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“It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang that is often so stimulating to a composer (I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise) that I suddenly heard—and even saw on paper—the complete construction of the Rhapsody from beginning to end. …I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America—of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.” – George Gershwin
“As to the true origins of the cakewalk, it is believed to have begun at about the same time as minstrelsy, around 1840, with slaves parodying the formal dances of their masters. These burlesques came to be mimicked in minstrel shows. After the Civil War, when blacks entered minstrelsy, they assumed parts in the minstrels’ cakewalk. As Terry Waldo puts it in his book This Is Ragtime: “By the time the ragtime era began in 1896, the cakewalk was being performed by blacks imitating whites who were imitating blacks who were imitating whites.” I’m sure that the gist of this wonderful little observation can, without much squinting, be applied to the whole of popular culture” – Nick Toches ‘Where Dead Voices Gather’
I have two people for you to look at today, two white men (one of whom is actually a Mr Whiteman) who stood on the shoulders of black musicians to get a clear view of the outline of the American 20th Century (or at least its first half.) One is, rightfully, remembered as an epoch-defining composer, the other remembered less well, and even then often with a mild embarrassment or outright dismissal. Both, though, were important pieces in our puzzle, and it’s in 1924 that their paths meet, and they make the astonishing recording which holds this mix between its two sections.
Born in a second-floor tenement in Brooklyn to Russian / Lithuanian Jewish parents, George Gershwin was named after his grandfather, a Russian army mechanic from Odessa. Growing up in the Yiddish theatre district, George and his three siblings were exposed to music from an early age, and four all took it up, either as a hobby or as a career. Leaving school at 15, George found work as a song plugger, promoting music at a music publisher by playing it on the piano. He soon began composing his own songs, and in 1919 had a massive hit with ‘Swannee’ – made popular by Al Jolson, another New York Lithuanian Jew, and by now perhaps the most popular non-opera singer in the world. At the start of the 1920s, he began writing successful Broadway musicals with his brother Ira and the established writer William Daly.
Though Paul Whiteman was almost a decade the senior of George Gershwin, his career was then at an earlier stage. Born in Denver, he played without any great distinction in a couple of orchestras before joining that ever-surprising source of musical mimicry and innovation, a US Navy marching band. While his band took less in the way of plaudits than that of James Reece Europe, he nevertheless finished the First World War as a successful band leader and within a couple of years had brought his own Paul Whiteman Orchestra to New York to begin recording for the Victor Talking Machine Company.
An important thing to remember is that Gershwin was no more a classical composer than Whiteman was a classical musician. Both were New York music business operators, working on their next project. The fact that they broke out of the expectations handed down to them is perhaps the most astonishing thing about Rhapsody in Blue.
Whiteman and Gershwin had this in common – they were both adopters and popularisers of jazz. One way to view this would be to say they were taking advantage of this new genre, watering it down in order to make money. Another would be to say they were defenders and cheerleaders for music which polite society found dangerous, uncivilized and frightening. Working in the same circles, the two first collaborated in 1922, when Whiteman managed to get Gershwin’s jazz-opera hybrid piece Blue Monday into a show called George White’s Scandals, for which he was the musical director. This did not go particularly well, the piece was dropped after a single performance, but the two clearly realised there was potential in their collaboration, and seem to have kept in touch.
Rhapsody in Blue was written, at short notice, for Whiteman’s all-jazz concert “An Experiment in Modern Music” at Aeolian Hall in New York in February 1924. The requested piece was intended to demonstrate the progress of jazz, from its “primitive” form to the “sophisticated” version played by, um, Whiteman’s band. Gershwin went very much off-piste with this idea, presenting little more than an unrelated sketch to Whiteman’s arranger shortly before the concert. The piano parts were still unwritten, and Gershwin himself agreed to join the band and improvise these parts as he saw fit, signalling to the band when they should join in again. It’s a testament to his skills that this worked at all, and contrary to expectations it was the highlight of a successful night and motivation to extend to a series of concerts. Sergei Rachmaninov, violinist Fritz Kreisler and conductor Leopold Stokowski, three figures we will be hearing more from, were all present that night.
Aeolian Hall was not far from the Kentucky Club, where Duke Ellington played, and Roseland, home to Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra. Were George and Paul going there in the evenings? Possibly. The truth is that Rhapsody in Blue (its title inspired by Whistler’s Nocturne In Blue And Green) only takes its inspiration from a few elements of jazz and blues, while leaving seemingly vital parts aside. More than a portrait of American music, it is perhaps better described as an aural portrait of the sounds of New York, its rhythms and noises, its harmonies, its stories. It has a kind of constant bubbling-up excitement and listening to it sometimes I feel there is the potential to imagine what would later be described as “the eight million stories in the naked city” within. For this mix I’ve taken the first and last sections from their contemporary recording (the middle section was not used this time) and put them at either end of my overview of music from the year.
Rhapsody in Blue is a view of the future as much as it is one of the past – but to follow Gershwin’s train metaphor, it is a vision of a line down which America would not travel. The bubbling stew from which jazz and blues have just emerged would not now allow their music to transform into a codified, respectable, professionalized standard. The momentum was with the improvisors, like Louis Armstrong, with bawdy Hokem songs and divinely inspired hymns played on improvised equipment. Thousands of musicians across the country were about to be given the chance to record on new electrical devices, and within a few years this will sound like the past. Even as a representation of 1924, Rhapsody in Blue seems slightly quaint – aside from that opening clarinet note, there is little to represent the seedy environment in which jazz had been born and was currently flourishing.
Perhaps Paul Whiteman had a better handle on this, in a sense, as he immediately returned to making a more polite form of the music with occasional toe-dips into the murkier depths – it was a niche that needed filling, and he did it well, earning the sobriquet “The King of Jazz” (as Arthur Collins had been “The King of the Ragtime Singers”) – Duke Ellington even said that “Paul Whiteman was known as the King of Jazz, and no one as yet has come near carrying that title with more certainty and dignity.” Aside from this one recording, his body of work now seems something less than essential, but he at least managed to avoid spoiling his reputation with petulance and resentment, as Nick LaRocca did. He dies at the end of 1967, with”Daydream Believer” by The Monkees at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Gershwin, of course, didn’t stick around so long, dying from a brain tumor in 1937. By then his reputation was assured, of course. Not only had he written standards like I Got Rhythm, Embraceable You, Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off, Someone to Watch Over Me, They Can’t Take That Away From Me and Fascinating Rhythm, and so on, he had put together the opera Porgy & Bess, featuring an all-black cast, including Paul Robeson, and maybe his most enduring piece, Summertime.
0:00:17 WLAG – National Defense Day (Excerpt 1)
0:00:22 Paul Whiteman & His Concert Orchestra (the composer at the piano) – Rhapsody In Blue, Part 1
0:04:44 Wolverine Orchestra – Fidgety Feet
0:07:07 WLAG – National Defense Day (Excerpt 2)
0:07:13 Bessie Smith – Hateful Blues
0:10:12 J.D. Harris – The Grey Eagle
0:11:34 Fiddlin’ John Carson – Dixie Boll Weevil
0:13:24 Vernon Dalhart – Prisoner’s Song
0:16:37 Ernest V. Stoneman – The Titanic
0:18:41 Jasper Bisbee & Beulah Bisbee-Schuler – Opera Reel with Calls
0:20:34 Honorable James M. Curley – The Elks’ Eleven O’Clock Toast
0:20:59 Whistler and his Jugband – Jerry O’Mine
0:22:29 Emile Berliner – To His Grandson Bobby Frank (Excerpt 1)
0:22:33 Emmett Miller – Anytime
0:24:40 Emile Berliner – To His Grandson Bobby Frank (Excerpt 2)
0:24:43 Cliff Edwards – Fascinating Rhythm
0:27:07 Green Brothers – Fascinating Rhythm
0:28:52 Johnny Bayersdorffer and his Jazzola Novelty Orchestra – I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone
0:31:33 International Novelty Orchestra – Hey Hey And Hee Hee (with Rudy Wiedoeft)
0:33:32 Sioux City Six – Flock O’ Blues
0:36:08 George Mcclennon’s Jazz Devils – New Orleans Wiggle
0:38:32 Trixie Smith – Choo Choo Blues
0:41:04 Clarence Williams’ Blue Five – House Rent Blues (The Stomp)
0:43:59 Margaret Johnson – Absent Minded Blues
0:46:55 Johnny De Droit and his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra – The Swing
0:48:51 Calvin Coolidge – Speech
0:49:10 Virginia Liston – You’ve Got The Right Key But The Wrong Keyhole
0:57:18 King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band – London (Cafe) Blues
0:54:59 Arcadian Serenaders – Bobbed Haired Bobby
0:57:09 Oliver Naylor’s Seven Aces – Ain’t That Hateful
0:59:58 Charleston Seven – Nashville Nightingale
1:02:34 Johnny Dunn – Johnny Dunn’s Cornet Blues
1:03:35 Marion Harris – It Had To Be You
1:06:48 Jimmy Blythe – Chicago Stomp
1:09:39 Ted Weems and His Orchestra – Traveling Blues
1:12:06 Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra – Copenhagen
1:14:05 Fry Million Dollar Pier Dance Orchestra – Whom Do You Love
1:16:36 Billy Jones & Ernest Hare – I’m Gonna Bring A Watermelon To My Girl Tonight
1:18:30 Doc Cook – Scissor Grinder Joe
1:20:07 Edith Wilson – How Come You Do Me Like You Do?
1:21:53 Ma Rainey with The Pruitt Twins – Dream Blues
1:23:33 Sylvester Weaver – Guitar Rag
1:26:30 Sophie Tucker – Mama Goes Where Papa Goes (in Yiddish)
1:28:33 Yetta Zwerling – Yankele Karmantshik (Yankele Little Pickpocket)
1:30:09 Naftule Brandwein – Wie Bist Die Gewesen Vor Prohibition? (Where Were You Before Prohibition?)
1:33:11 Lady Cantor Madam Sophie Kurtzer – Kiddush
1:35:03 Emma Liébel – Pars
1:36:57 Georgius – La Plus Bath des Javas
1:39:51 FT Marinetti – La Battaglia di Adrianopoli (Excerpt 1)
1:40:08 George Olsen and his Music with Rudy Wiedoeft – Sax O Phun (take 3)
1:42:06 Wolverine Orchestra – Big Boy
1:44:52 Ray Miller and His Orchestra – Red Hot Mama
1:47:35 Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra – Someone Loves You After All
1:50:51 The Red Onion Jazz Babies – Of All The Wrongs You’ve Done To Me
1:52:13 Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra – South
1:54:54 Bessie Smith – Rainy Weather Blues
1:57:45 Butterbeans & Susie – Construction Gang
2:00:50 Alf. Taylor and His Old Limber Quartet – Brother Noah Built an Ark
2:02:47 Sam Manning – Amba Cay La (7.5 Trinidad string band, cut out 1:37 to 2:39)
2:04:42 Juan de la Cruz y Bienvenido Leon – Que Partes el Alma – Rumba Son
2:06:14 Niño de Cabra y Ramón Montoya – Que Te Quise Con Locura (Malagueña)
2:08:17 Gaspare Marrone e Co. – Santa Genoveffa
2:08:28 Fatimah Bent Meddah And Kouider – Adhouh, Adhouh, Pt. 1
2:10:18 Sitt Wedoudah al-Manyalawiyyah with Sami al-Shawa – Asmar Helwah ya nas uhibuh
2:12:13 King George V – Speech at the opening of the British Empire Exhibition – 23 April 1924
2:12:26 Berlin State Opera Orchestra – Mahler Symphony #2 (Resurrection)
2:15:11 Bucca & Co. – Nofrio dal Barbiere
2:15:15 Orchestra, A. Paganucci director – 2nd record, Sept. 15, 1924
2:16:19 FT Marinetti – La Battaglia di Adrianopoli (Excerpt 2)
2:16:27 Staatskapelle Berlin – Bruckner- Symphony No. 7
2:17:00 Bellini Ensemble Unique – Moonlight Sonata
2:18:03 Gaspare Marrone e Co. – Santa Genoveffe Parte 3a. (‘Ntra la Sirva Erranti)
2:18:10 Paul Whiteman & His Concert Orchestra (the composer at the piano) – Rhapsody In Blue, Part 2