchaikovsky Symphony, he commenced to play in all off rhythms — jazz, really. I don’t know why he did — just a crazy impulse, I suppose, to shock the staid symphony audience and curiosity to see how his experiment would sound. But right then I vowed that some day I’d have him in my band.
Another man we got from a symphony is Chester Hazlett, also of the San Francisco group. He was a first clarinet at 17 in a symphony, but he plays the saxophone for us because he has always been crazy about that instrument.
Frank Siegrist, trumpeter, and I played together in the Navy and experienced some of the difficulties of trying to supply eight orchestras to various company commanders when we only had the makin’s of four. But discipline was discipline in the Navy and nothing was impossible — that’s a Navy slogan — so we always managed somehow.
Henry Busse, trumpeter, is another symphony man. He has played in a number of the high-class musical organizations in Germany and knows the classics thoroughly. Yet it was he who stuck a kazoo in a regular mute one day and got an Oriental quality like an oboe that I had been trying to get for a long time.
Men taken from symphonies are the easiest ones to train. They have had good discipline, and they usually leave because they are interested in jazz and want to experiment along a new line. Their knowledge of music is valuable and they know their instruments.
The real blues player is more hidebound in his way than the symphony man. Blues are a religion with him, and he doesn’t think a man who is able to read music can really play blues.
Why Gus Left Us
I had a New Orleans boy, Gus Miller, who was wonderful on the clarinet and saxophone, but he couldn’t read a line of music. I wanted to teach him how, but he wouldn’t try to learn, so I had to play everything over for him and let him get it by ear. I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t make an effort to take the instruction I wanted to give him. Finally I got it out of him.
“Well, it’s like this,” he confided seriously. “I knew a boy once down in N’Awleens that was a hot player, but he learned to read music, and then he couldn’t play jazz any more. I don’t want to be like that.”
A few days later Gus came to me and said he was quitting. I was sorry and asked if it was money. He said no, but stalled as to his real reason. Finally, though, he came out with it.
“No, suh, I jes can’t play that pretty music that you-all play!” Then in a wild burst of words, “And, anyway, you fellers can’t play blues worth a damn!”
Stars But Not Stardom
I choose my men according to the characteristics I have already set down, and I find them everywhere. Many of them come to me for tryouts. We have 40 or 50 applications for jobs every day in the New York office. My friends, too, scout around for me, and naturally I hear every orchestra I can everywhere I go. I catalogue the likely players I hear and the ones my friends tell me about. It’s rather like a baseball team. Sometimes I even take options on men.
The music business is just like any other. A doctor will recommend a doctor in another town to you if you are moving, and music men recommend cornetists and saxophonists in exactly the same way.
Our rehearsals are free-for-alls. Every man is allowed to give his ideas, if he has any, about how new pieces should be played. The orchestra makes a kind of game of working out effects that will go. In shirtsleeves if it’s hot, and even in bathing suits if it’s hotter, with sandwiches and cold drinks handy, we’ve been known to run over the appointed rehearsal time by several hours, due to interest in what we were doing.
There is very little stardom in my orchestra. We all work together for what we are trying to do. Star stuff can spoil any group. Cooperation can make a mediocre band go great. If inspiration comes to any one of the boys, we stop and jot down his recommendations. Some of the suggestions when tried prove to be no good, but I’d far rather have enthusiastic youth and a few mistakes in my orchestra than seasoned, too-careful old-stagers. The appeal of the jazz orchestra comes from spontaneity more than from finished brainy work. And for spontaneity, one needs wholesale youth.
I wouldn’t have a stolid man in my orchestra. The audience would feel a lack instantly. I think I’d fire a man quicker any day for a show of really surly disposition than for a serious mistake in musical execution. Not that my boys are never allowed to lose their tempers. Far from it. An occasional fit of temperishness is natural enough and comes with temperament.
An audience, by the way, can be the kindest thing on Earth or the unkindest. I never have faced an intentionally unkind one, but sometimes I have been greatly depressed by coldness and stand-offishness. An audience expects so much. People look at you, not as if you were a human being but just as something built up for their entertainment. They will never excuse a mistake and they make no allowances for your off days.
The players don’t glare or laugh when the audience applauds in the wrong place, but the audience will laugh or even hiss at a mistake. Perhaps, if they understood the handicaps actors and musicians often overcome at a performance, they would be more charitable. The other day I saw a dancer at a vaudeville house fall in a heap in the wings after her turn on the stage. An old sprain had suddenly become painful while she was doing a difficult whirl at the very beginning of her act, but she kept a smile on her face and went on dancing. She got a few hand claps, and very likely some former fan turned to his wife and remarked, “Well, I guess she’s getting old.”
Nothing to Do Till Tomorrow
A lot of folks wonder what a conductor is for. I’ve read plenty of comments by critics who speculated upon how much better certain orchestras might have done if they hadn’t been handicapped by a leader. Well, it’s a little bit immodest to say that an orchestra can’t do without a leader, but after all, it’s true. I wish the critics could once hear a leaderless orchestra. Only, of course, such a thing is not possible, for if the real conductor were removed another would rise from the ranks.
A band is like an army. It must have a commander. A good conductor must be a musician in every sense of the word. He should be able to play at least one instrument well and should understand the intricacies and possibilities of all the others he employs. He must be a judge of men, tactful, democratic and yet able to make his authority felt. He has to be a good showman and likable. If it is real and not a sham part of his personality, it won’t hurt if he is even a little eccentric on occasion.
As for the difficulty of jazz conducting — did you ever stand on a space 2 ½ x 2 ½ for just one hour? Try it sometime. There’ve been plenty of days when I’ve had to do that for nearly 12 hours almost at a stretch. For in conducting, you can’t move much farther than that off one spot.
Here used to be a typical day of mine in New York: I got up at 9:00 a.m., snatched a hurried bite of breakfast, and got to the office by 10:00. There was always a huge pile of correspondence to go over and attend to and considerable business for the string of orchestras I handle. At 12:00, we usually had a rehearsal or phonograph take. At 2:00, we played at the Palace, and in between we sandwiched in another rehearsal or recording session. At 6:30 we played at the Palace again, and after that the Palais Royal until 3:00 a.m., and finally bed with the same routine to get up to the next morning.
Moreover, this doesn’t include the necessary activities for publicity purposes, the interruptions by people who want jobs or come to have you hear them play or to ask charity of some kind. And I have forgotten to mention the benefits. I have sometimes played as many as 59 of these in 26 weeks. And yet a writer, who is also one of my best friends, said one day that my job is to “Just stand before an orchestra and pat my foot indifferently well!”
The secret of the success of modern dance music is in its arrangement. For unless the music is cleverly scored, the greatest musicians cannot make it popular with the public. Any man who is planning a career as a musician ought to know how to transpose at sight. Every score that comes to me is analyzed and dissected at rehearsal, down to the very last note. Naturally the small-orchestra arrangement will not always fit, so I take the music apart phrase by phrase. I find just where each melody lies according to the possibility of each instrument. Did you ever stop to consider that a single note on some trap instrument will carry away with it as much memory as 30 bars of senseless pounding?
Jazz orchestrations have done more to change the character of the jazz orchestra than anything else. The distribution of the music has been made definite, a balance has been kept between the choirs. The arranger distributes the parts to his orchestra, and here all his knowledge and wit are demanded.
The new demand is for change and novelty. Four years ago, a whole chorus could be run through with but one rhythmic idea. Now there must be at least two rhythmic ideas in a chorus and sometimes more. On the other hand, it is necessary to avoid overcrowding with material, for the melody must not be lost. “Noodles” — that is, fancy figures in the saxophone, such as triple trills — often crowd out the melody, and the thing to remember is that everything else is secondary to keeping this alive.
Early Jazz Records
When our first records came down from the laboratories of the phonograph company for their initial audition, a visitor exploded, “What the dickens?” Then he listened to a few bars — he was an experienced listener — and demanded, “Who?”
For years before we began to record, it had been necessary for almost all the recording laboratories to change the instrumentation of nearly all orchestral pieces. Certain instruments, notably the double basses which we then used, the horn, the tympanum, and in lesser degree other instruments, failed to yield satisfactory results. The double basses frequently were discarded and replaced by a single tuba. Modifications also in the placing of the orchestra were necessary in order to make the volume of tone from a large number of instruments converge upon the tiny diaphragm whose vibrating needle inscribed upon a disk of wax the mysterious grooves which, retraced by a second needle attached to a second diaphragm, gave back the voices and accents of music.
So, for all our labor and study, we had to go into the recording room and learn all over. One of the changes we made when we found that ordinary drums could not be put on the record was to use the banjo as a tune drum. The tympanum and snare drum record, but the regular drum creates a muddy and fuzzed-up effect when other music is going, although solo drums make very good records. This was when I tried out the banjo for the ground rhythm and discovered the possibilities of that small instrument, which until then had been kept in the back and hardly heard at all. We also discovered that almost every instrument has a treacherous or bad note, and that when the score calls for that note the instrument had better stop playing. An extreme dissonance would mean that the record would be blasted. For all our troubles, however, we were told that fewer changes had to be made in our scoring than in any dance records of the time. As a rule we made two records at a sitting, though once I believe we made nine in three days. Each record averages about an hour and a half or two hours, for there must first be a rehearsal and a test before the perfect record is passed upon by the company hearing committee.
Recording is perhaps the most difficult task in the day’s work — or the lifetime’s. A slip may pass unnoticed in concert, whether across the footlights or over the radio, and even if noticed it is forgiven, since living flesh and sensitive will cannot always achieve mechanical perfection.
But a slip in a record after a time becomes the most audible thing in it. Everything else will be neglected to wait for the slip and to call the attention of someone else uninstructed in music to some great artist’s false note. So every composition has to be recorded until it is perfect. If things go well from the first, well and good; but if, from the three records of each number usually made, there is none which will quite pass the exacting standards of the committee, there must be another afternoon of making and remaking. Every faculty of the artist, emotional as well as physical, must be expended in producing a perfect result.
In late recording practice, with highly improved methods of capturing sound and with new scientific principles, it has grown more and more practicable to record large bodies of instruments without losing volume, without having a large quantity of tone dilute and diffuse itself before reaching the actual part of the recording apparatus.
In the laboratory, the possibilities of the orchestra began to loom large and the original plan with a single player to each type of instrument began to expand. The saxophone, for instance, had always had a shadow or understudy. A third saxophone now was added and in time the orchestra developed the full Wagnerian quartet of instruments in this one group. The one trumpet was reinforced by a second, and the now popular combination straight and comedy trumpet team came into existence. The banjo instead of just marking time began to make new excursions into the realms of rhythm, and the fox trot began to change, without, however, disturbing the pedestrian order of things.
Not all these changes took place, of course, in the laboratory. Most of the rehearsing and discussing and restoring was done in consultations outside — consultations not always free from the heat of argument. The actual business of recording is a star-chamber matter, but it is no violation of a secret to admit that some of our early records were spoiled by men swearing softly at themselves before they learned the new adroitness which the delicate mechanism of the recording room required.
One sees all one’s friends and some of one’s enemies at the recording laboratories, and the exchange of experience between the classicist and coon-shouter, the string quartet and the clarinet jazz band is illuminating for everybody.
By and for Americans
What will be the end of jazz? I don’t know. Nobody knows. One may only speculate. But the speculation is fascinating business, and perhaps my ideas on such a nebulous subject are as likely to be sound as the next man’s. However, I am no prophet. I can only say what seems to me possible and a very little bit probable. First of all, jazz has a chance because it is a sheer Americanism. Artistic Europe grants this and applauds. Have Europeans ever accepted any other music of ours? Alas, no! The truth seems to be that we have assimilated the arts of Europe and yet made none of them our own. It is something to branch out at last for ourselves in music as in other efforts. That does not mean, of course, that when we branch we create art immediately. But then neither does the fact that many look upon jazz as a sort of artistic blasphemy mean that it is so. We jazzists might reply to those who are shocked at what they call the bizarre sounds evoked by our instruments as Turner did to his lady critic.
“Mr. Turner,” said the dame, “I never see such colors in the sunset as you see.”
“Don’t you wish you could, ma’am?” reparteed the painter.
Turner was a decade ahead of his generation and knew it. Perhaps we jazzists are a little ahead of ours. But I must confess in all humbleness that we have moments when we doubt this as much as any of those who cavil.
There is one thing about jazz—it must be played by Americans to be really well played. That means a chance for American musicians. The most encouraging symptom in the whole situation is the interest that high school and college boys take in jazz. Some day it will be with jazz here as it is with the races in England. Everybody who can scrape together a few shillings goes to the races. They’re a national institution. Jazz is becoming an American institution.
Every boy, whether he is normally musically inclined or not, wants to learn to play something. Jazz has given him the opportunity and something is going to come of this. Perhaps that something will be a new art. Certainly it will be a good deal of musical composition, some of it very bad, and some of it, I hope, very good.
I have great ambitions for jazz. I want to see compositions written around the natural and geographical features of American life — written in the jazz idiom. I believe this would help Americans to appreciate their own country — their Hudson, their Rockies, their Grand Canyon, and their Painted Desert. There is thematic material in each of these. True, we have no legendary rocks, no Mouse Towers on the Hudson. That is because we are not old enough. We must make traditions. It is time we began. Jazz can help by catching the themes fast in composition. I want jazz to give the young musician his chance. He has very little today. Where can the unknown young composer’s piece be played? How can it even be put into shape for an orchestra to use? This costs several hundred dollars, and the young man just starting in music does not fare well. I hope jazz is going to bring about a hearing for all such as these. The hope of jazz lies in the young people.
Educating Jazz Composers
The charge that has been often made is true. Jazz so far is all dressed up and has very few places to go. That is because so few composers are writing for it. The best of the composers are too old and serious minded for jazz. They don’t dance. They don’t catch the rhythm of the younger generation. We must look to the young folks for the jazz compositions of the future. We must see that music becomes as much an educational staple in this country as spelling or reading. That it is not now may be recognized by inspecting any symphony audience. Except for music students, nearly everyone in such an audience is over 40 years old.
America is a great country for specialization. There is only one way to educate an American, except in his chosen line. That way is by entertaining. And we must start the entertainment in the schoolroom. Since the highbrow composer will not write jazz music, we must train the popular composer to become a better musician. We must teach the rhythmic invention, the contrapuntal construction and formal variety needed in the best of jazz composition. When this is done, I will venture to say that the future of jazz will reveal itself soon enough.
To speak for myself — and I realize that it has been necessary for me to be lamentably personal in all that I have said on the subject of the future of jazz — I shall go blithely on insisting that jazz is real American music. To prove my assertion, I shall play all of it that I can lay my hands on, the more pretentious, the better. Young composers may have the assurance at all times that ours is an organization from which the native product may have a hearing.
Whether jazz will make music cannot be settled by arguing about it. The only way is to try it, and we stand ready to provide the trial.