by João Azinhais
First of all I must say that I am a fan of Ellington and Basie, but as far the birth of the big band Jazz is concerned, I think one must give Paul Whiteman his due. Here's why:
The Origins of the Big Bands
James Lincoln Collier wrote an excellent book titled "Benny Goodman and the Swing Era". I know that a few people don't appreciate a lot of what Collier has to say (it is true that his book on Ellington is
not enthusiastic about Duke - in fact, on this one Collier states that Benny Goodman was his favorite). But this last book contains a very good essay on the Swing Era, and its origins.
Collier says that a few Jazz historians (he himself included) have considered Fletcher Henderson to be the father of big band Jazz. Now he corrects that opinion: for him, the origin of the
orchestrated Jazz form is due to three names: Art Hickman, Ferde Grofé (who orchestrated "Rhapsody in Blue" for the still inexperienced Gershwin) and Paul Whiteman. He says that
Hickman's Orchestra was the first to use saxophones, that he hired Grofé to arrange the music for it, but he never got anywhere. That is, the music business is hard and Hickman was no businessman.
Meanwhile, Whiteman was hanging around San Francisco's Barbary Coast when he "discovered" Jazz. He liked its spontaneity, its enthusiasm, its expressiveness, its rhythm, its spiritual
uplifting, although he thought (somewhat wrongly) that it lacked some polish to be presentable. It was Whiteman who foresaw the possibilities of arranging popular music to be played by
a dance orchestra; of using Jazz soloists in it; it allowed the music to have a form, to have an identity. And so, Whiteman hired Grofé, who had the knowledge of both orchestration and
popular forms to write his "Jazz" arrangements. It should be noted that Whiteman had classical music background, for he had played violin and viola in the Denver Symphony Orchestra
(incidentally, Whiteman's father was Jimmy Lunceford's music tutor); but Whiteman was the front-man with the ideas who handed them to Grofé who translated them into notes.
The result of this combination was Whiteman's immense success. One of his first recordings, "Whispering" (1920) sold almost two million records (one for each phonograph in the country,
an amazing fact at any time). Later, "Three O'Clock In The Morning" was an even greater hit.
Whiteman was a visionary. As George T. Simon said, Whiteman thought big, talked big and acted big. He was immensely wealthy with the royalties paid by the 52 (!) Whiteman bands in
the USA, Europe and Mexico (I don't know if anyone before him had invented the 'franchising' concept applied to the music business). He could ask (and get) enormous sums of money
for a personal appearance with his orchestra. His concert Experiment In Modern Music in 1924, which premièred "Rhapsody in Blue" was a great success and widely applauded by the
critics. Whiteman was by now a very rich man.
He recognized talent. He had at different times in his band an impressive array of gifted musicians, which included Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Charlie and Jack Teagarden, Bix
Beiderbecke, Frankie Trumbauer, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang and others; and singers like Bing Crosby, Mildred Bailey, Johnny Mercer and Billie Holiday. All were paid handsomely. Whiteman
also had great tolerance for them and some of their nasty habits.
The Title Of The King Of Jazz
The reason for the controversy about Paul Whiteman seems to lie in the title "King of Jazz". I really don't think this was very important, it was just a question of marketing and promoting
his name; Joe Oliver titled himself King Oliver; Jelly Roll Morton presented himself as "originator of Jazz, ragtime and stomp" (he was able to pinpoint the day when he invented Jazz), but
I never saw much trouble about this. Perhaps the problem was because Whiteman was white?
Interestingly enough, Duke Ellington has a section in his autobiography Music Is My Mistress dedicated to Paul Whiteman. It begins: Paul Whiteman was known as the King of Jazz,
and no one as yet has come near carrying that title with more certainty and dignity. Enlightening!
I suppose that Whiteman's dream (to make a lady out of Jazz) was a music form in the vicinity of "Rhapsody In Blue", and "An American In Paris" and the like. It is difficult to find recordings by him; he did not record during the Big Band Era because he said that any of his records played on the air would be in direct competition with him; for the most successful leaders with high sponsoring fees this was true. Anyway, I have a couple of Whiteman CDs. Jazzwise, the music quality rates, in my opinion, from poor to very reasonable. If we omit "Jazzwise", I think that we can even find outstanding moments, wonderfully arranged ballads, fine Charleston pieces and longer semi-classical works.
The question is: many others made much better music after Whiteman. But the fact remains that he led the way from Dixieland into the Big Bands. The pioneer is not always the best: that is why the NTSC color TV system has been surpassed by others, although it was the first!
by João Azinhais