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Revisiting “An Experiment in Modern Music”

whiteman

Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra, c. 1924

 

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The February 12, 1924 concert by Paul Whiteman at New York’s Aeolian Hall was billed as “An Experiment in Modern Music.”  As reported by New York Times critic Olin Downes, who attended the event, “the concert was referred to as ‘educational,’ to show the development of this type of music [jazz].”  The concert is now best remembered for being the setting for the world premiere of Rhapsody in Blue, with composer George Gershwin at the piano.  As Times critic John S. Wilson wrote in 1987, “this concert is today considered a defining event of the Jazz Age and the cultural history of New York City.”

In this excerpt from Whiteman’s 1926 autobiography Jazz – written with essayist Mary Margaret McBride – Whiteman writes about his Aeolian Hall concert experience, and in particular the appeal of Rhapsody, which he described as being “the first rhapsody written for a solo instrument and a jazz orchestra.” It is a great reminder of the marketing challenges jazz music faced at the time, when skeptical (and traditionally white, high society) music fans condemned early pieces like “Livery Stable Blues” and other, according to Whiteman, “crude early attempts.”

Following the excerpt is the complete review by Downes, published in the Times on February 13, 1924.

 

 

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aolian

Aeolian Hall

 

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Visions of playing a jazz concert in what a critic has called the “perfumed purlieus” of Aeloian 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 half past five, on the afternoon of February 12, 1924, we took our fifth curtain call…

If I’d been willing to wait a few centuries for a verdict on my work, I wouldn’t have been so wrought up over the Aeolian Hall concert.  But here I saw the common people of America taking all the jazz they could get and mad to get more, yet not having the courage to admit that they took it seriously.  I believed that jazz was beginning a new movement in the world’s art of music.  I wanted it to be recognized as such.  I knew it never would be in my lifetime until the recognized authorities on music gave it their approval.

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” sort 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 conservatives cried incredulously.  “What is the world coming to?”

I trembled at our temerity when we made out the lists of patrons and patronesses for the concert.  But in a few days, I exulted at our daring, for the acceptances began to come in – from Damrosch, Godowsky, Heifetz, Kreisler, McCormack, Rachmaninoff, Rosenthal, Stokowsky, Stransky.  We had kindly response, topo, from Alda, Galli-Curci, Garden, Gluck, and Jeanne Gordon.  Otto Kahn and Jules Glaenzer agreed to represent the patrons of art on our roster and the prominent writers we asked were equally obliging.  These included:  Fannie Hurst, Heywood Broun, Frank Crowninshield, S. Jay Kaufman, Karl Kitchin, Leonard Liebling, O.O. McIntyre, Pitts Sanborn, Gilbert Seldes, Deems Taylor, and Carl Van Vechten…

That concert cost $11,000.  I lost about $7,000 on it.  The program alone, together with the explanatory notes, cost $900.  We rehearsed for many weeks and since it was outside our regular work, every rehearsal meant extra pay for the men.  Nine musicians were added for the occasion and their salaries also piled up the total.

I didn’t care.  It would have been worth it to me at any price.  But never in my life had I such stage fright as that day.  I had no doubt of the orchestra.  But how would people take it?  Would we be the laughingstock of the town when we woke the “morning after”?  Would the critics decide I was trying to be smart and succeeding 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 around 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 my myself what was happening out front, and putting an overcoat over my concert clothes, I slipped around to the entrance of Aeolian Hall.

There I gazed upon a picture that should have imparted a 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 state of mind 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, sure enough, and the next day the ticket office people said they could have sold out the house 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 five thousand dollars if we could stop right then and there.  Now that the audience had come, perhaps I had really nothing to offer at 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, as I was tempted to do, and announce that there wouldn’t be any concert, we were in the midst of it.

It was a strange audience out in front.  Vaudevillians, concert managers come to have a look at the novelty, Tin Pan Alleyites, composers, symphony and opera stars, flappers, cake-eaters, all mixed up higgledy-piggledy.

Beginning with the earliest jazz composition, “Livery Stable Blues,” we played twenty-six selections designed to exhibit legitimate scoring 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 was so called.  I still believe that “Livery Stable Blues” and A Rhapsody in Blue, played at the concert by its talented composer George Gershwing, 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.  At least they will have none of the numerous substitutes that smart wordologists are continually offering.  So I say, let’s call the new music jazz.

This, then, is the jazz program we played that day:

True Form of Jazz

  1. Ten Years Ago – “Livery Stable Blues”
  2. With Modern Embellishment – “Mama Loves Papa” (Baer)

Comedy Selections

  1. Origin of “Yes, We Have No Bananas” (Silver)
  2. Instrumental Comedy – “So This Is Venice” (Thomas) (Adapted from The Carnival of Venice)

 

Contrast – Legitimate Scoring vs. Jazzing

  1. Selection in True Form – “Whispering” (Schonberger)
  2. Same Selection with Jazz Treatment

 

Recent Compositions with Modern Score

  1. “Limehouse Blues” (Braham)
  2. “I Love You” (Archer)
  3. “Raggedy Ann” (Kern)

An Experiment

Zez Confrey (Piano – Accompanied by the Orchestra)

  1. Medley Popular Airs
  2. “Kitten on the Keys” (Confrey)
  3. “Ice Cream and Art”
  4. “Nickel in the Slot” (Confrey)

Flavoring a Selection with Borrowed Themes

“Russian Rose” (Grofe) (Based on the “Volga Boat Song”)

 

Semisymphonic Arrangement of Popular Melodies

Consisting of:

  1. “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (Berlin)
  2. “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” (Berlin)
  3. “Orange Blossoms in California” (Berlin)

A Suite of Serenades (Herbert)

  1. Spanish
  2. Chinese
  3. Cuban
  4. Oriental

 

Adaptation of Standard Selections on Dance Rhythm

 

  1. “Pale Moon” (Logan)
  2. “To a Wild Rose” (MacDowell)
  3. “Chansonette” (Friml)

George Gershwin (Piano – Accompanied by the Orchestra)

A Rhapsody in Blue (Gershwin)

 

In the Field of Classics

“Pomp and Circumstance” (Elgar)

 

A Rhapsody in Blue was regarded by critics as the most significant number of the program.  It was the first rhapsody written for a solo instrument and a jazz orchestra.  The orchestral treatment was developed by Mr. Grofe,  Mr. Gershwin’s manuscript being 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 put it on the records.  It is music conceived for the jazz orchestra and I do not believe any other kind of orchestra can do it full justice, though some has played it.

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.

 

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Excerpted from Jazz, by Paul Whiteman and Margaret McBride (1926)

 

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The following is the critical review of the Aeolian Hall concert, written by New York Times critic Olin Downes.  Published on February 13, 1924.

 

 

“A Concert of Jazz”

 

A concert of popular American music was given yesterday afternoon in Aeolian Hall by Paul Whiteman and his orchestra of the Palais Royal.  The stage setting was as unconventional as the program.  Pianos in various stages of dishabille stood about, amid a litter of every imaginable contraption of wind and percussion instruments.  Two Chinese mandarins, surmounting pillars, looked down upon a scene that would have curdled the blood of a Stokowski or a Mengelberg.  The golden sheen of brass instruments of lesser and greater dimensions was caught up by a gleaming gong and carried out by bright patches of an oriental backdrop.  There were also, laying or hanging about, frying pans, large tin utensils, and a speaking trumpet, later stuck into the end of a trombone – and what a silky, silky tone came from that accommodating instrument!  The singular assemblage of things was more than once, in some strange way, to combine to evoke uncommon and fascinating sonorities.

There were verbal as well as programmatic explanations.  The concert was referred to as “educational,” to show the development of this type of music.  Thus, the “Livery Stable Blues” was introduced apologetically as an example of the depraved past from which modern jazz has risen.  The apology is herewith indignantly rejected, for this is a gorgeous piece of impudence, much better in its unbuttoned jocosity and Rabelaisian laughter than other and more polite compositions that came later.

The pianist gathered about him some five fellow performers.   The man with the clarinet wore a battered top hat that had ostensibly seen better days.  Sometimes he wore it, and sometimes played into it.  The man with the trombone played it as is, but also, on occasion, picked up a bathtub or something of the kind from the floor and blew into that.  The instruments made odd, unseemly, bushman sounds.  The instrumentalists rocked about.  Jests permissible in musical terms but otherwise not printable were passed between these friends of music.  The laughter of the music and its interpreters was tornadic.  It was – should we blush to say it? – a phase of America.  It reminded the writer of someone’s remark that an Englishman entered a place as if he were its master, whereas an American entered as if she didn’t care who in blazes the master might be.  Something like that was in this music.

There were later remarkably beautiful examples of scoring for a few instruments; scoring of singular economy, balance, color, and effectiveness; music at times vulgar, cheap, in poor taste, elsewhere of irresistible swing and insouciance and recklessness and life; music played as only such players as these can play it.  They have a technique of their own.  They play with an abandon equaled only by that race of born musicians – the American Negro, who has surely contributed fundamentally to this art which can neither be frowned nor sneered away.  They did not play like an army going through ordered maneuvers, but like the melomaniacs they are, bitten by rhythms that would have twiddled the toes of St. Anthony.  They beat time with their feet – lese-majeste in a symphony orchestra.  They fidgeted uncomfortably when for a moment they had to stop playing.  And there were the incredible gyrations of that virtuoso and imp of the perverse, Ross Gorman.  And then there was Mr. Whiteman.   He does not conduct.  He trembles, wabbles, quivers – a piece of jazz belly, conducting the orchestra with the back of the trouser of the right leg, and the face of a mandarin the while.  There was an ovation for Victor Herbert, that master of instrumentation, when his four Serenades composed for this occasion were played, and Mr. Herbert acknowledged the applause from the gallery.  Then stepped upon the stage, sheepishly, a lank and dark young man – George Gershwin.  He was to play the piano part in the first public performance of his Rhapsody in Blue for piano and orchestra.  This composition shows extraordinary talent, just as it also shows a young composer with aims that go far beyond those of his ilk, struggling with a form of which he is far from being master.  It is important to bear both these facts in mind in estimating the composition.  Often Mr. Gershwin’s purpose is defeated by technical immaturity, but in spite of that technical immaturity, a lack of knowledge of how to write effectively for piano alone or in combination with orchestra, an unconscious attempt to rhapsodize in the manner of Franz Liszt, a naivete which at times stresses something unimportant while something of value and effectiveness goes by so quickly that it is lost – in spite of all this, he has expressed himself in a significant and, on the whole, highly original manner.

His first theme alone, with its caprice, humor and exotic outline, would show a talent to be reckoned with.  It starts with an outrageous cadenza of the clarinet.  It has subsidiary phrases, logically growing out of it, and integral to the thought.  The original phrase and subsidiaries are often ingeniously metamorphosed by devices of rhythm and instrumentation.  There is an oriental twist to the whole business that is not hackneyed or superficial.  And – what is important – this is no mere dance tune set for piano and other instruments.  It is an idea, or several ideas correlated and combined, in varying and well-contrasted rhythms that immediately intrigue the hearer.  This, in essence, is fresh and new and full of promise.

The second theme, with a lovely sentimental tune, is more after the manner of some of Mr. Gershwin’s colleagues.  Tuttis are too long, cadenzas are too long, the peroration at the end loses a large measure of wildness and magnificence it could easily have if it were more broadly prepared, and, for all that, the audience was stirred and many a hardened concertgoer excited with the sensation of a new talent finding its voice and likely to say something personally and racially important to the world.  A talent and an idiom also rich in possibilities for that generally exhausted and outworn form of the classic piano concerto.

Mr. Gershwin’s Rhapsody also stands out as counteracting, quite unconsciously, a weakness of the program – that is, a tendency to sameness of rhythm and sentiment in the music. When a program consists almost entirely of modern dance music, that is naturally a danger, since American dances of today do not boast great variety of step or character; but it should be possible for Mr. Whiteman to remedy this in a second program, which he will give later in the season.  There was tumultuous applause for Mr. Gershwin’s composition.  There was realization of the irresistible vitality and genuineness of much of the music heard on this occasion, as opposed to the pitiful sterility of the average production of the “serious” American composer.  The audience packed a house that could have been sold out twice over.

 

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Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra (with George Gershwin on piano) play “Rhapsody in Blue”

 

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