Louis Armstrong and Paul Whiteman: Two Kings of Jazz is written by Joshua Berrett, a professor of music at Mercy College in New York. Professor Berrett has his work cut out for him. Although almost everyone knows who Louis Armstrong is, realtively few will know anything about Whiteman.
Paul Whiteman is recognized for a number of things. From the 1920s and well into the 1940s, was the leader and guiding force behind one of the most consistently popular bands of the day, known collectively as Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra. His orchestra was known for cultivating and promoting the talents of musicians like George Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael, Bix Biederbecke, Frank Trumbauer, Bing Crosby, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, and Jack Teagarden, among many others. As you might imagine, his orchestra was, as a recording ensemble and on tour, a model of profitable enterprise. Though he never laid claim to the title, for decades, Whiteman did let himself be promoted as the so-called “King of Jazz.” In 1930, a big-budget movie bearing the title of King of Jazz was released, featuring Whiteman and his players. Paul Whiteman is also known in some jazz circles as the “white man” who stole the creative fruits of African American musicians, watered it down for mainstream white audiences, and took his money straight to the bank, thank you very much. Berett’s book does a fair job of dispelling this unfair characterization.
As for Louis Armstrong, well, everyone knows his essential role in creating the basic vocabulary of jazz expression and, in a larger sense, of 20th century American music. But even as late as the 1940s, Armstrong’s central importance to the music was largely overlooked. In 1949, a Time magazine cover showing Louis with a crown made of trumpets appeared to bequeath the title of King of Jazz to what was more likely its proper owner. Interestingly, Berrett highlights evidence of Armstrong’s playing more traditional – so-called – classical forms of music at certain points early in his career.
Just as Whiteman might not have been as much of a square as some thought, neither was Armstrong completely unschooled in more traditional European forms of music.
Berrett’s book, Two Kings of Jazz, makes it clear that neither musician thought much of the title of “King.” Likewise, the definition of the word jazz itself has always been somewhat, well, controversial. Whiteman hesitated to call his particular type of popular orchestrated music strictly jazz, usually preferring the term symphonic jazz. In his later years, he often said he hoped he had made a contribution to “the American musical form.” And while Louis Armstrong certainly played jazz music, he was known to have defined jazz as “anything that can be communicated to the public.” Whiteman, it seems, understood jazz as a style that he could incorporate into his largely commercial music; Armstrong understood jazz in a very broad and artistic manner. If generalizations apply in the stories of Whiteman and Armstrong, then, its not as much about the difference between race as the difference between commerce and art.
Where Two Kings of Jazz does a real service is in finding the common ground between Whiteman and Armstrong – in the music they shared, the musicians who played with them both, and in the common musical times they both lived in. To some extent, the segregation between the white world and black was nothing the musicians could have overcome on their own. Racism ran too deep into the roots of American society.
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