The King of Jazz

Classic Arts Features   The King of Jazz
Jazz at Lincoln Center celebrates the music of Paul Whiteman.

He's known as "the King of Jazz." Actually, it's a name he gave himself. Nonetheless, his music is a cornerstone in the foundation of jazz. For this reason, on February 17-19, 2005, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis will present a concert titled "The Jazz Age: Music of Paul Whiteman."

Paul Whiteman was roaring onto the scene in the 1920s, when jazz was heard primarily in smaller combos. He increased the size of his band into nearly symphonic proportions and was gifted in finding talent for it‹names like Bing Crosby, Bix Beiderbecke, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Hoagy Carmichael, and many others. Young Crosby got his start singing in Whiteman's hit vocal trio the Rhythm Boys.

Whiteman started as a classical viola player, contributing to the San Francisco Symphony before beginning his first band in that city after World War I. He moved to New York in 1920, where he made his first record Whispering/The Japanese Sandman, which sold over two million copies and made him a star. A concert at New York's Aeolian Hall in February 1924 cemented Whiteman's name in music history. This concert premiered Rhapsody in Blue and featured George Gershwin himself performing it with the Whiteman Orchestra. The song became the band's signature tune.

In 1930 the bandleader starred in the movie The King of Jazz. But, alas, fame is fleeting and Whitman's reputation began to decline. "The King of Jazz" was replaced by "The King of Swing," Benny Goodman.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Whiteman's orchestra evolved as he worked as musical director for the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). He retired in the 1960s and passed away in 1967.

These days, Whiteman's influence on popular music remains immense, yet you won't find much of his work on CD. Many jazz critics downplay his contributions and insist that because Whiteman had no African Americans in his band, his claim to greatness is tarnished. But he defined jazz in a way that many could enjoy, which is why Marsalis is now inviting Whiteman's music into the House of Swing, Jazz at Lincoln Center's new home, Frederick P. Rose Hall.

The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, under the direction of Marsalis, will offer its take on Whiteman's music in February with the same precision and power that gave the music its legendary status. "We originally formed the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra to play the music of Duke Ellington," explains Marsalis. "But over the years, the ensemble has evolved and matured into a working band that plays music from the entire history of jazz and regularly premieres new works and arrangements."

Whiteman is only the latest jazz great whom Marsalis has openly championed. "A lot of jazz musicians like Monk, Duke, Miles, Charlie Parker, Dizzy, Jelly Roll Morton, and Wayne Shorter have influenced me," he says. "I listen to a lot of them and try to incorporate things that I like into my own style. Trumpet players such as Maurice Andre, Adolph Hofner, Cootie Williams, Ray Nance, and Sweets Edison have all influenced my style as well. When I was in high school, Clark Terry influenced me a lot. I can't forget him."

And while much of the general public has, as of yet, little or no knowledge of the music of Whiteman, Marsalis notes that education is one of his primary goals. "Education comprises two-thirds of all Jazz at Lincoln Center programming," he says. "We strive to reach people of all ages with this music. After concerts, Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra musicians are surrounded by kids trying to learn something new. Orchestra members make themselves available to give students private instruction in their dressing rooms. And we lead workshops for students worldwide. That is part of why I've been talking and teaching jazz for about 20 years. Since our inception, Jazz at Lincoln Center has put education at the center of our mission. And that's why it is so important to me that Frederick P. Rose Hall was built as a place that welcomes kids into the feeling and meaning of jazz."

And not just kids. Audiences of all ages will learn about the music of Paul Whiteman, the "King of Jazz," in real time with Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.

"Every part of Frederick P. Rose Hall is going to be integrated as a teaching facility," Marsalis says. "From the concert hall to the jazz atrium to the Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame. Our goal is that, when we welcome people to Jazz at Lincoln Center, the entire place will swing in celebration of what we are and what we can become."

Scott H. Thompson is Assistant Director-Public Relations for Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Recommended Reading: