The Concert ‘That jazz articles from the 1920s Saved Jazz’ Paul Whiteman And The 1920s Jazz Age Rage Jazzwise
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The Concert ‘That jazz articles from the 1920s Saved Jazz’ Paul Whiteman And The 1920s Jazz Age Rage Jazzwise
The intensity of the debate surrounding the 'Jazz Problem, as The Etude magazine called it, has tended to be downplayed in American cultural history for the very good reason that it is not a good look to play up the fact that the country which contributed one of the great art forms to emerge in the 20th century had come perilously close to throttling it at birth. Alarmed at the inroads an Afro-American entertainment was making into dominant white culture, self-appointed moral watchdogs were quick to attack jazz as what one newspaper described as “a low streak in man’s tastes that has not yet come out in civilisation’s wash.” The rising tide of negative press jazz was attracting was such that The Times-Picayune , New Orleans’ leading newspaper, took the unusual step of disowning jazz by denying the city was the ‘birthplace of jazz’: “In the matter of jass… We do not recognise the horror of parenthood, but with such story in circulation… we should make it a point of civic honor to suppress it. Its musical value is nil, and its possibilities of harm are great.” Anti-jazz sentiment was rife among recording companies’ executives, who were strongly affiliated socially through educational, matrimonial and financial ties. Eldridge Johnson, founder and president of Victor, for example, was a top financial contributor to the Republican Party in 1928 while Leon Douglass, Victor’s vice president, married into the prominent family that produced Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams. The founders and executives of Columbia Phonograph included influential attorneys, graduates of prestigious Ivy League universities associated with the US Supreme Court and US House of Representatives. While the General Phonograph Corporation, manufacturers of Okeh records, recorded four titles by Original Dixieland Jazzband in 1922, they were listed as 'Race Records', indicative of the desire to keep 'raucous jazz’ away from polite white society. It was against this rising tide of controversy and the very real threat of the elite’s influence and lobbying power to marginalise jazz that bandleader Paul Whiteman emerged on the American popular music scene. In the event, the concert programme included 26 items, designed, as the programme notes stated, to demonstrate ‘the tremendous strides which have been made in popular music from the day of discordant Jazz.’ Today, the decade’s Art Deco stylishness tends to obscure the very real social debate about jazz in the early 1920s as the music made its way into the American people’s consciousness. While some regarded the 'jazz craze’ as something that would quickly burn itself out and be replaced by the next musical fad, others saw it as a dangerous musical subversion and an incitement to licentiousness, its vernacular origins as troubling to polite black society as it was to white. It was a time when public bodies and institutions, governmental agencies, politicians, educational and religious leaders, temperance organisations, Ivy League academics, and prominent individuals in public life all seemed united in voicing anti-jazz sentiments. “Poor jazz! It has been maligned in print and pulpit. All the sins of a wicked world have been traced directly and uncompromisingly to its door,” reported Metronome in July 1922. Downtown, however, the Cotillo Bill was beginning to bite; the New York Herald reported in January 1922, that “The decline and fall of jazz, they say, has been going on apace during the present theatrical season,” while a feature in Musician magazine from May that year headlined, ‘The Decline of Jazz.’ Today the concert is remembered for one reason only, the premiere of an ambitious modernistic composition composed during the five weeks leading up to the event called 'A Rhapsody in Blue', performed with its composer George Gershwin at the piano. With the passage of time, 'Rhapsody in Blue' has become deeply woven into the fabric of Americana, its evocative introduction with its soaring clarinet glissando still able to resonate with contemporary culture, such as the opening sequence of the 1979 movie Manhattan . Whatever antipathies the elites may have harboured towards jazz and jazz-influenced music, the one thing Whiteman had on his side after the concert was success, which has always been accorded the highest value in American life. Whiteman had taken jazz and jazz influenced music into New York’s citadel of classical music where the New York Philharmonic held sway and where classical luminaries such as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev, Ferruccio Busoni, Ignacy Jan Paderewski and the acclaimed concert pianist Guiomar Novaes had graced its stage, and turned the ‘jazz problem’ on its head. Jazzwise Magazine, St. Judes Church, Dulwich Road, Herne Hill, London, SE24 0PD. 0208 677 0012 The Concert ‘That jazz articles from the 1920s Saved Jazz’ Paul Whiteman And The 1920s Jazz Age Rage Jazzwise
The Concert ‘That jazz articles from the 1920s Saved Jazz’ Paul Whiteman And The 1920s Jazz Age Rage Jazzwise
In March 1923, Whiteman embarked on a hugely successful appearance in England, performing for royalty and London society and became 'as big a hit in England as he already was in the United States'. On his return to Manhattan on 13 August 1923, aboard the SS Leviathan, Whiteman was greeted by airplanes, fire boats and a welcoming committee comprising city dignitaries and celebrities including Victor Herbert, George M Cohan, and John Philip Sousa. Perhaps not unexpectedly, the religious lobby – including the Catholic Church, the Clericus of the Episcopalian Church of Louisville and the Salvation Army – waded into the debate. Cardinal Begin, the Archbishop of Quebec, condemned ‘lascivious’ dances and asserted they must be combated as moral contagion; a decree of the Synod reproved dances “such as the ‘fox-trot’ and the ‘tango,’" while the Rev. Dr AW Beaven of Rochester did jazz no favours with his piece in The New York Times headlined, ‘Primitive, Savage Animalism, Preacher’s Analysis of Jazz’. Today, the 1920s seem a romantic and irresponsible time when a generation embraced life and living in a decade-long party that was only stopped short by the stock market crash of 1929. The so-called ‘Jazz Age’ was an era when the new media came of age with newspapers, magazines and newsreel shorts celebrating wild dance parties, fast cars and ‘flappers’ – young women who defied convention by insisting on enjoying life on the same terms as men. This article originally appeared in the May 2021 issue of Jazzwise. Never miss an issue – subscribe today The opprobrium jazz was attracting became such that in 1921, Senator Salvatore A Cotillo presented a Bill to the New York state legislature on 24 February, designed to regulate public dance halls in New York City. With this new-found power, jazz and dancing was promptly banned on Broadway after midnight, resulting in dance hall managers being forced to lower musicians' wages to a level where work there was no longer profitable. In Harlem, where the Cotillo bill met with lax enforcement, jazz continued to thrive, actually becoming a feature for wealthy white socialites who would finish off an evening’s entertainment by heading Uptown to 'slum' while taking in a little jazz with their bootleg liquor. Start your journey and discover the very best music from around the world. His triumphant return seemed to demand some grand gesture and the Buescher Band Instrument Company of Elkhart, Indiana – whose instruments Whiteman endorsed – co-ordinated a publicity stunt where he was crowned ‘King of Jazz’. In 1920, Whiteman’s innocuous version of ‘Whispering’ was an enormous hit, selling over two million copies, and pushing him to the forefront of popular music, a position he did not relinquish for over a decade. At the start of ‘The Jazz Age’ a century ago, the music was in danger of being crushed by an establishment moral panic and America’s cultural elites before it had even had the chance to put down roots. But a concert by the unlikely figure of Paul Whiteman changed all that... The recording industry’s response to jazz was also influenced by this debate. While the Victor Talking Machine Company recorded the Original Dixieland Jazz Band – which provided 'Nipper' with one of his earliest million-selling recordings in ‘Livery Stable Blues’ – in 1917, it did not follow up on the success to the extent it might have done. For one thing, the band was out of the country between March 1919 and June 1920, and although Victor recorded them on their return from England, the company chose not renew the ensemble’s contract when it expired in December 1921. jazz articles from the 1920s Instead, Victor opted to set ‘an example’ to the rest of the recording industry by announcing it would concentrate on conductors and orchestras from the opera and classical worlds, according jazz low priority, an example followed by Columbia and other larger labels. More than any other figure in American public life, Paul Whiteman came to personify the Jazz Age. Paradoxically, he displayed no singular commitment to jazz with a repertoire that ran the gamut from light classical music through to ambitious, specially-commissioned 'modernistic' compositions, instrumental novelties and current pop songs. In 1921, the music section of the General Federation of Woman’s Clubs launched a crusade against jazz, and, at its national convention two years later, Music Courier headlined, ‘Representatives of 2,000,000 Women, Meeting in Atlanta, Vote to Annihilate Jazz.’ In a context where the state had already intervened to save the nation from itself by banning the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol with the Volstead Act that came into effect in 1920, a rising tide of public opinion felt it should be acting again by banning jazz; the Superintendent of Schools in Kansas City proclaimed before an audience of a thousand school teachers: “This nation has been fighting booze for a long time. I am just wondering whether jazz isn’t going to have to be legislated against as well.”
Thanks to the 'Experiment in Modern Music' concert, jazz became increasingly associated with something unique to the United States of which Americans could be proud. Today, the Aeolian Hall concert is regarded as a defining event of the Jazz Age in America and of the cultural history of New York City. As Duke Ellington said in 1943: "Don’t let them kid you about Whiteman. He has been a big man in our music. He’s done a lot for it”. He did indeed. By 1920, the press and periodicals seemed united in their hostility towards jazz, and pulled no punches when attacking the music: “This thing called jazz is positively one of the most awful and most inexcusable of musical sins ever committed against the face of the people,” said Musical America in 1920. In 1921, Anne Shaw Faulkner’s notorious cover feature ‘Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation?’ in Ladies Home Journal berated jazz on racial and political grounds, claiming the music was “the accompaniment of the voodoo dancer, stimulating the half-crazed barbarian to the vilest deeds,” and represented the “Bolshevik element… striving for expression in music.” Whiteman’s popularity rested on playing a broad base of music of which jazz was a part, all performed with a high degree of technical perfection, since he paid the best salaries in order to attract the best musicians. Ultimately, it would be his non-jazz, classically-orientated credentials that became the source of his legitimacy with the anti-jazz elites. On 1 November 1923, mezzo-soprano Eva Gauthier gave a recital at the Aeolian Hall in New York, performing works by Henry Purcell, Béla Bartok, Arnold Schoenberg, Arthur Bliss, Claude Debussy, and Charles T Giffes. In a daring move in the context of the time, she also chose to perform a selection of popular American songs by Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, with Gershwin accompanying her on piano. Perhaps to the surprise of some, the recital received a grand ovation and an enthusiastic press. Whiteman, who was in the audience, was inspired and set about realising his ambition to present his own concert of modern American music. He booked the Aeolian Hall for the afternoon of 12 February, 1924. Billed as 'An Experiment in Modern Music', the programme notes betrayed the then controversial status of jazz, even in Whiteman’s hands, by asserting that, “Most people who ridicule the present so-called jazz and refuse to condone it or listen to it seriously are quarrelling with the name Jazz and not what it represents.” Much scholarly hot air has been expended on Whiteman’s attempt to 'make a Lady out of Jazz' with this concert. Usually this indignation is argued from the perspective of the cultural and artistic standing jazz enjoys today, and fails to contextualise its equivocal standing in the face of the highly influential anti-jazz lobbyists in the early 1920s and in the run-up to the concert in early 1924. Take a peek inside the latest issue of Songlines magazine. The concert culminated in a performance of Edward Elgar’s 'Pomp and Circumstance ' that established Whiteman’s band had the skills of classical musicians, but Whiteman’s orchestra clearly was not a European 'classical orchestra’, so what was it? The answer was that it was an American orchestra playing music that was uniquely American, so situating Whiteman’s music within a broader debate about what constituted ‘American-ness’ in the arts and how this might be expressed in American national culture, with 'Rhapsody in Blue' leading the way. The Aeolian Hall concert transformed attitudes towards jazz – by July 1924, Musical America, which had been at the forefront of denigrating jazz, headlined: “Jazz Music Not Such An ‘Enfant Terrible’ After All,” praising Whiteman for his presentation of 'Rhapsody in Blue' that, “has it roots in American soil.” Today, the debate surrounding Whiteman’s pretensions to the title of ‘King of Jazz’ still rages among those who fail to acknowledge that the term ‘jazz’, as understood today, is nothing like it was in 1923, when jazz was more than a musical style; it was the 'style of times', an all-purpose adjective used to describe almost anything 'modern'. Clashing colours and loud patterns were dubbed ‘jazzy’; a play called The Jazz Marriage was nothing more than a ‘modern’ tale of divorce; retailers stocked 'jazz' consumer goods and 'jazz' clothes while in Paris there was even a drink called a ‘Jazz Cocktail’. Because the term 'jazz' in 1923 was by no means the ideologically charged word it is today, and there was little, if any, sense of incongruity expressed at the time when Whiteman was dubbed ‘The King of Jazz’. The praise Whiteman enjoyed for the Aeolian concert was not just from the general public, but also from members of New York society’s elite and a remarkable collection of conductors, musicians, vocalists, writers, critics, and philanthropists – effectively the gatekeepers of American culture – whose opinions were reinforced by classical luminaries such as Alma Gluck, Leopold Godowsky, Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler, John McCormack, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Leopold Stokowski, and Joseph Stransky. While debate about jazz had raged in the press and at public meetings, Whiteman’s 'Experiment' changed the nature of the discourse at the highest level by placing jazz in a more general debate about modern music. For a start, the concert succeeded in what Whiteman had set out to do, as he asserted in The New York Clipper 10 days later, “They can’t go on questioning jazz forever. I proved, and it was conceded as such, that the popular highbrow conception of jazz was wrong.” jazz history article