On Christmas Day, WHRB radio will mark the 75th anniversary of Paul Whiteman’s eighth “Experiment in Modern American Music” concert by rebroadcasting the event, recorded live at Carnegie Hall on Dec. 25, 1938.
Whiteman’s orchestra was one of the most successful of the ’20s and ’30s, due in large part to the facility with which it smoothed jazz’s edges: translating syncopations into classical polish, forgoing improvisation. The “Experiment in Modern Music” series (around the time of the fourth installment, in 1932, Whiteman began to specify “Modern American Music”) took such impulses to their crossover extreme. The first concert, in 1924, produced George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” It cemented the reputations of both Gershwin and Whiteman, the latter becoming known as “The King of Jazz” — a title that would seem more ironic as the decades passed, but that, at the time, was an accurate measure of Whiteman’s celebrity.
The 1938 concert mined that vein: future Pulitzer Prize winner Morton Gould contributed a “Bell Fugue”; longtime Whiteman collaborator Ferde Grofé offered “Trylon and Perisphere” (“the most symphonic thing I ever wrote,” Grofé recalled). But there was also a Whiteman-commissioned work from Duke Ellington, “Blue Belles of Harlem” — five years before Ellington himself appeared at Carnegie Hall. Louis Armstrong came out to sing a couple of spirituals; it was Armstrong’s own Carnegie Hall debut. Whiteman’s sensibilities were more sweet than hot, but he recognized talent and enjoyed its musical company.
The evening’s showstopper was simply called “The Blues,” a 15-minute series of variations on the “St. Louis Blues” written by, and featuring, clarinetist Artie Shaw. “The Blues” was a tour de force of stylistic diversity. Redolent wails, streamlined swing, even hints of cantillation and klezmer, were all filtered through the Whiteman band’s silkiness (via Whiteman’s arranger, Irving Szathmary) and Shaw’s transcendent virtuosity, an apt demonstration of Whiteman’s flair for vernacular assimilation.
The eighth “Experiment” was the last. Already in 1938, Carnegie Hall had hosted Benny Goodman’s Orchestra and the first of John Hammond’s “Spirituals to Swing” concerts. Concert-hall jazz was no longer so experimental, and Whiteman’s efforts were beginning to be heard as unnecessarily mediated and inauthentic. (Reviews of Whiteman’s final “Experiment” were largely positive, but The New York Times balked: “It is music that has scorned its musical heritage, cut its social roots, and fallen for the empty glamour of vaudeville virtuosity.”) The perceived need for popular music to prove itself against the classical tradition was fading; but that passage was, perhaps, made easier by Whiteman’s demonstration that it could.
WHRB radio plays Paul Whiteman’s eighth “Experiment in Modern American Music” concert on Dec. 25, beginning at noon (95.3 FM, or online at www.whrb.org).
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at email@example.com.