Writing about the irrepressible Peggy Lee in this magazine in 1964, Thomas C. Wheeler described one of the jazz singer’s recent performances of her song “Great Big Love”: “Singing about the sun lighting up the world, she spins around the stage spreading her arms like a blonde astronaut weightless in a capsule. The goggle-eyed audiences look as if they are watching the first lady to be orbited.”
At the time, Lee’s career was unprecedented. She had sold more than 20 million records in her two decades of recording music, and she attracted a large fanbase that was diverse in every possible way. Today, she would be 100 years old.
In spite of her hard work and good fortune, Peggy Lee was often plagued with profound unhappiness that sent her on a spiritual quest for inner peace.
After being discovered by Benny Goodman in the ’40s, “Miss Peggy Lee” sold her sultry jazz persona with hits like “Somebody Else Is Taking My Place,” “Why Don’t You Do Right?,” and “Fever.” She cut records at breakneck speed, arranging jazz standards and pop songs along with her own work. She starred in The Lady and the Tramp, a remake of The Jazz Singer, and Pete Kelly’s Blues, earning an Oscar nomination.
Although Lee’s music career had been a remarkable success — affording her a peach-interior mansion in Bel Air — the sensual singer struggled with a traumatic childhood and rocky relationships. In 1969, she released the song that would come to embody her career, the one in which she asked “Is That All There Is?”
The song tells about a young girl who sees “the whole world go up in flames” when her house catches fire, an experience Lee had been through herself. She had also lost her mother at a young age. When Peggy Lee went searching for answers to her life’s tragic questions, she went to Ernest Holmes and The Science of Mind.
Holmes was a leader in the metaphysical Religious Science movement. He encouraged its adherents to use positive intentions in order to conjure happiness. Holmes’s 1926 book, The Science of Mind, was a hit with other Hollywood luminaries too, like Cecil B. DeMille and Cary Grant. Lee became close with Holmes, consulting him often and even coming to affectionately call him “Papa,” according to James Gavin’s biography Is That All There Is? The Strange Life of Peggy Lee.
As Holmes wrote in the credo of his church, “We believe in the direct revelation of truth through our intuitive and spiritual nature, and that anyone may become a revealer of truth who lives in close contact with the indwelling God.” Gavin explains the appeal of Holmes’s hybrid religion: “For Lee, who already lived by the force of her imagination, Holmes’s edicts seemed heaven-sent, the confirmation of all she wished to believe.” She had been “looking for God” since her mother died when she was four years old.
Gavin’s biography paints a less-than-charitable picture of Peggy Lee, exposing her as a woman who was, “by all accounts, an alcoholic, a prescription-drug addict, a heavy smoker and a binge eater frequently out of touch with reality.” But no one could ever say she didn’t put in the work, or that she didn’t at least try to improve herself. In her conversation with Wheeler for the Post in 1964, Lee described her approach to spirituality and self-improvement, specifically recalling an evening with composer Cy Coleman in New York in which she guided him through a calming meditation, repeating the phrase “receiving and giving” to him over and over. “That’s what we have to do, all the time. Receiving and giving,” she said.
Her anthem “Is That All There Is?” might seem — on its face — to be a lamentation to “break out the booze and have a ball” in light of life’s disappointments, but she didn’t wish for it to be interpreted that way (at least, according to an interview she gave with Science of Mind magazine in 1987). Lee said that the title and chorus had a different meaning for her. She had moved the emphasis of the chorus from that to is to try to make the song into a hopeful affirmation: “To me, it was just the opposite. It said we go through one experience after another, some of them negative into a positive. We learn, grow stronger, can go on to new experiences because there is always more.”
Featured Image: Peggy Lee (Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)
It’s easy to play the “What If?” game in popular music. “What if John Lennon hadn’t died? “What if N.W.A. hadn’t broken up?” “What if MTV hadn’t happened in 1981?” “What if disco kept going?” Since 1997, music fans have asked “What If?” about Jeff Buckley. After a promising start, the young musician died in a tragic accident at the age of 30. He left behind one complete full-length album, Grace, that has only gained more acclaim in the years since his passing. This week marks the 25th anniversary of Grace and an all-too-brief glimpse of a talent that had more to offer.
Jeffrey Scott Buckley grew up in the shadow of music. His father, Tim Buckley, was a noted folk and jazz musician; the younger Buckley, raised as Scottie Moorhead by his mother and stepfather, met his biological father a single time when he was eight. By the next year, Tim Buckley was dead of an overdose. After his biological father’s death, Moorhead decided to go by his birth name. Buckley’s mother had raised him in music, as she herself was a classically trained cellist and pianist. He picked up the guitar at age five and learned to sing for his family. His stepfather introduced him to ’60s and ’70s rock, while Buckley gravitated to progressive rock and jazz on his own.
After high school and a year at the Musicians Institute in California, Buckley plied his trade across bands, backing gigs, and studio work, but never as lead singer. At age 23, he moved to New York for several months, expanding his palette of influences to punk and Robert Johnson-style blues. When his late father’s former manager, Herb Cohen, said he’d help the young artist get a demo together, Buckley returned to L.A. The result, Babylon Dungeon Sessions, contained four songs, including “Unforgiven” (which would morph over time into “Last Goodbye”). In 1991, Buckley made his solo debut at a tribute show for his father.
Buckley played for a bit with the band Gods and Monsters before striking out on his own, carving out regular gigs in NYC. He slowly built a fanbase that generated attention from record labels. Buckley eventually signed with Columbia Records in 1992. Live at Sin-é, a four song EP, was recorded and released in 1993. That same year, he put together a band to begin work on the project that would become Grace.
Legendary engineer and producer Andy Wallace, who had worked with everyone from Prince and Springsteen to Nirvana and Slayer, co-produced the album with Buckley. Grace ended up being a 10-song affair, featuring seven originals and three covers; the title song was released as the first single, with “Last Goodbye” as the second. The video for “Last Goodbye” was chosen as a Buzz Clip by MTV, earning heavy rotation for a time in 1994. Though reviews were generally positive, sales were slow. Buckley seemed destined to have a cult following.
However, buzz around the album continued to build. Celebrities like Brad Pitt and music legends like Jimmy Page spoke of the album and Buckley in glowing terms. Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” also began to leak into public awareness as it was singled out for praise in many reviews and started to attract the interest of Hollywood. Thought it wasn’t a hit out of the gate, sales for the record were steady, and anticipation for a new album began to build.
Sadly, that would never come to pass. He toured extensively for the next two years and worked with punk legend Patti Smith on her Gone Again album in 1996. During those sessions, he met Tom Verlaine, who had been the lead singer of Television. Buckley enlisted Verlaine to produce the new record and reconvened his band to rehearse his new material. Unfortunately, after a few recording attempts, Buckley wasn’t happy with the results; he contacted Wallace to replace Verlaine. Buckley sent the band on to NYC while he worked out the songs in Memphis.
The band returned on May 29, 1997. That night, Buckley went for a swim in Wolf River Harbor. The band’s roadie Keith Foti busied himself moving a guitar and radio back from the shore as a tugboat passed. When Foti looked back to the water, Buckley was gone. Search and rescue teams worked through the night, but Buckley’s body wasn’t found until June 4. The autopsy revealed no sign of drugs or alcohol, and his death was officially declared an accidental drowning.
In the wake of Buckley’s death, Grace went to achieve a totemic existence. His version of “Hallelujah” has been used in dozens of films and television shows, from The West Wing to NCIS. In 2014, Buckley’s cover was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry due to its artistic significance. Rolling Stone and VH1 include Grace in their lists of the Greatest Albums of All Time; it was also rated as the second favorite album in the entirety of Australia in the 2006 My Favourite Album special. Buckley is also enshrined in Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.
In 1998, most of Buckley’s remaining studio tracks and demos for the second album were compiled into Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk; The Onion’s AV Club accurately assessed that it was “frustratingly incomplete, but mostly remarkable.” The song “Everybody Here Wants You” was released as a single and nominated for a Grammy for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance in 1999. It’s mainly a snapshot of unfulfilled promise. Today, new audiences continue to discover Buckley through Grace and “Hallelujah,” which has continued to chart digitally throughout the 2000s. We’ll never know what Buckley might have accomplished, but his literal last goodbye left music that will be appreciated for years.
Bronx-born Henry Anton Steig was a textbook Renaissance man. As a saxophonist, painter, cartoonist, writer, astronomer, and jeweler, the man of many talents was sewn into much of 20th-Century iconography without ever becoming a household name. His fiction appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, and Collier’s, he worked with songwriter Johnny Mercer in Hollywood, and his Manhattan jewelry shop even played the background of Marilyn Monroe’s iconic subway grate scene in The Seven Year Itch. His story “Bwah-Wahdi-Dough” is a swinging New Year’s Eve affair with a complicated love triangle bursting with colorful city dialect.
Published on January 9, 1937
In the hallway of the apartment house, Harry Tack looked himself over carefully, brushed a bit of lint off the velvet collar of his form-fitting topcoat, and then rang the bell marked “Smith.” The door was opened by one who, he had decided, was a very cute number; not much over five feet tall — just about right for his own five-six — slimly and gracefully curved in a very special way, and with large dark eyes and amber-colored hair.
“Hello, Harry,” she said.
“Hi, Sue.” Harry followed her into the apartment.
Susan introduced him to her parents. They were in the kitchen, Mr. Smith reading, and Mrs. Smith knitting, and Harry was thankful that they remained there when Susan took him into the living room. He sat down in an easy chair, carefully putting some slack in his trousers first, and Susan sat opposite him on a couch.
“Must be nice having a night off from the trumpet,” she said.
“Oh, I never get tired of the piston,” Harry said. “I wouldn’t mind playin’ it every night ’na week, except when I got sumpm extra out of the ordinary on, like tanight.”
“Do you like clubbing better than steady work?” Susan asked, having acknowledged the compliment with a smile.
“Yeah, fra while, anyhow. Bill Devoe’s band’s got a pretty big rep, and Miller’s a good agent, so we’re kept on the go. It’s nice woik and we get it; fun playin’ to a different crowd every time. And with the Honeybunny hour twice a week and groovin’ plates for the Phonodisk Company, everybody’s happy far as dough’s concerned. How about you? Hodda you like clubbin’?”
“I’ve given up the idea of becoming an opera star,” Susan said regretfully, “so I have to like it. Trouble is, clubbing’s not very dependable.”
“I wouldn’t worry if I was you. Miller likes your woik, and you got a good contact with our band. It was just last week he started bookin’ you, wasn’t it? And you played two dates with us awready. That ain’t bad. ‘Fcourse, not everybody wantsa pay for extra entertainment outside of the band, but I wouldn’ be surprised if you knock off three dates a week on the average. And after a while maybe you’ll catch a wire too.”
“Radio would help a lot. Do you really think there’s a chance?”
“Well, there’s lotsa woiss singers than you on the air.”
That didn’t sound at all complimentary, and it made Susan involuntarily lift her eyebrows. Being informed, after some years of study, that her voice wasn’t big enough for opera or for the concert stage had made her somewhat unsure of herself. Looks, she knew, counted in this new work she was doing; she was not unaware of her attractiveness and of the obvious possibility that it colored people’s opinion of her as an artist. She wanted to be rated solely on ability. She had met Harry only twice, when she had worked with the band, and had talked to him for but a few minutes each time. When he had asked, simply, if he might come to see her, she had acquiesced, because she had immediately been attracted by his earnest manner and his frank, boyish smile, and because it was refreshing not to be subjected to the overture of wisecracks which she had come to believe to be a fixed Broadway custom. Harry seemed to be the sort who would be honest with her. She was a bit apprehensive of what his opinion might be, but, nevertheless, she took the plunge.
“Harry,” she said, “you’re an experienced dance musician, you’ve heard lots of singers of popular songs and you ought to know a lot about it. Tell me, do you like the way I put my songs over?”
“Well, look, kid,” Harry began, deliberatingly. “Do you want the oil or the real lowdown?”
“I want you to say what you really think, of course!”
Harry lit a cigarette, realizing that he had already committed himself to some sort of criticism. Well, Susan seemed really to want to know the truth, and he decided that it would be kinder to give her a good steer rather than the meaningless raves to which she was probably accustomed.
“Awright,” he said, “the lowdown. Here it is: You got a nice sweet paira pipes. And the voice does sumpm to the customers; otherwise, even though you are a cute package, Miller wouldn’ keep on bookin’ you. But there’s a million dames with good looks and nice straight voices. Some of ‘em even get inta the big dough. So what?”
“Well, the point is you’re woikin’ with a swing outfit. Whyncha try to loin sumpm about swing?”
“But I’m not a trumpeter or a saxophonist. I’m a singer.”
“Why, there’s lots of difference.”
“But there shouldn’ oughta be! A singer oughta think of ’erself like one of the instruments, specially when she’s woikin’ with a band. Why do singers hafta be corny? Odduv every thousand there’s maybe one — like Connie Boswell — who’s got the real mmph — you know what I mean — the real bounce, the real shake. The rest of ’m, well, insteada puttin’ a riff in where it belongs, they shake their elbows or their hips, or they say ‘hi-dee-hi,’ as if it was the woids insteada the notes that counts. ’Fcourse, the old poissonality hasta be there, and it’s much more important with a dame who’s singin’ than with a musician. But it gets me sore the way they fool the customers. Spose, when I had a solo, I jumped up and began wigglin’ around and playin’ icky — would that make me a ride man? Not by a long shot. Then why do they call a singer hot when all she’s got is a figger and maybe a cute way of flashin’ ’er lamps?”
“What would you want me to do — imitate Connie Boswell?”
“You could do woiss. Butcha don’t hafta imitate ’er. Study ’er stuff and get the feelin’ for it. And then you can start puttin’ your own stuff in. You don’t hear me imitatin’ anybody, do you? Inna beginning, I got all my stuff from Red Nichols and Louie Armstrong and a coupla others, and then, when I got kinda soaked in it — it got all mixed up, sorta, inside of me — it began comin’ out more and more different and original alla time.” Harry was getting excited. He looked hopefully at Susan, but sensed that there wasn’t much rapport between them on the subject. “I don’t know if I’m puttin’ myself across, kid. It’s hard to say what I mean, except on the horn.”
“I think I understand,” Susan said doubtfully.
“You hafta wanna give,” Harry said. “You hafta wanna get off on it, like Cab Calloway or the Mills Brothers.”
Susan stared at him perplexedly. The swing temperament, to her, was unfathomable. Swing musicians, as a group, were all very queer. They laughed at the strangest things; always seemed to be enjoying among themselves a joke the point of which outsiders couldn’t get at all. They belonged to a distinctive sect and appeared to be aware of it. Perhaps their attitude of lightheartedness was due, in. part, to the fact that they didn’t know what work — in the sense that her father, for example, pushing a plane and a saw all day, understood it — really meant. Their work was the happiest kind of play. No wonder they couldn’t be serious about anything. Perhaps Harry was different from the others in that respect. But she doubted that any subject — no matter how important — but swing music could inspire in him the intense enthusiasm, the almost religious fervor with which he had been talking.
“Look, Sue,” Harry said in desperation. “I can see I didn’t make it click yet. Forget about everything I told you and come over here to the piano.” He sat down at the baby grand. Susan stood at the upper end of the keyboard, facing him. “Now, I ain’t got much of a voice,” he said, “but I know how it oughta be done and I got enough control to give you some samples. Foist we’ll take one of the fundamental get-offs. In the old days it was ‘doo-wackadoo.’ Now it’s ‘bwah-wandi-dough,’ with a hotter swing. Get me?” Harry struck some simple chords. “Now sing. Bwah-wahdi-dough.”
Susan felt very silly. She blushed, swallowed a few times, and then sang the syllables.
“Again,” Harry said.
She sang them again and several more times.
“You don’t get the accent right,” said Harry. “Step on the ‘di,’ but cut it short.”
He demonstrated once more. Susan repeated it, but it still lacked fire.
“Well, I can see that don’t click either,” Harry said. “But maybe it will if I give you a longer phrase to hang on to. Here: Bwah-wahdi-dough. Mbee-mbah-mboodi … No, no. When you get to the sounds beginning with b, make your lips spring open — blow ’em open — it should be like a series of liddle explosions, and the mm’s tie ’em together.”
Susan, though anxious to learn, still didn’t get it. She stood there, doing things with her lips like a silly goldfish — but a very beautiful goldfish — until Harry began to forget about the lesson. He was debating whether to do to those lips what seemed, at the moment, had to be done, but just as he leaned toward her, there was a “Grmph” from the doorway. Mr. Smith was standing there.
“Pardon me,” he said, “but is there something wrong? Mrs. Smith was worried. Asked me to find out what those strange noises were. And I must admit I was a bit alarmed too.”
Harry and Susan looked at each other and burst into laughter.
“We’re laughing at ourselves, dad,” Susan explained. “Harry is just trying to teach me something about shake music.”
“Oh, I see,” said Mr. Smith, as he withdrew. But it was quite plain that he didn’t “see” at all.
“Try those b sounds again,” Harry said, standing up and facing Susan. This time he didn’t care in the least whether she did it right or not. As soon as she had pursed up her round, ripe, cherry-red lips, he pounced at them with his own. She drew back, but not quickly enough to make the frown which followed appear consistent.
“Gee, Sue, I hope you don’t think the whole thing was just a gag,” Harry said. “That wasn’t part of the lesson. I just couldn’t help it. Honest, I couldn’t. Are you angry?”
He was so palpably contrite, Sue’s frown vanished.
“Of course, I’m angry,” she said. And then she smiled, because she had to admit to herself that it wasn’t true.
Harry went home with two previously formed opinions strongly confirmed. First, that Susan was a knockout. But second, that, as far as swing was concerned, she just didn’t have what it takes. It was difficult to explain that to her. Everybody was talking about swing, but very few knew what it meant. There had been a time when it annoyed him that people insisted on thinking they did know. But not now anymore. He had learned that the most one could hope for was a few sincere appreciators. There were always the members of the band, of course, and once in a long, long while, an outsider. You could easily tell, looking over a crowd of dancers, which ones you were really reaching. The rhythm got all of them — that was fundamental — but it was just one or two couples who usually kept near the bandstand while they danced, straining their ears for the pretty little subtleties of swing music, who really “felt” it. You could see them respond — with a grin, a jerk of the head, a sudden quick step — to that funny scream on the clarinet, the bubbly gliss on the trombone, the metallic hiss of muted cymbals in a cleverly inserted beat between embellishments of the solo instruments. And when the dance was over and the dancers stood, panting and applauding, on the floor, you caught the eye of one of them, perhaps, and it was like a precious secret between you. The others would never know, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. One either had the gift for appreciation — it seemed as rare, almost, as the gift for creating hot music — or one had not. Susan happened to be one of those who had not. Perhaps it would have been better not to have started it at all — this business of singing hot. She had been getting along nicely without it. Why get her all upset and dissatisfied with herself about it? And who was he to try to meddle with the intangibles of personality and temperament? Better to leave things as they had been. She was a wonderful kid and he was in love with her. When that and the promise in her smile after the stolen kiss were considered, swing seemed of very little importance.
But Harry’s decision not to meddle further with Susan’s singing technique had been reached without consulting Susan. Her interest aroused, she begged for further coaching. Harry would have liked to take her places, but she wanted to stay at home and practice singing, and he had to consent. So the coaching went on, without any sign of improvement in Susan’s style. Until one night, Harry, made irritable by her insistence on singing when he wanted to hold her in his arms and talk about the future, lost patience.
“Oh, what’s the use, Sue?” he said, after a half hour’s repetition of some simple hot phrases which Susan made sound very chilly. “You ain’t got it and you never will get it. Sorry I ever brought it up.”
“But I thought I was doing pretty well,” Susan said, very disappointed.
“That’s the hell of it,” Harry tried to explain. “It’s like a trumpet I once knew. He was a good paper man — went as far as anyone could, just readin’ the spots — but there wasn’t a real hot note in his whole getup. He should’a’ known it, but, like you, he didn’t. All of a sudden he got the notion that he was a sender, and he began tryin’ to play gut-bucket. Bought ’imself all kindsa tricky mutes, wasted a lot of rough tone, and it didn’t mean a thing. He thought he was a second Bix Beiderbecke and nobody could tell ’im anything different. It was awright when he played straight — there’s a place for straight men in this racket — but his sposed-to-be hot stuff was so sad that it took the bounce out of every band he woiked with. He got to be such a pain that none of the leaders would give ’im a job. And still he wasn’ convinced — thought the whole world had it in for ’im. Well, now he’s with a long-underwear gang, all cornfeds, like him; sorta hypnotized theirselves inta thinkin’ they know the way to town. He gets along somehow, but would you wanna be like that? Havin’ people who really know what’s what laughin’ at you? Take my advice and forget what I tried to teach you and go back to the straight stuff.”
Susan had tried so hard! She recalled the last time she had sung with the band. After one of her numbers, she had looked to Harry for encouragement, but all she got was a sad smile, sympathetic, but one which told her plainly that she was as far as ever from attaining what he had tried to teach her. Now she felt hurt, humiliated, and angry.
“Maybe you’re right,” she said. “I always thought it was vulgar, anyway. All that noise and blah — cheap!”
Harry didn’t like having the art form to which he was devoting himself spoken of in that way.
“If that’s the way you feel about it — noise and blah, cheap and vulgar — why dincha stick to grand opera in the foist place?” he said. “You should be at the Metropolitan at least.”
Susan was very touchy about her former aspirations. “Cheap and vulgar,” she spitefully repeated. “That’s what it is — and lowbrow!”
“Galli-Curci speaking!” Harry scoffed.
That was too much for Susan.
“Good night, Mr. Tack!” Susan said stiffly.
Harry stood up, straightening out all of his sixty-six inches. “Foist, sour grapes, and now a crack at my name. That ain’t cheap, I spose! Well, lemme tell you, there’s been some tremendous shots in the Tack family. That name’s got class. It ain’t corny — like ‘Smith,’ f’rinstance!”
Susan began to splutter, but that didn’t stop Harry from grabbing up his hat and coat and stamping out of the house.
The next time Susan sang with the band, she completely ignored him, and at the end of the evening she went home with Bill Devoe, the leader. Harry told himself that she was only trying to make him jealous, punish him. They’d make up, somehow. They had to — why, he had been on the point of proposing to her! Surely she knew how much he cared for her, in spite of the stupid quarrel they’d had. But Susan continued to let Bill take her home, night after night, and Harry began to upbraid himself for having lost his temper. He should have remained cool and polite, and then she would have had no justification for her coldness toward him. He wanted to talk to her, to apologize — if only she would meet him part way, so that he wouldn’t have to feel that he was forcing himself upon her — but she continued, stubbornly, to ignore him. Well, he wouldn’t try anymore, he decided. She’d have to be the first to talk now. He could be just as stubborn as she.
One night after a job, while the boys were packing their instruments, he caught Archie Wallenhoffer, the pianist, staring at Susan as she went out of the hall, arm in arm, as usual, with Bill Devoe. Archie was a big pudgy mopy fellow whom, it seemed, nothing could stir up except a hot tune. Harry somehow had never imagined Archie in love, but he realized now that the state of his own heart had not increased his awareness of what was going on around him. How could any man help falling for Sue?
“You too?” he said to Archie.
Archie sadly nodded. “How about a good old bender?”
Harry thought that a good suggestion, so they went downtown to a certain little place they knew and got thoroughly cockeyed.
“What chance do we stand,” Archie asked, “when Bill’s nuts about ’er?”
Harry, in a more sober state, might have considered the “we” presumptuous. Even now it seemed a bit too familiar. But as one who had been rejected, he couldn’t protest, even though it did make the whole affair something less than exclusive.
“Bill’s got everything a dame wants,” Archie went on. “Looks, dough and fame. And we’re just a coupla musicians — a dime a dozen.”
“Guess there’s only one thing for us to do,” Harry said. “You keep slappin’ the keys and I’ll keep ridin’ the piston, and we’ll both try to forget about ’er.”
This newly adopted philosophy of resignation, however, helped neither of them. Because it would have been difficult to forget a girl like Susan without seeing her two or three times a week. The one way out seemed to be to quit the band and seek a berth elsewhere. It was a hard thing to do. Harry had known the boys for a long time and they were the best friends he had. But Archie liked the idea, and it seemed easier to carry out when there were two of them. They decided to wait until New Year’s Eve, which was only a few days off. The band had an important engagement that night. For Harry and Archie it would be a sort of farewell party.
Early in the clear cold evening of the thirty-first of December there stood on a midtown corner a small built-to-order bus which had lettered on its sleek shiny outside, “Bill Devoe and His Club Orchestra.” The boys frequently played at homes and clubs in the suburbs, and the agent had decided that, musicians generally not being the most reliable people in the world, a private conveyance would save him a lot of last-minute headaches. Of course, there was no assurance that none of them would never miss the bus, but it was much more certain than having them travel as they pleased. Besides, the bus was a good advertisement.
Inside it were all the members of the band but the leader.
“I hope Bill gets here pretty quick with that broad,” said Al, one of the saxophonists. “It’s cold sittin’ still like this.”
Archie gave Al a dirty look. “Someday,” the pianist slowly said, “you’ll gedda good paste on the puss and maybe you’ll loin that not all dames is ‘broads.’”
“Why, Archie boy, is she got you sunk too?” Al asked.
The others all laughed, and Archie thought it best not to carry the subject any further. Harry didn’t say a word. He understood Archie’s chivalrous gesture and sympathized with it, but he was also inwardly amused by it. Another bus carrying a load of entertainers pulled up at the curb behind them. Then Bill and Susan arrived, and both buses started off uptown.
“Never too soon,” Al said, taking a flask out of his pocket.
But Bill stopped him. “Put that away! We got a job to do, New Year’s Eve or no New Year’s Eve. There’ll be enough of that later on. I want you boys to be able to toe the mark — at least until the customers don’t know the difference anymore.”
“Kinda dumb, anyhow, bringin’ your own along,” one of the men pointed out to Al. “Don’tcha think the Burgess crowd’ll take care of that?”
The Burgess home, a million-dollar estate, was forty miles out of town, in the hills. Old Man Burgess, it was said, owned most of the hills too.
The bus rolled steadily along, its chained wheels, echoed by those of the bus following it, clicking against the cleared strip of concrete between endless snow banks. Harry and Archie were slumped down in a rear seat, their knees against the back of the seat in front of them, their hats pushed forward over their noses. They tried not to stare too much at Susan, who sat in the front part of the bus, talking with Bill and the others near her. Frequently her laughter tinkled through the car. She seemed to be enjoying herself.
Al unpacked his clarinet.
“How ’bout you, Harry?” he asked. “C’mon, take out the plumbing.”
Al and Harry, it was conceded, were the best swingsters in the band. But Harry wasn’t swinging now.
“Sorry,” he said. “But I ain’t in the mood. Don’t expect anything but corn outa me tanight.”
“Corn, on New Year’s Eve? Wanna break my heart? Say it ain’t so!” Al pleaded, and he blew a high run on his clarinet.
Harry saw Susan turn around and glance at him; it seemed, from her thoughtful expression, that she was going to say something to him, but she quickly turned away. It gave him hope, but only for a moment. “Probably accidental,” he thought. “She didn’t mean to look at me at all.”
The trombonist and the guitarist took out their instruments and joined Al. The three of them played and the others sang, laughed and joked. All but Harry and Archie.
“Don’tchoo guys realize it’s New Year’s Eve?” Al said. He got up and went to the back of the bus and blew his clarinet at them. “Smadda with you two boids, anyhow?”
“Lay off!” Archie angrily whispered. “‘Beat it!”
Taken aback by the fierce tone — it wasn’t like Archie to get sore at anybody — Al shrugged his shoulders and rejoined the merrymakers at the front of the car.
The evening was still young when the buses pulled into the driveway of the Burgess estate, but several young people, obviously intent on a good time and as much of it as possible, met them at the entrance to the huge house and gave them a wild loud welcome. They were ushered into a ballroom whose size and splendor made them think for a moment that they were in a swanky hotel. Soon they had unpacked, arranged themselves on the platform at one end of the room, and started a dance number.
By ten o’clock, the ballroom was pretty well filled. It was a gay crowd, the holiday spirit was contagious, and Harry gradually lost himself in the music and began doing justice to his trumpet. Archie, too, couldn’t help swinging in good style. At eleven, the entertainers took part in a previously rehearsed floor show, night-club fashion. There was a chorus of dancers, some comedians, a quartet, and some solo numbers. After that their work was done and the entertainers mixed with the crowd. It was as much their party as the guests’. Susan, though, continued working with the band, singing a chorus or two, now and then.
At midnight there was a tremendous din. The guests blew whistles and horns, rang bells, cheered, shouted, yelled and generally conducted themselves as was considered seemly for the first few minutes of the new year. The band played Auld Lang Syne, everybody got a bit maudlin, and then, with the help of servants who were constantly making the rounds with loaded trays for those who were too lazy to help themselves from the side tables, things began gradually to disintegrate.
At about 2:30, the additive effect of the many little sips between dances were beginning to tell on Harry. He sat in a corner near the bandstand with a glass in his hand, wondering whether he had had enough to drink. More, he decided, couldn’t make him any more miserable than he already was. He contemplated the color of the liquid in the glass, preparatory to tossing it off — just like Susan’s hair it was when the light caught it — and then Bill tapped him on the shoulder. Bill had been drinking too.
“Snap odduvit, Harry,” he said unsteadily. “We ain’t played a number in about a half hour. And we can’t find Archie. C’mon, help me find Archie.”
All the men in the band engaged in a search, and finally Archie was discovered where no one had thought to look for him — on the bandstand under the piano, asleep. Bill angrily reprimanded him.
“Whaddaya mean, bawlin’ me out?” Archie complained as they got him to his feet. “Wasn’ I here alla time, ready for woik? ’At’s me, Johnny onna spot!”
When the band was ready to begin, Harry suddenly got a bad chill and began to shiver.
“Hold it a minute, fellas,” he said, getting up and going into the anteroom. When he returned, he was dressed in overcoat, muffler, hat, spats and gloves.
“O.K. Now we can start,” he said, and flopped into his chair.
“Quit clownin’,” Bill said, angrily. “You’re spoilin’ the looks of the band. Whaddaya think we’re wearin’ monkey suits for?”
“But I got a chill, I tellya. Want me to catch cold and die?”
“We don’t start till you take those extra duds off!”
“Suits me!” Harry put his trumpet in his lap, folded his arms, leaned back and closed his eyes.
“You’re fired!” Bill said in a rage.
Harry opened his eyes, looked at Bill and began to guffaw. He turned to Archie. “Hear that, Arch? I’m fired!” and he laughed more loudly than ever, Archie joining in.
“Awright, wise guy; you’re fired too!” Bill said to Archie. “You’re both through after tanight.”
Now both Harry and Archie laughed quite insanely. But meanwhile people were demanding music, and Bill had to surrender to Harry’s whim. He raised his baton, brought it down and the band began to play, but he lost his balance and almost fell off the platform. Someone gave him a chair. He led sitting down for the rest of the dance.
Susan, standing on the bandstand while she waited for the beginning of a chorus she was to sing, looked around her in distress. She had seen some gay parties, but none before nearly so bacchanalian in spirit as this one. Only a dozen couples of the, hundred or so present were dancing. The others were gathered in noisy groups about the ballroom and in the corridors and on the glass-enclosed terrace which encircled the house. In the center of the ballroom floor, some men were trying to find out how many chairs could be placed one on the other without toppling, and three or four girls in the group were excitedly shrieking, in anticipation of a crash. The behavior of some of the other girls could hardly have been considered decorous. Susan felt very lonesome.
At the end of the dance, Bill remained in the chair from which he had conducted the band. His face was on his chest and his arms hung limply at his sides. The baton had slipped out of his fingers. His bow tie was undone. Susan stood studying Bill with her chin in her hand. She saw Harry, out of the corner of her eye, wander away from the bandstand, out on to the terrace. She looked at Bill again. Not very attractive when he was drunk. And what a nasty disposition — firing two of his men! Harry was drunk too. But they said a man’s true nature showed itself when he was drunk, and Harry hadn’t been mean, like Bill, at all. Just childish. And perhaps she was partly to blame. She had seen that sad pleading look in his eyes more than once, during the last week or two, when she had been sure that he didn’t know she was looking at him. And on the bus — she had wanted to say something then, just a few words, anything, to let him know she wanted to talk to him. But with Bill there, and the others, she hadn’t been able to. And all this evening he had seemed unapproachable. But what else could she expect, the way she had treated him? And now, Harry, poor boy, was ill. She felt she was to blame for that.
Harry found a comfortable divan between some potted shrubs in a quiet corner of the terrace toward the back of the house, and stretched himself out in it. He was sobering up, but he felt dizzy, weak and extremely-depressed. “Nobody loves me,” he hummed sadly. He sat there, staring out from under the brim of his hat into the cold blue hills for what seemed a long time, and then he heard footsteps.
“Harry?” a soft feminine voice came from behind the shrubs.
“Harry?” he heard again, as if in a dream, and Susan stood before him. She seemed worried and embarrassed.
Harry’s chill left him. He hastily removed his hat, muffler and gloves.
“We hafta play again?” he stammered, not knowing what else to say.
“No. It’s after four and the crowd’s thinning out. Mrs. Burgess is putting us up for the rest of the night. There’s plenty of room, and the girls thought it safer to wait here.”
“That’s interesting. But I think I’ll stay right here and watch the sun come up.”
It would be a beautiful sunrise over those snow-covered hills, Susan thought. And how nice it would be to watch it with Harry. He was looking questioningly at her.
“Well?” he said.
The light was dim, but Harry thought he saw her face flush.
“Why did you laugh like that when Bill said you were fired?” she blurted out.
“Really wanna know? Well, you see, Archie and I were gawna tell Bill, before the night was over, that we’re quittin’. Somehow we never got around to it, though, and when he told us we were fired, it struck us funny, ’specially because we were both kinda high, I spose. Now we don’t hafta tell ’im.”
“But Bill was high too. He didn’t mean it. And by tomorrow he’ll forget all about it. He’d never let you and Archie go if he could help it. You’re both too good.”
“Nice of you to say so. But I was gawna quit anyhow, don’tcha see?”
“Oh, there’s reasons. But look, Babe; does it make any difference?”
Susan pouted and looked at the floor. Harry tried to stand up, groaned and fell back on to the divan. Susan quickly bent over him.
“What’s the matter, Harry? Are you ill? I — I’ll bring you some hot coffee.”
“Naw, I don’ want any coffee, thanks. Sit down here and tell me what this is all about.”
Susan sat down next to Harry. Then Archie appeared.
“I thought so, pal. Seems like our deal is off,” Archie said, looking at them tragically. “But, well, I can’t blame you. Trumpets always was lucky stiffs. But pianists — ” He sadly shook his head. Then he smiled, as if something funny had suddenly occurred to him. “Well, pardon me for bargin’ in. Guess I’ll go find Bill and laugh some more at ’im. A good long laugh. He must be comin’ to by now.” Giggling in anticipation, Archie hurried away.
“Didja know Archie was groggy aboutcha?” Harry said.
“I wondered what he meant! No, I didn’t suspect it at all. He never said a word.”
“Tough on ’im. They don’t come any better than Archie. But let’s get back to us. Foist of all, what about Bill?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all. I thought I liked him. But going with him didn’t mean anything. Really it didn’t.”
“And where do I come in? Why the sudden thaw?”
Susan played with a decoration on her gown, avoiding Harry’s eyes. She didn’t know what to say. Couldn’t begin to put into words what she felt. Didn’t Harry realize that she had been fond of him all along? He wasn’t being helpful in the least, silently sitting there, waiting for an answer to his last question.
From inside the ballroom came the sound of blue, yet-not-unhappy piano music. Subconsciously, Harry began tapping his foot. Susan found herself tapping hers too. Then Harry reached for her hand and held it. That made it easier. “Fond,” she suddenly decided, was a very weak word. A deliciously ecstatic warmth crept over her, and all at once she knew what to do. She sang:
“Bwah-wahdi-dough. Mbee-mbah-mboodi.” This time it was very, very hot, and she went on from there with some stuff — it seemed to come out by itself — that even Harry had never heard before. He must have understood what she was trying to tell him because he didn’t let her sing much more, but interrupted with an invitation to a clinch which she accepted willingly — even eagerly, it might be said.
It turned out to be quite a sunrise.
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.
In 1926, Paul Whiteman, “the King of Jazz,” and Mary Margaret McBride contributed a three-part series to the Post simply called “Jazz.” You can read extensive excerpts from the first part in last week’s posting, “Paul Whiteman Builds His Jazz Orchestra.” [link]
Part II, excerpted below, picks up where Part I left off, with Whiteman taking his orchestra on its first European tour. He then gives readers his behind-the-scenes look at what has come to be known as a defining event of the Jazz Age, 1924’s “An Experiment in Modern Music,” Whiteman’s all-jazz concert in Manhattan’s Aeolian Hall and the first public performance of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
Whiteman then ends this part of his series discussing the history of jazz, what jazz really is, and jazz’s relationship to classical music.
This article was published online to mark National Jazz Appreciation Month. As the month progresses, you’ll be able to read more of the Post’s historical stories from and about important jazz musicians in “Jazz History by Men Who Made It.”
Jazz, Part II
By Paul Whiteman and Mary Margaret McBride
Originally published on March 6, 1926
I was risking $18,000 of my own money by taking my orchestra to Europe, and in spite of the fabulous salary the newspapers credited me with receiving, that much ready cash looked mighty big to me, especially as I had got married in New York and was learning what it costs a lady to shop on Fifth Avenue. The moment our ship dropped anchor in Liverpool it seemed that my premonition had not been groundless. Our coming had been heralded, and the British Ministry of Labor was waiting for us. We had been engaged to play in Brighter London, a revue, at the Hippodrome, and the matter of labor permits had, of course, been attended to. In spite of this, the Ministry of Labor thought we had better not land.
We were finally allowed to set foot on English soil, but we were told that we would not be allowed to play, so to speak, in English air. The matter became, in a way, international. We cabled our own Secretary of Labor to help us out, and the politico-legal tangle became more than jazzy. England objected to us, as far as I could make out, on the ground that if American jazz was once heard in England, tens of thousands of English musicians, unable to play it, would be thrown out of employment. Our success was taken for granted, which was flattering, and I could only hope that the belief was based on the fact that some member or members of the Ministry of Labor had heard us play. But flattery wasn’t much comfort if we were to be sent home, unheard in England.
At length we were given permission to play in Brighter London, but were denied the right to take the orchestra to any of the nightclubs. Finally, in order that we might not be competing against English players, we were compelled to employ as many of them as there were American members of the orchestra. The labor authorities tried to insist that the Englishmen sit with my orchestra, but I convinced them that this could not be done. I put them on the pay roll, however, and did my best to train them in jazz. Eventually the last difficulty with the commission was adjusted, and we were no longer quarantined in Brighter London.
The experience had been very expensive in money, and in time and effort, but it was interesting in one way. Although I did my best to train those English musicians, and some of them were very willing to work, I never could graft any real feeling for jazz into the English mind. English people went mad about it, and many took it more seriously as an art than Americans had, but it remained always foreign to them. They appreciated it, but when it came to teaching them to play it, it was like making a Russian dancer out of a Pavlowa fan.
Oddly enough, the English musicians whom I tried to train combined a hidehound adherence to stereotyped forms with an extreme impatience of discipline. They wanted to learn, but they wouldn’t stand the grind and they wouldn’t take orders with any cheerfulness. They didn’t understand American jazz at all, anyway. They were good musicians; they could read music and play it, too, but they lacked inventiveness; they couldn’t originate and they couldn’t let go and feel the jazz rhythms.
Trying to Jazz Up the British
As to inventiveness, I remember one day asking an English musician, “Can you ad lib?” Perhaps I should mention that ad lib is a jazz musical term meaning to improvise, to invent as you go along.
“Certainly,” he answered, considerably nettled. “I can ad lib anything.”
“Then do it,” I requested.
“All right. You write something for me to ad lib,” he agreed.
Orchestra leaders used to come to our rehearsals, bringing their men, and we were glad to show them what we could. They played beautifully, too, so long as they could imitate. Give them a perfectly scored jazz orchestration and they could do it so well that it sounded like the real thing. But when it came to originating, they fell down.
There was plenty of opposition to us, even apart from the labor trouble.
“Why should a man check his mentality with his hat at the door?” inquired a distinguished British organist, when somebody tried to bring him to hear us play at supper. And he felt as many did.
We had a good time in London, though, and after they got over their prejudices, some of the Londoners seemed to like us. Certainly we liked them. I was especially fond of their bathtubs, the biggest I’ve ever seen, and their bobbies [police officers] that are bigger still. One day I saw a huge bobby calmly lift one of those tiny English cars right out of the road when it came farther than he directed it should.
Our orchestra played at Grafton Galleries every evening after the performance at the Hippodrome, and often we were honored by the patronage of the Prince of Wales. The first time I saw H.R.H., however, was about a week after we landed. True to his promise, Lord Mountbatten gave a party for the Prince and asked us to play. There were just 32 guests at Brook House, the Mountbattens’ home, all related to the throne, and it was the nicest party I ever went to.
There was no swank and no ostentation. The guests were all cordial, simple people who knew how to enjoy themselves like gentlefolk.
The Prince was already there when I went into the room, but I was so nervous that I could hardly see him. I had a bad attack of stage fright and told Lord Mountbatten so.
“What on earth will I call him — I mean how shall I address him?” I asked.
Lord Mountbatten turned and stared rather disappointedly at me. He is such a democratic, unassuming chap himself that I never worried about getting on with him. Now he seemed absolutely disgusted with me. He had evidently thought me above such pettiness as kowtowing to rank.
“Why, you aren’t a British subject,” he pointed out. “How do you address anybody else? Just be natural!”
I hope I was, but if I wasn’t at first, I know I quickly got that way, for the Prince put me instantly at ease with some comment about his interest in the orchestra of which he had heard so much.
I saw him many times after that evening. Often we played for parties he or somebody gave at private houses, and whenever he wanted me, instead of sending an equerry [royal attendant] to “command” my presence, he came himself and asked in friendly fashion if it would be convenient for us to play.
We never accepted any pay from him. He insisted upon it many times, but I told him we came to London mostly to play for him and considered it honor enough to have that privilege. As a host he was perfect. The first night we played for him I caught my drummer rushing out of the house hatless.
“What on earth’s the matter?” I asked, startled.
“I want to go cable my old dad that the Prince of Wales served me champagne with his own hands!” he shouted.
What with the Prince and all, we enjoyed London immensely; but soon the boys and I were feeling that we’d like to be turning toward home. We had some good propositions to stay in London, and a group of capitalists in Paris offered to build a theater for us if we would come over there. But we had been working hard for a long time on an enterprise that was close to my heart, and I needed New York to try it out. We were all the time testing and discarding, endeavoring to get volume with the instruments we had, and trying also for harmony and sweetness. We weren’t quite ready for the experiment I wanted, yet dreaded, to spring, but I thought we needed the American atmosphere even for rehearsals. So we sailed back again. And do you know, it was quite as I had dreamed but not really dared to hope it might be. New York received us with open arms, gave us a great reception, as if we’d been distinguished foreigners coming on a visit.
We caught sight of Liberty and of airplanes filled with bands almost at the same moment. They serenaded us from the air, from the water and from land. The Mayor sent a representative down the bay in a launch to meet us, and so did the police department.
With Honor in His Own Country
That night at the Waldorf, they gave us a dinner, with speeches by all sorts of celebrities. There was even a gold crown presented by the musical industries to hail me as king of jazz. It was a very heavy crown, and silly, I suppose — an exaggeration, but an exaggeration that came from people capable of affectionate rejoicing in a comrade’s good fortune. So when they asked me for a response, I found the tears were rolling down my cheeks.
It is a great thing after a struggle to find success and appreciation. For a moment I forgot any cynicism I had felt about the false value of the European label in America. Cynicism doesn’t take deep root with Americans anyway. I only felt happy, touched, almost overcome. It seemed to me then that everybody understood me, that my orchestra was a real success, that there was nothing in the future but sunshine and roses. Yet even at that minute I didn’t forget that we had come home to do bigger things in jazz than had ever been done before, if we could.
Visions of playing a jazz concert in what a critic has called the “perfumed purlieus” of Aeolian Hall used to rouse me up at night in a cold perspiration. Sometimes a nightmare depicted me being borne out of the place on a rail, and again, I dreamed the doors were all but clattering down with the applause.
That’s the way I lived during waking hours, too, all the time I was planning the Aeolian Hall experiment — alternating between extremes of dire fear and exultant confidence. We began to rehearse for the concert as soon as we came back from England. The idea struck nearly everybody as preposterous at the start. Some hold to the same opinion still. But the list of pessimists was a little shorter, I believe, when at 5:30, on the afternoon of February 12, 1924, we took our fifth curtain call.
“What! An all-jazz concert?” one of my best friends, a musician, shouted when I confided my plan to him in strictest secrecy. “Why, my boy, it simply can’t be done. You mustn’t try it. It would ruin you! You have your future and your reputation to think of. So far you’ve been getting on splendidly with your dance music and if you watch your step you will undoubtedly be able to put away a good smart sum while the vogue lasts. But a jazz concert! Honestly, my boy, I think you are a bit crazy. Be guided by me in this and you will never regret it!”
Invading the Sacred Precincts
My idea for the concert was to show these skeptical people the advance which had been made in popular music from the day of discordant early jazz to the melodious form of the present. I believed that most of them had grown so accustomed to condemning the “Livery Stable Blues” type of thing that they went on flaying modern jazz without realizing that it was different from the crude early attempts — that it had taken a turn for the better.
My task was to reveal the change and try to show that jazz had come to stay and deserved recognition. It was not a light undertaking, but setting Aeolian Hall as the stage of the experiment was probably a wise move. It started the talk going, at least, and aroused curiosity. “Jazz in Aeolian Hall!” the conservative cried incredulously. “What’s the world coming to?”
While we were getting ready for the concert, we gave a series of luncheons for the critics, took them to rehearsals, and explained painstakingly what we hoped to prove, displaying at the same time our tools for the enterprise. They were good sports, one and all — both interested and helpful.
That took one weight off my mind, for I saw that they would come to the concert anyway. But just the same, I was scared. We were trying to get a favorable hearing from the most hidebound creatures in the world — educated musicians. It was educated musicians who scorned Wagner, resisted Debussy, and roasted Chopin, you will remember. What could we expect then? Annihilation perhaps.
Stage Fright of the Highbrows
I didn’t care. It would have been worth it to me at any price. But never in all my life did I have such stage fright as I had that day. I had no doubt of the orchestra. But how would people take it? Would we be the laughingstock of the city when we woke the morning after? Would the critics decide I was trying to be smart and succeeding in being only smart-alecky? Or might I be able to convince the crowd that I was engaged in a sincere experiment, designed to exhibit what had been accomplished in the past few years with respect to scoring and arranging music for the popular band — that we were making a bona fide attempt to arouse an interest in popular music rhythm for purposes of advancing serious musical composition?
Fifteen minutes before the concert was to begin, I yielded to a nervous longing to see for myself what was happening out front, and putting an overcoat over my concert clothes, I slipped round to the entrance of Aeolian Hall. There I gazed upon a picture that should have imparted new vigor to my wilting confidence. It was snowing, but men and women were fighting to get into the door, pulling and mauling each other as they do sometimes at a baseball game or a prize fight or in the subway. Such was my humility by this time that I wondered if I had come to the right entrance. And then I saw Victor Herbert going in. It was the right entrance all right, and the next day the ticket-office officials said they could have sold the house out ten times over.
I went backstage again, more scared than ever. Black fear simply possessed me. I paced the floor, gnawed my thumbs and vowed I’d give $5000 if we could stop right there. Now that the audience had come, perhaps I had nothing to offer after all. I even made excuses to keep the curtain from rising on schedule.
But finally there was no longer any way of postponing the evil moment. The curtain went up and before I could dash forth and announce that there wouldn’t be any concert, we had begun.
When the Blues Were in the Air
It was a strange medley out there in front: society women, vaudevillians, concert managers come to have a look at the novelty; Tin Pan Alleyites, composers, symphony and opera stars, flappers and cake-eaters, all mixed higgledy-piggledy. Beginning with the earliest jazz composition, “Livery Stable Blues,” we played 26 selections designed to exhibit legitimate scores as contrasted with the former hit-and-miss effects which were also called jazz. At that time I argued that all was not jazz that is so named. I still believe that “Livery Stable Blues” and A Rhapsody in Blue, played at the concert by its talented composer, George Gershwin, are so many millions of miles apart that to speak of them both as jazz needlessly confuses the person who is trying to understand modern American music. At the same time, in the course of a recent tour of the United States, I have become convinced that people as a whole like the word jazz. So it is improbable that they will give it up. Recently they have been tried with all sorts of substitutes — syncopep and the like — but will have none of them. So I am resigned to jazz and have ceased trying to reform our language.
A Rhapsody in Blue was regarded by critics as the most significant number on the program. It was the first rhapsody written for a solo instrument and a jazz orchestra. The orchestral treatment was developed by Mr. Grofé. Mr. Gershwin’s manuscript was complete for the piano. It was a successful attempt to build a rhapsody out of the rhythms of popular American music. None of the thematic material had been used before. Its structure was simple and its popularity has been remarkable since we have put it on the records. It is music conceived for the jazz orchestra, and I do not believe any other could do it justice, though there has been talk of orchestrating it for a symphony.
The audience listened attentively to everything and applauded whole-heartedly from the first moment. When they laughed and seemed pleased with “Livery Stable Blues,” the crude jazz of the past, I had for a moment a panicky feeling that they hadn’t realized the attempt at burlesque — that they were ignorantly applauding the thing on its merits. I experienced all sorts of qualms as the program went on, most of them unjustified.
Praise from High Places
It seemed as if people would never let us go. We played all the encores we knew, and still they applauded. My heart was so full I could hardly speak as I bowed again and again. The spark that a responsive audience can always kindle in the performers had been glowing all afternoon, and as a result, we played better than I had ever hoped.
When at last we bowed for the last time, the usher brought me a pile of notes from congratulatory friends, and the doorman said others were waiting for me. There was a letter from Walter Damrosch that I shall always keep. He spoke of the smoothness and beauty of the orchestration and said he enjoyed every minute of the concert.
The praise was very sweet, but I knew I must wait for the papers to learn the worst — or the best. Later that week, the Musical Digest published a sheaf of critical comment from the dailies. One and all they admitted the possibilities of jazz. Poor, imperfect, immature — it still was going somewhere, they predicted.
W.C. Handy, colored composer of blues, was asked once as witness in a dispute over a blues copyright, what was the difference between jazz and blues. He was plumb amazed at the question.
“Why,” said he, “any fool knows that — jazz is jazz and blues is blues!”
Throwing Rhythm Out of Joint
I feel a good deal the same way, because to anybody who knows them, jazz and blues explain themselves. And if you don’t know them, words fail when it comes to describing them.
I have heard some folks refer to jazz as “an obnoxious disease,” “musical profanity,” and others call it “the true voice of the age,” and “the only American art.” You can readily see why I keep hedging. Jazz seems to me to be, as nearly as I can express it, a musical treatment consisting largely of question and answer, sound and echo. It is what I call unacademic counterpoint. It includes rhythmic, harmonic and melodic invention.
To rag a melody, one throws the rhythm out of joint, making syncopation. Jazz goes further, marking the broken rhythm unmistakably. The great art in any orchestra is a counterbalancing of the instrumentation, a realization of tone values and their placement.
With a very few but important exceptions, jazz is not as yet the thing said; it is the manner of saying it. Some critics think this fact establishes the unimportance, or even the vulgarity of jazz. I believe it is true that if jazz does not develop its own themes, its own distinctive messages, it will fail to be musically valuable.
Not long ago, Simeon Strunsky, in The New York Times, rebuked the flood of writing which continually speaks of jazz as the expression of America. He wanted to know if jazz expressed President Coolidge, the Ku Klux Klan, Rotary clubs, Puritanism, and all the other elements of our life.
Perhaps it is true that jazz does not represent these varying aspects of America any more than it represents hot cakes, corn on the cob, grapefruit, and meat for breakfast. What it does represent is the indefinable thing that will mark President Coolidge, an Irish Tammany ward leader, Harry Sinclair, Babbitt, and Mr. Simeon Strunsky himself, every one of them, as Americans, in any city of Europe. It represents the composite essence of them all.
The jazz treatment is hard to put into written music. Follow the notes as carefully as you like, and you will merely be as a person trying to imitate, for instance, a Southern accent — unless jazz is in your blood. If it is, you’ll add to the notes that indefinable thing, that spontaneous jazzing, that will make the music talk jazz as a native tongue.
Limitations of Jazz
Though we are still using the old themes in this way, it isn’t every composition that lends itself with any degree of success to jazz treatment. This is because music is not only a succession of sounds but a quality of sound too. It is really not very satisfactory, for instance, to take any of the beautiful symphony compositions and try to play them with a jazz orchestra. That is the same in principle as taking a composition scored for an orchestra and trying to play it on a piano. It is impossible to make a Wagnerian opera understandable on a piano, isn’t it? And how would Debussy’s L’Apres-midi d’un Faune sound on an organ? Think of the tone, the color, that would be lost.
I suppose it will surprise a good many people to have me say that some things can’t be jazzed. And as a matter of fact, do not literally mean that they cannot be played by a jazz group on jazz instruments in the jazz manner. Anything can be jazzed — that is, subjected to jazz treatment.
What I mean is that it’s not fitting to jazz everything. And common sense and a loving knowledge of music will indicate whether to jazz or not. I might mention, for instance, “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” which absolutely should not be jazzed. There is a sturdy, majestic tune with a religious connotation. We could jazz it easily, but we wouldn’t. Neither would we jazz the “Tannhauser March” or any of the lovely arias from the operas. On the other hand, there would be no sacrilege in jazzing “Dixie,” even though the tune is deep in the hearts of Southern people. And “Song of India,” which we did jazz, was a ballet in the first place, so that was all right. It is just a matter of feeling. Some things were written for sober, sublime moments. They should be left for such moments. They do not fit jazz. But the Peer Gynt Suite, the “Poet and Peasant Overture” — why not?
Jazz, then, is a method. But it’s not only a method of counterpoint and rhythm. It’s also a method of using tones, using the color of sound.
The instruments for making jazz music are, as I shall point out, legitimate and have mainly been used for serious music in various combinations. John Philip Sousa, who with his military band, by the way, has, it seems to me, gotten nearer the heart of the people than any institution America has ever had, says jazz slid into music by way of the vaudeville stage, where, at the end of a performance, all the acts came back on the stage to give a rousing, boisterous impromptu finale called a “jazzbo.”
At any rate, in spite of its low origin, many cities are anxious to claim the credit for coining the word, but so far as I can find, New Orleans probably deserves it. Lots of New Orleanites, too, believe that Stale Bread, a blind musician who organized a band of newsboys there nearly 30 years ago, was the original jazzer of the world. Stale Bread’s real name is Emile Lacoume, and though he has been sightless for nearly 25 years, he has taught himself to play the banjo, the piano, the trap drums, the guitar, the mandolin, and the bass viol. His first love is New Orleans; his next, jazz.
The Famous Spasm Band
There were eight members of the Stale Bread orchestra. They were known about town as Piggy, Family Haircut, Warm Gravy, Boozebottle, Seven Colors, Whisky, and Monk. The band hangout was the old Newsboys’ Home on Baronne Street. Stale Bread was the organizer and owner. His instruments were a cheese box for a banjo, a soap-box guitar, a cigar-box violin, and a half-barrel bass fiddle. He had also an old tambourine, a zither and a harmonica.
The leader trained his gang until he had it going along in great shape. Then he took it out to play on the street. He had no trouble at all in collecting a crowd that completely blocked traffic. Some sourface complained and a cop promptly pinched the band. They were brought to court and the judge, trying to keep a straight face, invited them to defend themselves by playing.
It was a great moment in the life of the little blind boy. He rose gravely, bowed to Hizzoner and the spectators, raised a lath that he used for a baton, and the dirty-faced, ragged eight were off. “Off” is the word that one who heard them uses advisedly. Stale Bread thinks that is the first time any court ever heard a jazz band. The judge listened to the bitter end. Then he beckoned to the leader.
“Stale Bread,” said he, “you may be a band, but you are a spasm band. Discharged!”
Jazz has affected America in a musical way and in many more material senses. It is bulking increasingly large in economics. There are today more than 200,000 men playing it. The number of jazz arrangers is around 30,000. These are two entirely new industries that have grown up in less than seven years.
Furthermore, they are lucrative industries. Players in the best of the modern jazz orchestras have come straight from the symphonies, where they were paid $30, $40, or at the most $50 and $60 a week. Now they get $150 and more.
Jazz has made fortunes and bought automobiles, country houses, and fur coats for many a player, composer, and publisher. Indirectly, it has filled the pockets of the musicians who are identified with opera and symphony, for it has interested a greater part of the population in music.
The accessories of jazz figure conspicuously in the buying and selling of the nation. In 1924, the United States spent $600,000,000 for music and musical instruments, and Tin Pan Alley, New York’s popular song factory, claims that 80 percent of this amount, or $480,000,000, was paid out for jazz and jazz-making instruments.
It cost 90 percent of the rest of the world approximately the same sum to get completely jazzed up. The foreign market for American music in pre-jazz times was poor. Tin Pan Alley not only had no special selling facilities abroad, but also Europe wrote a great many of the world’s popular song hits, and America bought them — songs like “Rings on My Fingers” and “Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?”
Then jazz of the irresistible appeal came along, and the whole situation was reversed. A representative of a large music-publishing firm in London, with branches all over the Continent, said in New York the other day that jazz has shot the formerly stable English ballad market all to pieces. Nobody wants to sing old-fashioned sentiment any more. And so jazz takes its place among the profitable American exports.
It is a striking commentary on the possibilities of jazz making that so many young college graduates are going straight from the classroom to the jazz orchestra. I do not know the exact figures, because as yet the colleges are a little embarrassed about the jazz players they turn out. I know unofficially, however, of one school that has 15 future jazzists among its 100 seniors. Tin Pan Alley was the grade school of jazz. Nowadays the little pupil with the tin dinner pail has passed on to institutions of high learning. But for all that, Tin Pan Alley still claims her, and in the main acts as her guardian and caretaker.
Never let anybody tell you that the Alley is not businesslike. There are as many yards of red tape wound about the mammy song that finally reaches you as there are about the automobile produced in any up-to-date factory. Tin Pan Alley is divided into departments with heads — super and under — clerks, secretaries, telephone operators, and, last but not least, authors. It takes as many long-drawn-out conferences and house messages on blue, yellow, pink, and green sheets of paper to run a song factory as it does to build a skyscraper. For Tin Pan Alley takes its product straight through from the first step to the last. That is, the Alley generally composes the songs it markets.
In this day of many orchestras, the orchestration for bands — jazz and nonjazz — is almost as important as the song plugger himself. And the song plugger has always been the chief voice of the Alley. It is his job to sing loudly and convincingly into whatever ears he can reach. He goes everywhere he can break in — to motion-picture houses, benefits, picnics, races, circuses, and social gatherings. He really needs to be an adventurous soul and one who takes rebuffs lightly. Every day in a New York vaudeville theater, two song pluggers climb up several hundred feet among the pipes of an organ and sing almost from the ceiling to a puzzled audience, who try to figure where the music is coming from.
Rags, Blues, and Jazz
While plugging is important, the publishers contend that there can be too much of any good thing. The “too much” in this case is radio. So the publishers and composers went to Congress to compel the broadcasting stations to pay a royalty every time a popular song is sung over the radio. Their argument was that if John Smith tunes in every night on a red-hot-mama song, he may soon begin to hope that he will never hear that particular song again. And this, say the publishers and composers, will undoubtedly hurt the sale of that piece of sheet music.
The transformation in American music of which jazz is the upshot started nearly 25 years ago. Following the era of the popular ballad and coon song, about 15 years ago, came ragtime.
The best way I have found to differentiate between ragtime, blues, and jazz is to indicate each one of them by a line. The ragtime line is jerky. Blues has a long easy line, and the jazz line rises to a point. “The Maple Leaf” was the first rag. “Memphis Blues” was the first blues, so far as I have been able to find. The former was by Scott Joplin, the latter by W.C. Handy. At least, these were the first compositions that America called by the names of ragtime and blues. Yet syncopation and rhythm, which were the distinguishing marks of the ragtime, were not really new. And when you added counterpoint and harmony to the melody and rhythm of ragtime, you got blues, essentially a trick of harmony. But the blues were not new either. Can anybody who has ever heard it forget the distant shore in the opening of Tristan and Isolde, which shimmers in a blue haze that one can feel?
At first both ragtime and blues were a sort of piano trick passed on from one performer to another. Up to the time that Handy organized an orchestra in Memphis, it is doubtful whether a single blue measure had ever been put on paper. Handy wrote out the blue notes for the first time.
At the House-Rent Stomps
According to John Stark, publisher of ragtime in St. Louis, ragtime originally meant a negro syncopated dance, and the real negro blues were never intended as a dance at all, but were a sort of negro opera, more like a wail or a lament than anything else. Big sessions of blues were held in the South among the colored people, the biggest of all occurring at “house-rent stomps” when a negro found himself unable to pay his rent. The entertainment consisted of a barbecue with music afterward, during, and before. The guests raised a purse to save their host’s home and also composed a new blues for the occasion.
Jazz, which is ragtime and blues combined with a certain orchestral polyphony which neither had, was still another way of letting off steam. At first it was mainly a chaos of noises, with rhythm running wild, tempos colliding with tempos. It is interesting that “Livery Stable Blues,” the earliest jazz, was not considered distinctive enough to be protected by a copyright. Indeed, Judge Carpenter in the District Court of Northern Illinois, Eastern Division, made that decision on October 14, 1917, in the case of LaRocca against E. Graham. LaRocca charged that Graham had infringed his copyright with a piece called “Barnyard Blues” which decidedly resembled “Livery Stable Blues.”
Said the judge:
“This is a question of each one claiming the right to this musical production. No claim is made by either side for the barnyard calls that are interpolated in the score, no claim is made for the harmony; the only claim seems to be for the melody. Now as a matter of fact the only value of this so-called musical production is the interpolated animal calls. These so-called animal sounds are not in question, are not claimed under the copyright. The only question is, whose brain conceived the idea of the melody that runs through the so-called “Livery Stable Blues”? I am inclined to take the view of Professor Slap White that this is an old negro melody which witness said he heard 15 years ago. I think with Professor White that neither Mr. LaRocca nor Mr. Nunez conceived the idea of this melody. This band was a strolling band of players, none of them, according to the testimony, with a technical knowledge of music.
“This, of course, is not an essential to the production of pleasing or entertaining music. Take the Hungarian Strollers, with their wonderful music which has come down to us. They were untrained musicians in a technical way. So with this band. With a quick ear and a retentive memory, they hear, remember, and reproduce, and perhaps no living man could determine where the melody came from. What they produced was a result that pleased their patrons and it was the variations of the original music that accomplished the result, not the original music.
“I defy any living human being to listen to that production played upon the phonograph and discover any music in it, but there is a wonderful rhythm which, in case you’re a dancer and young, will set your feet moving.”
So ended the first jazz controversy, also the first decision in regard to pilfered music. But the discussion was to be renewed. Which brings us to a catch question: Are you bored by classical music? Does the very word “classical” make you nervous because it sounds so highbrowish? And do you, perchance, declare that jazz is the only kind of music you can possibly understand?
The Common Storehouse of Music
If the answer to all these questions is yes, the joke is really on you. For the truth is that when you are listening to your favorite jazz tune, you are most likely absorbing strains that are the most classic of all the classics. Do you not know that often the modern art of composing a popular song comes in knowing what to lift and how to adapt it — also that at least nine-tenths of modern jazz music as turned out by Tin Pan Alley is frankly adapted from the masters?
That’s why a good many of the jazzists chuckle over lowbrows who say they can’t abide classical music and highbrows who squirm when they hear jazz. Pretty nearly everybody knows now that Handel’s Messiah furnished the main theme of the well-known “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” Perhaps it is not such general knowledge that most of the banana song which wasn’t taken from the Messiah came from Balfe’s famous “I Dreamt That I Dwelt in Marble Halls.” “Avalon” was Tosca straight.
There is no legal limit to this kind of lifting so long as the model chosen has not been copyrighted, and even then a few strategic notes changed by an expert can make everything quite safe. As to the moral aspects of the theft, there aren’t any. There are, naturally, morals among musicians, but they aren’t concerned with this question. All the music of the world is a kind of common storehouse, and Kipling expresses the musician’s attitude toward it.
When ’Omer smote ’is blooming lyre,
He’d ’eard men sing by land an’ sea;
An’ what he thought ’e might require,
’E went and took—the same as me!
Not long ago, the heirs of a composer brought suit against a certain publishing house to recover damages for this kind of thieving. The publishing house produced in court the music to prove that the composer had himself taken his themes from the folk songs of several European countries. The composer’s heirs lost their suit. The folk songs had never been copyrighted and were perfectly legitimate material for the composer — but also for the jazz musician.
I suppose there will always be somebody dashing into courts of law to claim damages from some musician who is blithely following the usual custom of lifting good things here and there. An entertaining recent case was that brought by a choir leader in a Western city who wanted damages from an orchestra leader, on a general charge of syncopating the classics. The choir leader claimed that he suffered acute anguish because his artistic sensibilities were harrowed — although I don’t know why he needed to listen to the orchestra — and that he sustained also a serious financial loss, because children are having their musical taste perverted and no longer want real musical education.
As a matter of fact, even when an irate protector of the masters does get into action to suppress certain music, it does him very little good. The reason for this is that music bootleggers have arisen, who for a price will furnish the coveted orchestration to any leader who applies. The bootleg orchestration headquarters are rather like the ancient blind tigers of local-option fame. That is, they masquerade as pants-pressing establishments, junk shops, or even, in extreme cases, the neighborhood drug store, which also supplies music to its patrons.
Well, bootleg or not, the jazz-classical combination is really cultivating a taste for classical music. At first glance this may seem strange. But it is true, and also it is natural enough. People grow familiar with the themes in jazz, their interest in music is stimulated by their love of jazz, and the natural next step is to follow the themes back toward their original sources. The original sources of musical themes are so far back in folk song that it would probably be a lifetime job to trace only one. But just behind the jazz use of them is classical music.
Now most Americans — for many reasons that I have already given — have been afraid of classical music. They thought they couldn’t understand it, so they didn’t try. They avoided classical music and more or less scoffed at it. But when they come to it by way of jazz, they find it isn’t so difficult to like it, and they do. They may not know all the highbrow musical jargon — which is, after all, only a technical vocabulary, just as a mechanic’s special vocabulary is technical — but they do know what they like. And music is written to be appreciated by the people, not to be argued about by critics.
Jazz Selling the Classics
This trend toward getting acquainted with classical music is a good thing. I should like to see every jazz record in every home in America accompanied by the record of the classical music from which the jazz theme was taken. I am all for it. The real lover of music likes jazz the better for knowing all music, just as he likes all music the better for knowing jazz. When I make a jazz version of the “Song of India,” for instance, and learn that the effect of the sale of my record has been to increase the sale of the original record 50 percent, I am delighted. The same thing happened after the “Russian Rose” was put on the market; the public clamored for the beautiful record of the “Song of the Volga Boatmen.” Instances of this kind are multiplying every day.
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.
George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” turns 90 years old this week, and is barely showing its age. It remains as appealing and as fresh as it did at its 1924 premier, when it helped earn jazz a new degree of respect from America’s music critics.
Jazz was still quite young that year. It had only just emerged in the previous decade as African American composers began blending blues, folk music, popular ballads, and ragtime into a new musical form. For several years, jazz incubated in the juke joints, saloons, and nightclubs of New Orleans, building a following among the working classes and black community. Finally, in 1917, the Victor Talking Machine Company issued a recording of “Livery Stable Blues.” It was, many will argue, the first recording of jazz. It was also one of the first records to sell one million copies.
Despite the popularity of this, and the hundreds of jazz records that followed, jazz drew nothing but scorn from the voices of America’s cultural establishment: music critics, composers, conductors, and self-appointed moral guardians. But jazz became increasingly hard to ignore as young Americans were captivated by its bright, energetic sound. An entire generation, it seemed, was learning to play the saxophone, and the omniscient strains of the “Charleston” and “Black Bottom” were heard from urban night clubs to college campuses as the country entered its “Jazz Age.”
When the critics finally deigned to review jazz, they tended to favor adjectives like “barbaric” and “degenerate.” Jazz was, they said, “the product of incompetents,” and “a species of music invented by demons for the torture of imbeciles.” And some critics reminded readers that jazz was the creation of black musicians, which—for them—implied all manner of vices.
Yet jazz continued growing in popularity and sophistication. Musicians were taking the form into new areas, developing unique sounds and experimenting with new styles and instrumentation.
One of the people helping to develop jazz was Paul Whiteman. In 1922, this popular bandleader was earning over $1 million a year conducting several jazz bands on the East Coast. He became so closely associated with the new musical form that he was called “The King of Jazz” (a term, by the way, he knew he didn’t deserve.)
And he became the target of criticism from the reviewers and music ‘experts’ who despised jazz.
Hoping to appease his critics, Whiteman proposed an all-jazz concert to be held at a classical-music venue, New York’s Aeolian Hall. The idea was not greeted with general enthusiasm. Whiteman later told the Post, “Some of the musicians I most admired, who had until then regarded me with a slightly amused but tolerant air, now talked themselves red in the face about the insolence of “jazz boys” who wanted to force their ridiculous efforts upon the world.”
Whiteman thought these critics might drop their objections to jazz if they heard how much it had evolved in recent years. “I believed that most of them had grown so accustomed to condemning the ‘Livery Stable Blues’ type of thing that they went on flaying modern jazz without realizing that it was different from the crude early attempts.”
Yet he couldn’t shake the fear that his concert would antagonize the critics even further. The musical establishment was slow to change. After all, he told the Post, “We were trying to get a favorable hearing from the most hidebound creatures in the world–educated musicians. It was educated musicians who scorned Wagner, resisted Debussy, and roasted Chopin.”
So when the afternoon of the concert arrived, Whiteman was pacing nervously backstage. He already knew he would lose almost half the money he had sunk into the concert, and there was no telling how his reputation would suffer if the critics panned the performance.
“Fifteen minutes before the concert was to begin I yielded to a nervous longing to see for myself what was happening out front…I slipped round to the entrance of Aeolian Hall. There I gazed upon a picture that should have imparted new vigor to my wilting confidence. It was snowing, but men and women were fighting to get into the door, pulling and mauling each other as they do sometimes at a baseball game, or a prizefight, or in the subway. Such was my humility by this time that I wondered if I had come to the right entrance.”
By 5:30p.m., he knew he had been in the right place with the right idea. Several critics came up to him when the concert was over to congratulate him. Some critics still remained unmoved, but others praised the entire performance, particularly its “first rhapsody written for a solo instrument and a jazz orchestra”—”The Rhapsody In Blue.”
It’s hard to believe that this masterpiece was created so haphazardly. Gershwin composed it in one month in-between writing music for Broadway musicals. He handed it to Whiteman’s arranger, Ferde Grofe, on February 4, which left only one week for the parts to be orchestrated and rehearsed. Moreover, the score Gershwin handed over wasn’t even complete.
The Rhapsody included several virtuoso passages for the piano that, at the time of performance, only existed in Gershwin’s head. At one point, when he played solo, he simply left a blank space in the score, indicating the orchestra was to remain silent. The only cue Whiteman had to prompt the orchestra to start playing again was a note in the score telling him to wait until he saw Gershwin nod his head.
Grofe thought the Rhapsody’s middle passage was weak, and told Gershwin it needed some additional music as a bridge between themes. Gershwin hunted around, and then found the score for a song he had been saving for a musical and hurriedly worked it in.
Even during rehearsal, Gershwin was still adding touches that contributed to the Rhapsody’s success. One of its most memorable passages is a long sliding rise of the clarinet in the opening measures.
During rehearsal, when the clarinettist in Whiteman’s band practiced this passage, he jokingly gave it a slurred, bluesy glide, making the clarinet rise into a wail. He had intended it as a joke, but Gershwin latched onto the sound and asked the clarinet player to repeat, and even exaggerate, that wail at the performance.
Whiteman had wanted his concert to prove that jazz no longer relied on improvisation. But Gershwin’s successful creation of the Rhapsody showed that a successful jazz artist must always be ready to respond instantly to new ideas, to discard the work of months to capture the genius of a moment.