By 1930, he would be the "King of Jazz." It was not that easy to pigeon-hole Paul Whiteman, however. He was trained as a classical string player (his parents both were classical musicians) and the story goes that he was fired from one early band because he couldn't play jazz. In the 1920s, having formed his own group (several groups, really) Whiteman kept one foot in the tried-and-true of classical music as he dipped first a toe and then an entire leg into this new thing called jazz. Remember that he participated in the première of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue – the archetypal classical/jazz fusion - in 1924.
Naxos Nostalgia has released four discs of Whiteman's recordings from the 1920s; this is the third volume of discs devoted to his Orchestra, and there is already a "Volume 1" devoted to his Dance Band. (For some reason, several Naxos Nostalgia CDs, including Volume 2 of the Whiteman Orchestra series and Volume 1 of the Dance Band series, are not available in the United States. Don't fret, though – they are available in Canada, and online retailers such as HMV.com would be more than happy to send them your way.) Listening to these sides, all recorded for Victor in either New York City or Camden, New Jersey), one is struck by Whiteman's lingering debt to classical pops and operetta. There is a tendency to de-emphasize the role that classical music played in the development of early white jazz musicians; they were not exactly a tabula rasa unexpectedly struck by the lightning bolt of black blues and jazz. The music on this CD shows that Whiteman's taste was shaped in no small part by his mother – a classical vocalist in his native Denver – and by his father, who played a leading role in music education in Denver. Also, it is good to remember that Whiteman's orchestra and arrangers included musicians who were equally grounded in classical music: Ferde (here, "Ferdie") Grofé and William Grant Still.
Novelty numbers, dance tunes, and romantic ballads all appear here, but having said that, I must add that the lines between these genres are blurry. There are three songs with vocals by Billy Murray, the era's standout comic tenor. (With titles such as "The Farmer Took Another Load of Hay Away! Hay! Hay!" and "Ogo Pogo," don't expect excerpts from the Lutheran hymnal.) The Southern Fall Colored Quartet provides sterling guest vocals on "Ukelele Lady," and Jimmy Dorsey guests on the last two tracks, "Whiteman Stomp" and "Sensation Stomp." Of course there is the inevitable "Charleston." The emphasis is on nervy, up-tempo songs with huffing bass lines and an almost brittle treatment of syncopation – in other words, a quintessentially Twenties sound.
These recordings date from the dawn of the electric recording era, but there's still a lot of enjoyment in the grooves. The impeccable transfers are by David Lennick, who also produced this CD.
Copyright © 2003, Raymond Tuttle