When ‘Pops’ Was Tops

About a year ago, Asheville swing-jazz conductor Russ Wilson was touring when he received an e-mail from Raleigh trombone player Bob Gregory.

"He'd been noodling on the internet, looking at old sheet music, anything vintage, and he came across a Web site with transcripts of old dance band recordings," says Wilson. "The note said 'It's an interesting Web site,' and 'There's some Paul Whiteman material on here.'"

The famous jazz-age duo Vernon and Irene Castle show off the dance they invented and made famous, the "Castle Walk." The image was originally featured in a Victrola advertisement circa 1915-1920. Photo courtesy Sherri McLendon.

Little did Wilson know he'd just opened a window on the past that would lead to a most ambitious undertaking: conducting a 30-piece orchestra performing the actual '20s and '30s dance-band arrangements of jazz-age legend Paul "Pops" Whiteman.

On that day, however, Wilson's interest was simply piqued. He'd long been a fan of Whiteman, the most popular — and some music historians would say controversial — dance conductor of the swinging Jazz Age. Whiteman's classical training smoothed out the syncopation of ragtime and rough edges of hot jazz to create an immensely popular "symphonic" jazz dance music that would pave the way for the Big Band era.

"When I got into the Paul Whiteman materials, it was all photocopied, handwritten notes of individual parts," said Wilson (the original materials are housed at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.) He downloaded all the arrangements, eliminating those with missing parts. Some were damaged to the point of being unreadable. Out of 22 of Whiteman's original arrangements, 15 were intact.

"These particular arrangements were from the late 1920s and early 1930s, probably when his popularity was at its greatest," says Wilson.

In 1920, Whiteman made music history when his recording of "Whispering" became the 11th record to sell more than 1 million copies. He was dubbed "The King of Jazz" as his career and orchestra grew at the same blistering rate as the roaring decade, ushering in the age of bobbed hair, flappers, Ziegfield's Follies, and Vernon and Irene Castle, star husband-and-wife dance exhibitionists.

Whiteman commissioned George Gershwin to write Rhapsody in Blue, which became the orchestra's signature piece. By 1930, the Whiteman Orchestra was playing in the nation's most exclusive hotel ballrooms, and dominating popular music entertainment.

Despite his popularity, full blown retrospectives of Whiteman's work are rare. These include Richard Sudhalter's New York Times acclaimed "New Paul Whiteman Orchestra," in the 1980s, and, Wynton Marsalis' at the Lincoln Center in 2005.

What makes A "Pops" Concert unique is its emphasis on historical accuracy and musical delivery. Adding three or four arrangements from his "regular book," the program will provide a chronological glimpse into the evolution of Whiteman's signature "symphonic" sound.

At the onset of the 20th century, everything was basically "live it up," there was a lot of reason to have a wild time, explains Wilson.

"After the stock market crashed in 1929, there was not much reason to party anymore," he says. The aftershocks took their toll as the Great Depression took hold, forcing Whiteman to let almost half the orchestra's jazz musicians go.

"The economy had gotten so bad, nobody could afford to pay an orchestra that big," says Wilson. "It took three or four years of struggling before coming back full swing." For the next two decades, his music remained extremely popular, enjoying a last pop hit record in 1941-42 with "Travelin' Light," featuring Billie Holliday on vocals.

"He played good, swinging hot music to try to lift people's spirits," says Wilson. But there was a shift in Whiteman's repertoire. From playing happy-go-lucky songs in the '20s idiom, such as "China Boy," and "Nobody's Sweetheart Now," he began to play songs reflective of the Great Depression: "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and "Brother Can You Spare a Dime."

When Wilson realized the unique set of compositions he held in his hands, he called Dave Wilken, coordinator of jazz studies at UNCA, and told him he'd like to put on a concert using Whiteman's original score and notes, playing the music the way it was intended. Rehearsals started last summer with musicians hand-picked from across the southeast.

"Musically, Whiteman's music has a lot of significance," says Wilken, who will also play trombone with the orchestra.

Historically, critics of Whiteman contrast his "symphonic" jazz to that of black jazz bands and musicians.

"Critics are historically derivative of black jazz-band musicians, but Whiteman went on to become very popular. His music has unusual instrumentation for jazz swing music," Wilken says.

The program includes "Fanfare" from Rhapsody In Blue, "Hallelujah," "If I Had A Talking Picture Of You," "Back In Your Own Backyard," "OH, Miss Hannah," "Choo Choo," "China Boy," "Reaching For Someone," "You Took Advantage Of Me," "Nobody's Sweetheart Now," "Lonely Melody," "Runnin' Wild" and "Happy Feet."

"Audience members will be surprised that they know the music of Paul Whiteman without knowing that they do so, but his music still endures," Wilken says. He used extra musicians not usually part of an orchestra, and often employed a string section, extra percussion or two pianos."

Wilken reflects that the entertainment industry actually thrived during the Great Depression as people looked for ways to escape and forget about their troubles. They entertained themselves by listening to the radio, where Whiteman's orchestra introduced music considered jazz standards today.

"Similarly, people today are interested in forgetting their economic problems," he says. "This is a fun way of doing that, especially in an age of digital media when it's harder to hear live music presented in the way musicians like to do it."
There is not one slow tune or ballad on the evening's program.

Adds Wilson: "If you want to dance down the aisles, go ahead."

[Sherri L. McLendon is a freelance writer living near Asheville; e-mail her at sherri@sherrimclendon.com.]

who: Pops concert, featuring the work of Paul Whiteman
what: Bandleader Russ Wilson and his orchestra
where: UNCA's Lipinsky Auditorium
when: Friday, Feb. 5 (8 p.m. $20/$10 children/$15 faculty/staff, $6 students. 251-6432)

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3 thoughts on “When ‘Pops’ Was Tops

  1. Ken Hanke

    I think it’s terrific that Whiteman should be getting some well-deserved attention. He was — and is — pretty important part of American music, a supporter of Gershwin, a man who helped launch Bing Crosby and Bix Beiderbeck (among others), and a man who never stood in the way of anyone’s chance to “make it” by leaving his Orchestra. His great sin — apart from the “King of Jazz” monicker, which wasn’t his idea and which he never took seriously so far as I can tell — really seems to have been his aversion to improvisation and his belief that a piece should be able to be played the same way time and time again. However — and while noting I’m no expert — is it correct to call these Whiteman’s arrangements? He certainly controlled them, but the recordings I’m mostly familiar with were usually arranged by Grand Canyon Suite composer Ferde Grofe and Roy Bargy.

  2. Mannie Dalton

    An e-mail from Russ Wilson sent out last night (Feb. 3) states: “IF the “Pops” concert is postponed because of winter weather, it will be rescheduled for Sunday, Feb. 7, at 4 p.m. at Lipinsky … As of now, the concert is still a GO for Friday evening.”

  3. Rebecca Sulock

    New dispatch from Wilson:

    It saddens me to send this e-mail to you but I have no other choice. The “Pops” Concert has been postponed until further notice. Dave Wilken and I are looking at another concert date, possibly in the latter part of March (when it’s hopefully warmer and less dangerous).

    The weather is just not going to allow us to put it on at this time. I’ll keep you notified of the new date. The concert will go on – just a little later.

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