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Maurice Peress

EXPLORING MUSIC: Paul Whiteman's Historic Aeolian Hall Concert of 1924

EXPLORING MUSIC: Paul Whiteman's Historic Aeolian Hall Concert of 1924

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One would be hard pressed to think of a musical event about which more has been written than Paul Whiteman's launching of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. It has been describ­ed as the concert that "made a lady out of jazz" and "made an honest woman out of jazz," and, because it took place on Lincoln's birthday, as "the emancipation proclamation of jazz." Whiteman's "experiment in modern music" was brilliantly plann­ed and staged. Pre-concert promotion was designed to focus maximum at­tention on the event. Enlisted as patrons and patronesses were: American culture mavens Gilbert Seldes and Carl Van Vechten; music critics and writers Deems Taylor, 0.0. McIntyre, and Fannie Hurst; pro­minent musicians Walter Damrosch, Leopold Godowsky, Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Moritz Rosenthal, and Leopold Stokowski; opera divas Amelita Galli-Curci, Alma Gluck, and Mary Garden; and the president of the Metropolitan Opera, financier Otto Kahn. Whiteman invited them to luncheon rehearsals at the Palais Royal. Together they raised and contributed money, wrote program notes, spoke glowingly from the stage, and pack­ed the house with glitterati. It was to become the highlight of the 1924-25 concert season.

 

The follow-up was equally brilliant. The concert, with a few changes, was repeated at Carnegie Hall and Philadelphia's Music Academy. A spring tour was booked by no less an impresario than Coppicus, who ran the Metropolitan Opera Musical Bureau. Whiteman, Gershwin, and the band, now 24 strong (an extra sax was added), rode in a pair of especially outfitted railroad cars. Aboard were three Chickering grand pianos--two white ones for the band and an ebony concert grand for Gershwin--all carefully husbanded by Emil Neugebauer, the tuner and technician for the celebrated concert pianist Joseph Levine. Touring and recording were how Whiteman brought his suc­cessful musical experiment to concert audiences and dance band fans in those pre-radio days.

 

It was a whirlwind tour--20 con­certs in 18 days--in the major concert halls of cities such as Rochester, Pitt­sburgh, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Cin­cinnati, and St. Louis. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, Milton Rettenberg, recent­ly graduated from Columbia Law School, took over playing the Rhap­sody for the rest of the tour while Ger­shwin returned to New York to prepare for the new 1924 George White Scandals. Whiteman brought his band triumphantly back to New York to record for Victor the two big new pieces on the concert--Rhapsody in Blue, with Gershwin, and Victor Herbert's Suite of Serenades. Whiteman's Aeolian Hall Concert was clearly the high point of his career, one he would try to repeat in vain as he sought out other Gershwins and staged other "experiments." In­evitably, the slow theme of the Rhap­sody in Blue became his musical signature, just as his bald, round, mustachioed caricature had become his logo, his visual signature.

 

The notion of creating an in­digenous American art music had been expressed even before the turn of the century, notably by Dvorak: "In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and no­ble school of music.'' From 1901-15, a group of composers led by Arthur Farwell began its own music publishing company, The Wa-Wan Press, "to launch a progressive move­ment for American music, including the acceptance of Dvorak's challenge to go after our own folk music." One of the works played by Whiteman at the Aeolian Hall concert, Logan's Pale Moon, was undoubtably a Wa-Wan Press--American Indian--inspired piece. Scott Joplin's Treemonisha (1911) was certainly a pioneer American folk opera that pointed in the same direction. But it was not un­til Whiteman's landmark concert that the idea became a reality.  Gershwin's Rhapsody emerged indisputably as the first successful crossing of America's infectious folk, jazz, blues, and ragtime with traditional European music. Evidently the path had been prepared-why Paul Whiteman?

 

In 1924, Whiteman was already a major popular star. His bands played for society parties up and down the cast coast and crossed the Atlantic on ocean liners. In 1924, Whiteman was already a major popular star. His bands played for society parties up and down the cast coast and crossed the Atlantic on ocean liners. He made hit records for Victor, and his was about to become one of the first radio orchestras. Unlike so many music figures of the time Whiteman was no exotic foreigner. He was a Denver-born, corn-fed, cheery bear of a man, mild mannered and well-spoken. He had won over the movie colony during an extended run at the Alexandria Hotel in Los Angeles. I

 

For five summer months in 1923 he delighted London audiences and the British aristocracy with his natural manner as well as his music. The following winter he was again in New York, appearing nightly at the posh Palais Royal Restaurant, where Vin­cent Sardi, Sr. was captain of the staff. Despite Prohibition, high society came in droves to eat and to listen­--and especially to dance-to the music of the hottest-dance band of the mo­ment. With all his success, Whiteman still had an insatiable curiosity about jazz music and was constantly on the lookout for fresh ideas or new hot players and arrangers. He stayed abreast of its stylistic changes, always translating the newest trends into his kind of music.

 

Seeing Whiteman on film, fiddle in hand, fronting his band, has given me an even more telling insight into the reasons for his success.  From his earliest Hollywood film in 1920 to his last appearances on television in the 1950s, Whiteman performs with his violin as if he were bouncing a baby boy on his shoulder. They are totally connected, innocently and infectious­ly at ease-the fiddle and Paul. Well over six feet tall, this 300-pound man was described in the New York Times review of the Aeolian Hall Concert: "He trembles, wobbles, quivers-a piece of jazz jelly ....” (Olin Downes, February 13, 1924)

 

This then was the man who con­vinced the rich and famous to support his timely idea, "An Experiment in Modern Music." In a subsequent radio interview, Whiteman called it "the first jazz concert that was ever given in the sacred halls of a symphonic hall." And, about the longhairs who were present, "There was Damrosch, Rachmaninoff, Heifetz, and Kreisler, and several others. (Pause) We pro­bably gave them a light haircut."

 

The program was carefully design­ed. After opening with Livery Stable Blues, played in the raucous style of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Whiteman offered his most favored Palais Royal arrangements, including two showpieces, one each for virtuoso banjo player Pingatore and multiple-reed wizard Ross Gorman; exact renderings (he was very proud of this) of his hit records Limehouse Blues and Whispering, and some guaranteed crowd pleasers, including "knuckle busters" by the dashing novelty piano virtuoso Zez Confrey.  For all these, Whiteman played his violin while directing the band.

 

Then came symphonic ar­rangements, including the Victor Herbert and George Gershwin works, commissioned by Whiteman especially for this program. At this point in the concert, the band was augmented with seven violins, two French horns, and an extra bass. Whiteman led this 23-piece ensemble as a proper stand-up con­ductor, dressed, as was the orchestra, in the customary daytime for­mal cutaway suit, with striped pants and ascot tie. For the first time in his career he put down his violin and took up a baton.

 

Including Zez Con­frey on the program not only showed off a famous piano virtuoso and composer, America's answer to Liszt, but also ensured a crowd. Sheet music for his Kitten on the Keys had already outsold the classic Maple Leaf Rag, and his player-piano­-type novelties were at the peak of their popularity. Confrey naturally had equal billing with Gershwin.

 

Whiteman was familiar with Ger­shwin's huge talent but there was no way of predicting if Gershwin could produce a winner. While his better Broadway songs had been well receiv­ed in a formal concert setting-an Aeolian Hall recital by the eminent soprano Eva Gautier in November 1923, his operatic scene for three black singers, Blue Monday Blues, presented as part of George White's Scandals of 1922, was withdrawn after one performance. Perhaps it was fate that the Whiteman band was featured in Scandals of 1922. Did Whiteman's witnessing of that ambitus failure prompt him to recognize in Gershwin a kindred spirit--a shared dream to bring their music out of the dance palaces and musical theaters and into the concert hall?

 

Gershwin was by all accounts an especially winning pianist, and Whiteman's request for Gershwin to compose "a jazz piece for solo piano and orchestra" turned out to be an in­spired one. Virgil Thomson, one of the special few who was at both the original 1924 Aeolian Hall Concert and my 60th anniversary re-creation at New York's Town Hall (February 12, 1984), wrote me of his recollec­tions: "My chief memories of that premiere are the clarinet lick, an up­ward glissando which starts the whole thing off, and the composer's beautiful hands with their lightly fleet fingers., also his singing piano tone."

 

With the commissioning of Victor Herbert to write An American Suite, Whiteman took out another insurance policy to go with the drawing power provided by the popular Zez Confrey. Herbert, despite his Irish birth and European training, had by 1924, become a highly respected, beloved, and successful "American" composer. Among his compositions are more than 50 operettas, including Babes in Toyland, Naughty Marietta, and The Red Mill. In several respects, the 1911 Metropolitan Opera production of his opera Natoma, the story of an Indian princess, with Mary Garden in the ti­tle role, was a precursor to Whiteman's Aeolian Hall Concert. Natoma was heralded as the first time an American composer, an American librettist, American subject matter, and the English language were deem­ed appropriate for that most European of all art forms, grand opera.

 

Clearly, Herbert was the fitting choice to write a work for Whiteman's historic occasion. By ac­cepting the commission, Herbert gave the concert the vote of confidence it needed to cross over into, and receive the awareness and approval of, the serious music establishment. Knowing the political realities of the music business, it is my guess that the novel­ty of a Herbert premiere--written for a jazz band--brought out John Philip Sousa, Rachmaninoff, and possibly Stokowski on that snowy Sunday afternoon, Lincoln's birthday, 1924.

 

The program worked a magic back then and, from my personal ex­perience, still does. The charm and setting of the jazz-band sounds, the spiky rhythms, the good-natured and the often-touching gestures toward the classics--To a Wild Rose on a haunting soprano saxophone--create a receptive mood, a perfect climate for Gershwin's masterpiece. And deep down, audiences and musicians alike sense that they are re-witnessing the birth of something wondrous.

 

 

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