May 2, 1925: Whiteman and That Blatant Music
On May 2, 1925, Paul Whiteman and His Concert Orchestra presented “An Entertainment in American Music” at Symphony Hall, under the auspices of the Bryn Mawr Club of Boston.
Paul Whiteman was enormously popular in 1925 and was associated with jazz in the public mind, but he wasn’t much for improvisation. He believed in arrangements, and his manifesto (my word) appeared in the program notes: “Some twelve years ago a blatant method of treating music was introduced which came to be known as jazz. The program below purposes (sic) to indicate tremendous strides which have been made in modifying this treatment, proving that the term jazz, though still applied to the melodious music of today, is a misnomer. The greatest single factor in the improvement of American popular music has been the development of the art of arranging the music for orchestra in accordance with the best musical traditions.” In other words, take your improvisation back to the street corner where it belongs.
The first musical offering on this night was an exposition of the “True Form of Jazz,” in two parts: “An early discordant jazz tune,” and “A similar tune made less blatant by modern scoring.” Then came the celebration of arranging: Ferde Grofé’s “Broadway at Night,” an adaptation of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s “Coq d’Or” to dance rhythms (are you nervous yet?), and Leo Sowerby’s “Synconata,” a sonata scored for Whiteman’s orchestra. Whiteman mainly stayed away from his many hits, so there was no “Whispering” or “Three O’Clock in the Morning,” but there were short works by Rudolf Friml, Isham Jones, and others. Whiteman closed with “Rhapsody in Blue,” pianist Harry Perrella soloing.
This was Whiteman’s orchestra before the arrival of Lang and Venuti, or Bix and Tram, or Crosby and the Rhythm Boys. This band was formal and stiff and a long way from swinging. George Frazier later remarked the band’s entire recorded output from this period was “pretentious, ungainly, unrhythmical, and too, too utterly fraught with Significance.” For better or for worse, though, many people heard this music and thought that this was jazz.
Whiteman of course moved on, but he was never worthy of the nickname hung on him, “The King of Jazz.” Jazz don’t need no king, especially one who turned Ravel’s stately “Bolero” into a fox trot.
Vincent Rose’s “I’ll See You in My Dreams” was one of the popular tunes played that night at Symphony Hall. Here is the Whiteman Orchestra’s 1925 recording of it.