We've had quite a few significant musical birthdays this week. The honor today is reserved for "The King of Jazz," Paul Whiteman. A strong-willed innovator and perfectionist, he became the most popular band leader in the U.S. during the Roaring Twenties. Whiteman encouraged many talented artists and composers through his interest in fusing jazz with
other musical styles. He appreciated experimental music and sponsored several concerts featuring new compositions and artists. For one of these concerts asked his friend and collaborator, George Gershwin, to compose a "jazz concerto" for his series of experimental music concerts. Though faced with a short performance deadline, Gershwin reluctantly agreed. In two weeks, he completed the new piece and entitled it Rhapsody in Blue. After two weeks of orchestration and eight days of rehearsal, Whiteman premiered the piece at the Aeolian Hall in New York in February 1924 with Gershwin at the piano.
Today Rhapsody in Blue is beloved throughout the world, but Whiteman is all but forgotten as the man behind the music. There is a backstory here worth knowing. After all, Whiteman gave early exposure to some of the best, including Bing Corsby, Mildred Bailey, Bunny Berigan, Jack Venuti, Bix Beiderbecke, and Jack Teagarden. Many people today won't recognize most of these names but they should be aware that these unknowns helped shape much of the music - especially jazz and vocal pop - we hear today.
Here's an important interview with Whiteman about Gershwin and the creation of Rhapsody in Blue. It's well worth every second of talk and includes about three minutes of music:
Whiteman was quite the showman as can be viewed in this excerpt from the 1930 film, King of Jazz. The film was the first to use a prerecorded studio soundtrack "made independently of the actual filming." It was also one of the earliest Technicolor films. George Gershwin is at the piano.
It wouldn't be proper to let Whiteman's birthday pass without an opportunity to hear his celebrated orchestra performing the popular music that made them famous. This 1928 recording features 25 year-old Bing Crosby singing his first number one hit. Of course, most of us know that he would go on to shape popular singing for the rest of the century:
And we should also remember other shapers like Paul Whiteman who played a monumental role in American entertainment but have ended up lost to new generations.