Jazz and I have been old friends for a long time, but as much as I enjoy my favorite kind of jazz – swing music – I’m not old enough to actually remember it during its heyday. Its golden age was probably the 1930’s, and it was still pretty popular during the war years but by the time I was discovering it there were a lot of newer musical choices around. Still, it was at least visible in the rear-view mirror, and while I was growing up my parents did have old 78’s around, so I had to opportunity to be exposed to it.
That’s not the case with the music from the 1920’s, the era that actually marked the starting point for a lot of the later jazz stars. I can’t relate to it personally, and I doubt that either of my parents would have remembered the jazz music of that time. (They would have been very small.) However, I’ve read about it and listened to a lot of recordings from the era, and it is absolutely a rich storehouse of fascinating musical history.
It seems to me that there were actually parallel musical stories being written at the time. One was that of the early black jazz musicians from New Orleans, New York, Chicago and other cities. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and others were making a lot of great music and attracting some attention — but at that time they were largely unrecognized by mainstream America, which instead loved the music of Paul Whiteman.
Most of the country was still humming tunes from World War I or before, and preferred the “sweet bands” — large groups that usually included a string section and played comfortable music. Still, things were changing, and part of the reason for that might have been that it was an exciting time. Speakeasies, flappers, and a booming post-war economy were all signs of the time, and the music soon began to reflect that. It became known as the jazz age and smart bandleaders knew they had to adapt.
Whiteman’s orchestra had been popular for a long time and in 1924 had featured a type of jazz by showcasing George Gershwin on the piano, doing his newly commissioned work, “Rhapsody In Blue”. Whiteman, who had always employed some of the best musicians, now began adding those more attuned to the new “hot” music. At one time or another, Whiteman featured the Dorsey brothers, Jack Teagarten, Bunny Berigan, and a cornetist destined to become a legend, Bix Beiderbecke.
Joining in on the vocal side of things was a young member of the orchestra’s singing group, the Rhythm Boys. Bing Crosby, whose instincts were always attuned to jazz, helped further the cause and the orchestra began mixing in more improvisation. At the forefront was Bix, who would soon spiral out of control and end up tragically, but never failed to dazzle audiences and his bandmates.
The music is a little different than what we’re all used to from later jazz, but it’s outstanding in its own way, with a life and vitality that’s infectious. You can almost imagine the flappers dancing, accompanied by guys in fur coats who are giddy from guzzling bathtub gin.
While all of this was going on, Whiteman and his press agents worked to popularize a new nickname – the King of Jazz – and it stuck. (Although it’s been disputed ever since.) He ended the decade by taking his orchestra to California and making a technicolor sound movie – one of the first – that was filled with Hollywood glitz, but is interesting to watch for the historic aspects of the music and the film itself.
Crosby – who loved to party – fit nicely into the frenetic Hollywood lifestyle, and felt perfectly at home. He was soon finding spots in movies and became a star and a singing icon. Bix wasn’t so fortunate. Talented but troubled, he died in 1931 at just age 28, but is still remembered for his unique style and talent.
During the depression, Whiteman struggled to keep his orchestra going and soon found that fans preferred the newer swing bands. He eventually retired from an active musical life and died in 1967. His musical reputation has undergone a certain amount of revisionist treatment after years ofdisparagement, and he’s now given credit for introducing many new jazz stars and also for attempting to further the jazz movement.