Joshua Berrett, author of Louis Armstrong and Paul Whiteman: Two Kings of Jazz

October 4th, 2004

 

JJM  You quote Hammond as writing in his autobiography John Hammond on Record, “The strongest motivation for my dissent was jazz. I heard no color line in the music. While my early favorites were white players, the recorded and live performances of Negroes excited me more. The fact that the best jazz players barely made a living, were barred from all well-paying jobs in radio and in most nightclubs enraged me…To bring recognition to the Negro’s supremacy in jazz was the most effective and constructive form of social protest I could think of.”

JB  Yes. I am not disputing the value of what he did, it is just that in the process, these earlier contributions of Whiteman were completely ignored. As I was saying, the real lightening rod was the Scottsboro trial, which led people like Hammond to the larger issue of black music, specifically, jazz. It was also clearly accelerated by Armstrong’s growing reputation as an international superstar, which effectively starts around this same time. I would say that was a force that was just overwhelming, and of course picks up during the forties, when blacks gradually gained more mobility, found employment in defense industries and, as everybody knows, Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. Add to that the growth of bebop and how it forced the audience to listen to music. I suppose one could challenge this, but I think it is generally true to say that bebop was the first kind of jazz that was meant primarily for listening, not dancing. So, you have this whole seismic shift that takes place. I do argue, and I hope that it is fairly persuasive, that it was a process initiated with the Communist International in 1928, and was accelerated by the events surrounding the Scottsboro trial. Out of this, a whole group of Ivy League Marxists were writing about jazz — many of whom set the tone for jazz historiography, in this country in particular.

JJM  You quote Sidney Finkelstein, who wrote Jazz, A People’s Music as saying, “Jazz is the living embodiment of the creative powers of the people. It is especially the product, and gift to America, of the most poverty-stricken, hounded and exploited of the country, the Negro people…”

JB  Yes, and the writer Rudi Blesh talks about how the corrupting influence of capitalism idealizes the proletarian ideal, and so on. These people tended to think in extremes, and I am trying to give a more nuanced view, and show that there is a give and take going on. Yes, Louis Armstrong is a stellar soloist who without question is in the pantheon called “jazz,” but he was primarily a soloist, whereas Whiteman was more of a corporate executive who knew how to facilitate all kinds of developments in jazz as he knew it. In addition to that, I believe he was successful in many ways in developing something we today call “symphonic jazz,” which is now realized in this great synthesis I call Wynton Marsalis — who actually has brought together in a remarkable way the legacies of both Armstrong and Whiteman. Although he himself might disagree, the truth is that he has written music that is clearly within the symphonic jazz tradition.

JJM   In 1939, Duke Ellington paid a high compliment to Whiteman, saying “Mr. Whiteman deserves credit for discovering and recognizing ability or genius in composers whose works would not normally be acceptable to dance bands. Whiteman makes it possible to commercialize these works. We confess he has maintained a ‘higher level’ for many years, and we think there is no doubt but that he has carried jazz to the highest position it ever has enjoyed. He put it in the ears of the serious audience and they liked it. He is still Mr. Whiteman.” Are there subsequent quotes by Ellington on Whiteman that would have contradicted this viewpoint, causing those who revere Ellington to doubt the importance of Whiteman’s work?

JB  To be honest, I have not come across any. There might be such statements, but none that I have found. Often, these quotations have to be understood in context. Where was it initially published? Who was interviewing him? I find that Ellington himself is somewhat elusive. The real Duke Ellington is very hard to define, somewhat like the “Will o’ the Wisp,” and in his own way he could be a con artist of the highest order. At times he would say things that he thought people wanted to hear. In his book on Billy Strayhorn, Something to Live For, the author Walter van de Leur brings up the whole question of who wrote what for the Ellington orchestra. It is a very complex question. Who was Ellington, and what was he as a musician? That is only now starting to be understood by the real scholars. One might say that he is a very complex man to deconstruct.

JJM  Did Whiteman’s association with Al Jolson affect his standing with the way the jazz community viewed the seriousness of his work?

JB  They collaborated on the Kraft Music Hall radio series during 1933. How their working together impacted Whiteman’s standing with the jazz community as a result of it is not a subject I have really looked at in any great detail. When I mentioned their collaboration in the book, I was really trying to show how Whiteman wanted to make his music sound hot and earthy, which was part of the general mass media syndrome of radio. I believe one would have to go check out whatever “fanzines” were published at the time to really answer that question. Yes, you could say Whiteman working with Jolson was patronizing and racist from the persepctive of 2004, but at the time, a lot of this stuff was taken as the thing to do. It was the way people communicated.

JJM  You spend a good deal of time in the book on Hollywood, and how that served to ratify the roles of Whiteman and Armstrong within the culture.

JB  Absolutely. It was quite fascinating to see what went on. I wrote about High Society and Atlantic City and movies of that sort, and there is no question they served to market them. It would be fascinating to resurrect the information to correlate movie-goers with those who collected their records and those who danced to their music or just listened to this stuff.

JJM  Both of these men were so complex. We have talked a lot about Whiteman, but concerning Armstrong’s complexities, when I was a kid, two lasting impressions of Armstrong beyond his being a larger-than-life musician stood out for me. One was his strong stand against racial discrimination — in particular relating to the events in Little Rock, Arkansas — and the other is this quite opposite impression of him displaying the type of personality referred to as an “Uncle Tom.”

JB  Yes, I understand. I write about this, as does a colleague of mine, Krin Gabbard, in his book on jazz and film, Jamming at the Margins. The fact is that yes, Louis could smile and mug and seem like an “Uncle Tom,” but while he was smiling, he would drop poison in your coffee. He used humor to make his point, and I think that is part of his genius. There is no question that superficially he could seem to be an “Uncle Tom,” but there was no other black American of that generation — and specifically in the times of 1957 — who could challenge Dwight Eisenhower the way he did, even canceling a State Department sponsored tour of the Soviet Union in protest. I think his actions speak louder than his smile, and that is what counts. We tend to hone in on superficialities and on things that are not particularly relevant, or maybe that are not really communicating the message that is being communicated. We misread the signals. I think part of the challenge with any complex personality like Whiteman or Armstrong is that they are giving out multiple signals, and that is part of their complex nature. Coming from such different backgrounds, they operated in different contexts. As somebody who grew up in poverty and who knew what Jim Crow was all about, there is no question that Armstrong used his humor as a means of survival. The idea that he was an “Uncle Tom” is somewhat simplistic, because it ignores all the other factors.

JJM  How do you expect the jazz community will receive your work?

JB  I hope favorably. There are those who will say that I am giving too much importance to Whiteman, but what is very fascinating are the actions of people from the era. For example, Fletcher Henderson at one time was called the “Paul Whiteman” of his race. Some of the early managers of Duke Ellington would market him as a “Paul Whiteman,” and there is this whole idea of how Whiteman was used as a role model for African Americans.

JJM  Along these lines, you quote Earl Hines as having boasted, “Paul Whiteman loved my playing, and he would have liked me to join him, but he always had to qualify his admiration by saying, ‘If you were only white…'”

JB  Yes, so that is the point I was trying to make here. It is quite fascinating if you go look at the early history.

JJM  Yet if you look at what some of the black intellectuals of the era were saying, particularly those within the Harlem Renaissance…

JB  Absolutely. If you look at the Chicago Defender and read the commentaries by Dave Peyton, Whiteman was viewed as a real role model, because being able to read music and play from a written score was perceived as a real ideal to strive for. So, this issue is clearly complex, and what I would like to add is that I am arguing for a mutual give and take. It is clearly a case of reciprocity that defines the history of jazz, and I try to make it very clear in my concluding chapter that Wynton Marsalis is like a grand synthesis of Louis Armstrong and Paul Whiteman in just about everything he has done over the past few years. If you look at his career, it is very obvious that he has combined his two worlds.

JJM  What Marsalis recordings would you point to that best demonstrate that?

JB  The concluding work I write about is All Rise, from 1999, which is a commission from the New York Philharmonic and involves the performing forces of Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Philharmonic itself. In fact, Marsalis also performed it on the West Coast with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Then there are various pieces he has written for the Orion String Quartet, as well as Blood on the Fields. These are all works that you might label “Third Stream,” but they can clearly be traced to this whole symphonic stream starting with Rhapsody in Blue.

JJM  Would Marsalis agree with you that these works are a grand synthesis of Armstrong and Whiteman?

JB   I have not had the privilege of interviewing Marsalis, but the fact is that much of his recent writing has, without question, been in the symphonic jazz tradition. You don’t require the forces of the New York Philharmonic and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra — to the point of having them on the same stage at the same time — without the work being in that tradition. It is a very clear effort on his part to create a kind of synthesis that is as inclusive as possible. I don’t think you can avoid coming to that conclusion when listening to the music.

JJM  So are you saying that, like Whiteman, Marsalis is attempting to make a “lady” out of jazz?

JB  In his own way, yes. As we all well know, there is a resplendent jazz facility opening in New York with unprecedented space dedicated to it. Much of that is as a result of his having access to money and power in much the same way that Paul Whiteman did a few decades ago. There is no question that he has a golden touch.

JJM  Do you want to add anything else?

JB  Only that I am very encouraged by the reception for the book so far. I like to think that it gets people thinking, and I am all for fostering more tolerance and understanding in this world. I guess that is part of my larger agenda.

 

________________

“We have already seen how the centennials of Whiteman and Armstrong’s years of birth and their respective legacies were celebrated in utterly different fashion.  And the relative neglect of Whiteman has not simply been a symptom of a predominantly African-American jazz perspective shaped by the ideologies of the late 1930s or the changes wrought by the civil rights movement of the 1950s and beyond.  It has also been the casualty of a failure to acknowledge Whiteman as the father of an often-overlooked tradition — that of symphonic jazz.”

*

– Joshua Berrett

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Louis Armstrong and Paul Whiteman: Two Kings of Jazz

by

Joshua Berrett

 *

 

About Joshua Berrett

JJM  Who was your childhood hero?

JB  My childhood hero? Wow. I suppose this is a time for honored confessions. I would say that it might have been Beethoven. I was born in South Africa, and was very much nurtured by the “dead white European male’s” tradition. When I began teaching in this country, and woke up to the realities of a more global, cosmopolitan world, I embraced jazz in many ways.

Also, I grew up during the waning years of apartheid in South Africa, and I was very beholden to the United Party — which was the diametric opposite of the Nationalist Party. One of the United Party figures who affected my very early life was Jan Christian Smuts.

 

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Joshua Berrett is the author of The Louis Armstrong Companion: Eight Decades of Commentary and co-author of The Musical World of J.J. Johnson. His articles have been published in Journal of Jazz Studies, The Musical Quarterly, American Music and The Black Perspective in Music. He is professor of music at Mercy College.

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Paul Whiteman products at Amazon.com

Louis Armstrong products at Amazon.com

Joshua Berrett products at Amazon.com

_______________________________

This interview took place on October 4, 2004

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If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Jazz Modernism author Alfred Appel.

 

 

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