In my previous post “An Experiment in Modern Music—Part 1,” I explored the events leading up to the concert. Now, here’s a bird’s-eye view of the event and its aftermath. Sit back and enjoy the show!
Setting the Stage
Tuesday, February 12, 1924, New York City found itself in the throws of a winter snowstorm. Jack Frost was nipping at the doors of Aeolian Hall on that cold, snowy, miserable afternoon. But this did not discourage a sold-out event. To the contrary, it was a standing-room only crowd, and hundreds were turned away at the box office. The streets around Aeolian Hall were lined with cabs and limos well before the 2:45 PM start time.
Paul Whiteman observed in Jazz, “It was snowing, but men and women were fighting to get into the door, pulling and mauling each other as they do sometimes at a baseball game, or a prize fight, or in the subway….The ticket-office people said they could have sold out the house ten times over.”
Stick close to me. I have VIP tickets in the orchestra section, so let’s get out of the cold and go inside Aeolian Hall together and take our seats.
The 1,500-seat concert hall overflowed with highbrows, snobs, artsy-fartsy types, hoity-toity folk, hoi polloi, orchestra conductors, composers, Broadway stars, music critics, and classical musicians all rubbing elbows with Tin Pan Alley song pluggers, jazz aficionados, gamblers, bootleggers, and other “low-culture” types. As Paul Whiteman wrote in Jazz: “It was a strange audience out in front. Vaudevillians, concert managers…Tin Pan Alleyites, composers, symphony and opera stars, flappers, cake-eaters, all mixed up higgledy-piggledy.” I’m not a composer or an opera star, but as it turns out, I would have fit right in with the cake-eaters!
Setting the Stage
Like other concert halls of the day, Aeolian’s stage was an orderly, stark, plain, drab, vanilla setting. This would not do for the master showman’s “Experiment.” Whiteman and his theatrically savvy production crew understood the added benefits of a visually engaging stage set. So it was out with the business-as-usual stage set and in with jazzed-up drama.
The day following the concert, in the article “A Concert of Jazz,” Olin Downes, music critic for the New York Times, wrote (and I paraphrase), that both the stage and the program were completely out of the box. Rather than their conventional orderly concert placement, the pianos and the wind and percussion instruments were scattered helter-skelter about the stage. Beside the haphazard instrument placement, there were bizarre, never-before-seen (on a concert stage) “musical instruments,” including frying pans, cooking utensils, and dunce-cap-shaped megaphones stuffed into the bells of trumpets and trombones, just to name a few. Then there were two huge Chinese pillars and a gleaming gong, all of which were highlighted by an oriental backdrop. For the traditional conservative Aeolian Hall concert crowd, this must have seemed like an out-of-body experience. All I can say is, “Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news!”
Above is the illustration adorning the cover of Jazz: America’s Gift from a sketch Miguel Covarrubias drew during the third performance of “An Experiment in Modern Music,” which took place at Carnegie Hall on April 21, 1924. In it, you can see the frying pans, dunce-cap-shaped megaphone stuffed into the trumpet bell, and the audience’s backside view of Paul Whiteman. In the audience far left is artist Miguel Covarrubias chatting with George Gershwin. Far right is Talulah Bankhead.
Music critic and author Henry O. Osgood noted in his book, So This Is Jazz, “The usual ugliness and austere severity of the stage concealed behind an elaborate erection of colorful Japanese screens, with additional color supplied by skillfully disposed stage lights. The orchestra was arranged in a rough semicircle on a platform of three steps….There is only one little thing to be added to that description—spats, gray ones. Every loyal Whitemanite on the stage wore them. Their value in adding to the aesthetic effect of the foot-tapping…is indisputable.” He added, “Aeolian Hall looked much more cheerful than ever before.”
Even before the first note was sounded, the audience was bombarded with avant-garde modernistic visuals. Everyone in the house could sense the power about to be unleashed.
As far as the orchestra members were concerned, Whiteman’s policy of paying his musicians top dollar garnered him the crème de la crème on each and every instrument in his band. Osgood opined, “A new kind of orchestra…mostly virtuosos extraordinary….This orchestra contains twenty-five of the highest paid musicians in this country, all soloists of note. Their virtuosity is such that among them they play over sixty instruments, practically every man playing more than one instrument and the phenomenal Ross Gorman, playing fourteen.”
Paul Whiteman was no lightweight in jazz or in heft. He was quite the rotund cat, topping the scales at just under three hundred pounds. The New York Times stated, “And then there was Mr. Whiteman. He does not conduct. He trembles, wabbles, quivers—a piece of jazz jelly, conducting the orchestra with the back of the trouser of the right leg, and the face of a mandarin the while.”
The concert was a smashing success! From the opening Livery Stable Blues, which was a popular low-culture tune featuring instruments mimicking barnyard animals (never before heard at Aeolian Hall) to the climax number, Rhapsody in Blue, everyone (well, almost everyone) loved what they heard. Paul Whiteman observed, “The list of pessimists was a little shorter, I believe, when at half-past five, on the afternoon of February 12, 1924, we took our fifth curtain call.”
“The Experiment in Modern Music” was repeated at Aeolian Hall on March 7th and then at a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall on April 21st. After the Carnegie Hall gig, Whiteman took the show on the road for a two-week stint, followed by a more extensive thirty-concert tour later in the year. Gershwin started the tour but had to bail out in June to work on George White’s Scandals of 1924. Whiteman subsequently replaced Gershwin with Milton Rettenberg to finish the tour.
As far as answering Whiteman’s original question, “What is American music?” celebrated conductor Dr. Leopold Stokowski encapsulated the zeitgeist’s views in the New York Post article “Stokowski Declares in Favor of Jazz,” when he wrote, “Jazz has come to stay. It is an expression of the times, of the breathless, energetic, super-active times in which we are living, and it is useless to fight against it.”
In my most humble opinion, composer, writer, and conductor David Schiff summed up the event, and, in particular, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue best with these insightful words: “The audience witnessed the birth of a new cultural sensibility.”
Certainly, America had barged headfirst into a “new cultural sensibility.” The concert gave birth to “The Jazz Age” and “The Roaring Twenties”—thanks to Jazz King Paul Whiteman and the musical genius of George Gershwin! The partnership of these two men helped define a decade and introduce America’s unique art form—Jazz—to the country and the world. “An Experiment in Modern Music” was a total success.