Dancing music in the C20: big band (1919-24)


In the last instalment of Dancing music in the C20, we looked at how early jazz was formed by offering a raucous improvisational take on ragtime and early blues. Interestingly, however, the next major evolution in 20th Century dancing music turned the clock back on that particular innovation.

The early, pre-swing big bands of the 1920s blew the jazz band up from small, nimble dance outfits to orchestra-sized ensembles. This upscaling demanded a new regimental attitude, and in this emergent new variant of jazz, improvisation – for many the defining element of jazz – was no longer welcome.

Whereas jazz bands in the preceding years had typically consisted of just six or seven members, big bands boasted up to 25 musicians. Allowing 25 musicians to improvise freely  around a melody as New Orleans jazz players were famous of doing was probably deemed impractical by big band leaders, who increasingly became dependent on hiring dedicated arrangers to rigorously plot and translate their musical ideas.

The extent to which this pre-swing detour in dance music can accurately be defined as jazz is something of a contentious subject for modern historians. The genre’s undisputed heavyweight, a bandleader and former symphony orchestra violist named Paul Whitman, carried the showbiz streamline “The King of Jazz”, however his music is now described as “almost universally disliked by jazz critics”.

For a start, Williams disliked improvisation, and felt jazz could be improved by structure and orchestration. As a successful white entertainer in an era of racial segregation, some critics feel that Whiteman co-opted black music, but bled it of its innovation – its more outrageous and experimental elements. Nevertheless, he was an inspiration to many of the jazz innovators who followed, including Duke Ellington, who in his biography asserted that “Paul Whiteman was known as the King of Jazz, and no one as yet has come near carrying that title with more certainty and dignity.”

Worrying about the extent to which the songs popularised by Whiteman can be accurately classified as belonging to the same continuum that belched out the jazz magma of Dark Magus does distract from appreciating Whiteman’s work on its own merits. Whiteman was not interested in appealing to notions of jazz authenticity (indeed, such criteria did not exist then, as jazz was barely in its infancy). Instead, the music he heard was a new kind of cosmopolitan music that was exclusively American in its influences. It was symphonic in scope, and though closer to classical music in composition, it took the rhythms and instrumentation of New Orleans jazz.

Whispering, released in August 1920, is an early attempt at this “Modern Music.”

Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra – Whispering


But the symphonic jazz that Whiteman had envisioned truly reached its apogee four years later, when Whiteman commissioned a young rival composer, George Gershwin, to provide him with a concerto-like jazz piece for an ambitious ‘classical-jazz’ concert he intended to give in New York. Just one week before the concert, Gershwin delivered Rhapsody in Blue.

Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra – Rhapsody In Blue

Gershwin’s famous description of the inspiration for Rhapsody in Blue neatly summarises the new American music Paul Whiteman was attempting to drive forward:

“It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer – I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise…. And there I suddenly heard, and even saw on paper – the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end. No new themes came to me, but I worked on the thematic material already in my mind and tried to conceive the composition as a whole. I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece, as distinguished from its actual substance.”

Whiteman’s own account of Rhapsody’s genesis can be heard below.

A recording of Rhapsody by Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra featuring Gershwin on piano was released in 1924, would sell over a million copies by 1927 (no mean feat in these early days of the recording industry, when gramophones were not yet an everyday part of the home).

Rhapsody in Blue is uncontrovertibly a milestone in the development of American music and though not strictly jazz in form, probably is responsible for switching mainstream America on to jazz as a serious musical form.

So we can all agree that Rhapsody in Blue is great and important. Equally, we can all agree that Rhapsody in Blue is not dance music! Which is what this blog-within-a-blog is all about.

Luckily, a contemporaneous dance fad also found the perfect foil in Whiteman’s big band music…

The 1923 Broadway Show Runnin’ Wild gave the world The Charleston, and James P. Johnson had a hit across America with the habanera-influenced tune The Charleston that soundtracked the dance in the show. Although Whiteman didn’t record a version until 1925, the associations with The Charleston highlight big band jazz’s unashamed relationship to Tin Pan Alley pop.

While this curious melange of high-brow classical music, innovative New Orleans jazz and low-brow show tunes, early big band music might not be considered as ‘authentic’ jazz now, but it does represent a transitional phase in the music’s evolution very similar to the early blues pop music we previously looked at that pre-empted the more familiar blues forms.

However, the link between this music and jazz history is less controversial in the examples of contemporary African-American big bands, such as The Washingtonians – featuring a young Duke Ellington – and Fletcher Henderson’s band, which boasted Louis Armstrong among its ranks. Although many early big band outfits would suffer during the swing years,  the presence (if brief) of future legends such as Ellington and Armstrong on the scene legitimise the period as a musically fertile and innovative time.


Our Spotify playlist looks at the work of these musicians and more!

Spotify: early big band (1919-24)

As big band jazz evolved into the ever-more-dancefloor-orinetated swing in the later part of the 1920s, some big band leaders would take a less popular path by experimenting with jazz improvisation in a big band setting, although the history books tell us this style never caught on. At least, not until the 1940s, at least, when Stan Kenton and his Orchestra made their recording debut.

Kenton’s big band music is genuinely weird, innovative, genre-pushing stuff. Not dancey in the slightest, but anyone who wants to hear big band jazz rearranged into something that Stravinsky at his most dissonant would have been proud of should check out Kenton and Robert Graettinger‘s psychedelic 1952 work, City of Glass.

Arguably this stuff, ‘experimental big band’, is the parallel universe jazz that could have arisen following Whiteman’s Rhapsody in Blue arrangement in 1924 if other bandleaders – and, indeed, Whiteman himself – had pursued careers in the symphony halls rather than the dancehalls. This is a marginal but exciting genre – and although everyone from Mats Gustafsson to David Bowie has turned their hand to experimental big band sounds in recent years – it peaked as a format sometime in the early 1970s following free jazz/big band classics by Charles Mingus, Charlie Haden, The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, The Don Ellis Orchestra, Sam Rivers and Sun Ra, who himself worked as an arranger for Fletcher Henderson during the 1940s, in his pre-Ra incarnation of ‘Herman Poole Blount’.