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Paul Whiteman. Pioneer in American Music
Volume Two, 1930-1967
Scarecrow Press, Inc. (Rowman and Littlefield)
There have been several aspects of Paul Whiteman’s band and career about which later jazz critics have waxed captious. One isn’t sure what inspired such an outpouring of critical vitriol directed towards Whiteman, a puzzling characteristic of jazz criticism, particularly during the revivalist years, and most notable more recently in ‘Jazz,’ the 2001 documentary by filmmaker Ken Burns. Some have suggested that it was the ‘King of Jazz’ epithet, coined by zealous press agent Estella Kahn in the mid-1920s. Others, incredibly, disliked the name ‘Whiteman’. Whiteman personally deplored the title ‘King’ of Jazz. He declined to use it in his own ads.
Don Rayno’s account is exhaustive, long, well written, should be the last word on Whiteman and, more importantly, should help to right some of the critical wrongs perpetrated in the past. One hopes so, for Whiteman comes across as a decent, kind and honourable man. A good musician. he played the viola well, having enjoyed a successful performing career before leading his band. By the time of the beginning of this lengthy account (1930), Rhapsody in Blue (written in 1924 and, pre-microphone, recorded acoustically) was a regular and popular part of Whiteman performances. Consequently, much Gershwinana occurs in these pages. We learn that Whiteman protected Earl Hines, and supported Satch and Fats Waller. At various times the Whiteman band included Mildred Bailey, Bix Beiderbecke, Bud Freeman, Al Gallodoro, Red Norvo, Jack Teagarden and Frank Trumbauer. The genesis of Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite is described in absorbing detail. Eventually the suite was completed in time for a Chicago concert in November 1931. Whiteman even visited the Canyon as part of his preparation. The concert also featured An American in Paris, for which Gershwin sent Whiteman a specially tuned set of automobile horns. Rachmaninoff was a Ferde (Ferdie) Grofé fan.
Despite what some commentators have written, Whiteman was an important big-band leader in the twenties. The band’s arrangements and orchestral polish were admired by Duke Ellington. After Benny Goodman’s swing style took off in the mid-’30s, Whiteman remained among the country’s top bandleaders. Whiteman’s orchestra wasn’t a jazz band, but employed several prominent jazzmen, and they played jazz. His success led to Hollywood. He appeared in films such as Rhapsody in Blue (1945) opposite Robert Alda (father of Alan) as Gershwin. Whiteman also appeared in the 1940 Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney musical Strike Up the Band.
Earnings are always interesting. Johnny Green, composer of Body and Soul, who came into music as arranger for Guy Lombardo, was earning (from Whiteman) $125 an arrangement in 1928. In 1930, Paul Whiteman was earning $5,000 an hour for his weekly Old Gold Hour broadcast. Whiteman himself was sufficiently prosperous to be able to dwell in an apartment in luxurious Essex House, which still stands on 59th Street (South Central Park) in Manhattan, where he lived for many years. Today it is a JW Marriott hotel.
Rayno’s coverage extends to detail about the British recreations of the Whiteman Band in 1974, led by the late Richard Sudhalter. Many of Whiteman’s radio shows are available online. To hear them, find http://www.redhotjazz.com
John Robert Brown