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.