Myths and Legends in Jazz

                                                     by Ed Rosenback

Jazz has become a restingplace for many myths–myths about its origins, myths about performers, and then some!

My range of Jazz appreciation runs from the earliest stages to the present but, in this article, I’ll keep to the earlier historical areas, since “the present” is always evolving.

Going back to the Twenties (acknowledged as the “Jazz Age”), there was Paul Whiteman who was heralded as “The King of Jazz”. As far as I’m concerned, he was no more the “King of Jazz” than he was the King of England! If Jazz were to have a “King” at all, I would suggest either King Oliver or Ferdinand LeMenthe (aka “Jelly Roll” Morton), due to their actual involvement with the development of “Jazz”.

There are many misunderstandings concerning the American art form called Jazz. As far as history allows, it seems that the rhythms of Caribbean & African music and Ragtime melded with melodic influences taken from brass bands to form a unique “new” music. Ragtime’s antecedent influences can be found in the works of the Caribbean virtuoso pianistcomposer Louis Moreau Gottschalk in the mid-1800s, which gave those “raggedtime” rhythms respectability to the concertgoing set long before Ragtime became a popular form.

Perhaps Lieutenant James Reese Europe, an African American whose “369th Hellfighters Band” performed (and recorded) improvised Ragtime pieces to great acclaim on both sides of the continent prior to the Twenties, might be considered a better candidate for honor in the development of Jazz than Paul Whiteman, due to Europe’s brass bands’ popularity. The brass band was a longstanding New Orleans tradition.

Jelly Roll Morton famously claimed to have “invented Jazz in 1904,” which may initially appear absurd, but does have some facts to support it. His piano rolls were the first Jazz music reproduced anywhere, and he published the first composition to bear the appellation “Jazz.” He hailed from New Orleans, which many cite as the originating centre of Jazz.


He was a proud Creole, with a heritage blending the Caribbean/African/French /Spanish cultures of that city. He was asked to leave his family home after it was found that he was playing piano in the “redlight” district of New Orleans, and used “Jelly Roll Morton” as his moniker to avoid family turmoil. His long and successful career culminated in a series of recordings for the Library of Congress in 1939, chronicling the history of Jazz.

Yet let’s not give Paul Whiteman short shrift. He never described himself as “The King of Jazz” (that was a publicist’s idea); it was his Orchestra (rather than he, himself) that was paramount to the success of his career. I’ll share a personal story which sheds some light on Whiteman’s beginnings as a bandleader:

While a music student at SF State in the early 1970’s, I made the acquaintance of a Mrs. Buckner (proprietor of Buckner’s Music Supplies on Clement Street), and she shared some interesting facts with me on music and Jazz in early San Francisco.  Her husband was a trombone player who worked with Paul Whiteman and a banjo player in the Barbary Coast area of the “City by the Bay” in the ‘teens.

Whiteman, a classicallytrained violinist from Denver, was intrigued by the developing Jazz music; Mr. Buckner and the banjo player were either native San Franciscans or longtime residents. One day, Whiteman informed Buckner, “You can stay here and make music I’m going to New York and make money!” (and so he did, becoming one of the largest and most formidable names in the popular music of the Twenties.)

Like Gottschalk, who popularized Caribbean rhythms with the concert crowds of the mid1800’s, Whiteman popularized the music of New Orleans (largely unfamiliar to White America), seeking to find a middleground where European & African/Caribbean sounds could merge, melding into a single Music, worthy of formal concert settings.

As Morton may have been the first exponent of Jazz in printed, mechanicallyreproduced and recorded forms, so Whiteman may have been the first to present Jazz to the concertgoing public of America and the world with his Aeolian Hall Concert of 1924. It was at this event that George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” received its world premiere, becoming the first concert piece to purposefully incorporate the emerging Jazz rhythms of Harlem as essential parts of a modern orchestral composition.


Musical historians tend to agree that this was a turning point in the acceptance of Jazz as an art form unique to America, and for this if nothing else, the rotund Mr. Whiteman deserves credit. He broke a ceiling of musical acceptance unprecedented in previous eras.

Whiteman employed the best white musicians available, who were notable in their own right as purveyors of Jazz. This was not due to any racial bias on his part, but to the prevailing convention of the times. (We know stories of fabulouslytalented people being denied entry to places of employment solely on the basis of the color of their skin). But afterhours, it was a different story!  Bix Beiderbecke, one of Whiteman’s “star” performers, often ventured into the “colored districts” of cities where the band was appearing so he could sit in with the likes of King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, and Black artists did likewise in the “white districts.” My mother often said that music was the great integrator, and she was correct.

While the social “establishment” maintained a color barrier, music (and particularly Jazz) had a different view. In addition to hiring the top white musicians for his ensemble, Whiteman also hired the finest black arrangers of the time (Don Redman, Fletcher Henderson and William Grant Still) to provide an authentic ambience to his jazz repertoire.

Even in his “concert” arrangements, Whiteman proved to be an innovator, employing famed Black operatic singer Paul Robeson (both onstage and in the recording studio) in his rendition of the song “Ol’ Man River.” Was this Jazz? Not in my view, but Whiteman did have an organization capable of expressing Jazz to a high degree and did a lot to blur (if not erase) the “color” issue in music. A 1941 Capitol recording featured “Lady Day” (Billie Holiday) as the vocalist with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Progress made!

In 1930, Universal Pictures produced the first fulllength Technicolor motion picture, “The King of Jazz,” featuring the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. It wasn’t a great film by any means, although it did win an Academy Award. It had less to do with Jazz than the rest of Whiteman’s library. There were occasional bright spots, but for most jazz fans they’re dim reflections of what might have been.

When Whiteman left San Francisco in those early years he did so to make money (which he did), and his orchestra became known as a quality exponent of popular music. Commercially, he was a success, yet he was ridiculed by jazz purists because his arrangements became so topheavy with pseudosymphonic elements that waiting for improvised solos proved a daunting task for the casual listener.

“King of Jazz”? No.  Impresario? Probably. Keen ear?  Definitely.  (He was a violinist, an instrument that requires it!)

Music (particularly Jazz) is allinclusive. It has its own language, felt and understood by everyone. There is no racial or cultural divide. Music is universal in scope and belongs to all, yet is indescribable. One knows what one likes or not; it resonates within their depths as individuals.

One of the earliest integrated musical encounters occurred on October 13, 1926, when the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra and the Jean Goldkette Orchestra engaged in a “Battle of the Bands” at the Roseland Ballroom in Manhattan.  I believe this was the first such program, not only for pitting a “Black orchestra” against a “White orchestra” one-on-one, but for the fact that the audience was also “mixed”–both black and white people attended, listened, and danced, something previously unheard of to that date!

It’s a shame that the technology permitting live recording had not yet been perfected, for that would have made for a fabulous bit of musicmaking by some of the finest jazz musicians of their day. (Forget race–think of the Music!)  According to Rex Stewart (Henderson’s lead trumpeter), the Goldkette band blew them away, but regardless of who won that contest, Music Itself was the true victor.

After that encounter, the Goldkette band went on tour throughout the Midwest, billing itself as “the Paul Whiteman of the West.”  Such was Whiteman’s reputation, that others would capitalize upon it!

There are other myths and legends surrounding the likes of Buddy Bolden (the New Orleans trumpeter who chose never to record, lest others “steal his stuff”), and cornetist & pianist Bix Beiderbecke. Bolden is probably the first Jazz Legend, and alternative legends about Bix have sprung up since his early death.  Beiderbecke left a legacy of recorded cornet work and published piano compositions (which people may listen to and perform), but Bolden didn’t.  Those who heard Bolden praised his tone, volume and inventiveness; the rest of us can only speculate (like the HendersonGoldkette faceoff).

Jazz as Music is an eternallyunfolding art. Those who appreciate it span the entire spectrum of the art, some caring only for contemporary versions, some only for earlier forms, but I, for one, love all aspects of it.

I subscribe to the notion that Jazz is Life, the rest is just details!


(Ed Rosenback is a professional musician and a Charter Member of the Vallejo Jazz Society.)

Bookmark the permalink.