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Don Rayno on Paul Whiteman: A jazz thing

For the past half-decade or so, every year around this time I've been checking in with Cary's Don Rayno about when he might be finishing his book -- the second installment of a mammoth two-part biography of 1920s-vintage superstar bandleader Paul Whiteman. Finally, a bit more than nine years after part one appeared, it's here.

For more on Whiteman and Rayno's new book about him, see the story in Sunday's paper. And while I'm at it, below is the piece I did when part one came out in 2003.

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Book uncovers unsung bandleader
By David Menconi, News & Observer Oct. 1, 2003

CARY -- Every evening, after a day of planning retreats for pastors, Don Rayno descends to his downstairs writing room to spend a little quality time with a mostly forgotten bandleader named Paul Whiteman.

Hundreds of neatly cataloged Whiteman files sit in a pair of five-drawer file cabinets. Notes, photographs, old newspaper clippings and tour itineraries, copies of musical scores -- two decades' worth of obsession await Rayno's attention. His collection is probably the largest this side of the actual Whiteman archive at Williams College in Massachusetts -- which is so big that even Rayno has only gone through a fraction of it.

And all for a musician who usually elicits a "Paul who?" when Rayno mentions his new book, "Paul Whiteman: Pioneer in American Music" (Scarecrow Press, $49.95). Rayno, a Cary resident, is making a case for Whiteman as a musical figure who does not deserve his current obscurity, and not just because he was as big a star as any musician in America during the 1920s.

Today, Whiteman is not as well-known as some of his former underlings. A young Bing Crosby got his start singing in Whiteman's orchestra, which also employed the Dorsey Brothers (whose own orchestra would be an early proving ground for Frank Sinatra) and the legendary songwriter Johnny Mercer.

He was also instrumental in the creation of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," one of the 20th century's most durable pieces of music. Whiteman commissioned "Rhapsody," and his orchestra was the first to perform it in 1924 with Gershwin himself at the piano.

Rayno's book is a 773-page scholarly biography that is about as thick as the Raleigh phone book and twice as heavy. And this is just volume one, covering 1890 to 1930. Volume two, covering the last 37 years of Whiteman's life, won't see print until 2006 at the earliest.

Which is quick considering how long it took to write volume one.

"Volume two will not take as long," Rayno promises. "A lot of the research is already done. You know, I didn't think I'd ever do this. Seeing this book surprises me, too. But I've had a ball."

Whiteman specialized in symphonic jazz, applying classical rigorousness to jazz stylings, and "Rhapsody in Blue" helped take it to the masses. But his music's symphonic trappings and lack of improvisation had something to do with Whiteman's eventual fall from favor.

"That was one of the lines in the sand distinguishing him from African-American artists," says Jim Ketch, chairman of the music department at UNC- Chapel Hill. "Whiteman would codify rhythmic figures, write it on the page, and play a stylized package that was presentable for high-society listening and dancing consumption. Gradually, however, people came to identify jazz with music that was less stylized and showed more individual creativity with in-the-moment improvisation."

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A racial chord

There's also an element of racial tension to the historical record. At the height of the Jim Crow era of segregation, Whiteman was a white man known as the "King of Jazz," and he became a target. The Brooklyn rap duo Gang Starr's "Jazz Thing," from the soundtrack to Spike Lee's 1990 film "Mo' Better Blues," tried to take him down a peg with a verse that went, "The real mystery is how music history created Paul Whiteman or any other white man/And pretended he originated and contended that he innovated a jazz thing."

"Ken Burns also took an unfortunate cheap shot in 'Ken Burns Jazz,' dismissively referring to him as 'white man,' " Rayno says. "Critics have dismissed Whiteman over the years, which I think is wrong -- especially if you haven't listened to the music, and most haven't. Whiteman had great relations with African-American bandleaders at the time, especially Fletcher Henderson. And Whiteman was at the center of a lot of private interactions and jam sessions between black and white musicians, even though they couldn't play together in public."

By way of providing the other side of this argument, Rayno's book has 250 pages of prose (in very small type) and a 500-page appendix that includes a day-by-day chronology of Whiteman's life through May 1930.

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A new hobby

Rayno, 46, a former nuclear chemist, learned about Whiteman thanks to his interest in Bing Crosby. While indulging his passion for big-band music by researching Crosby, Rayno discovered Whiteman and became intrigued by all the notable musicians who passed through his band. Studying the jazzman became a hobby, with Rayno planning vacations around visits to the Whiteman archive in Massachusetts.

In the early 1990s, Rayno got serious about turning his research into a book. He eventually secured a deal with Scarecrow, a small publisher specializing in music books, to do a definitive two-volume biography.

Rayno's book is better suited to music libraries than casual reading, but it recounts some fascinating history. The story behind "Rhapsody in "Blue," for example, almost sounds like the basis of a stage play. Whiteman commissioned Gershwin to write a piece for a concert titled "Experiments in Modern American Music," which Gershwin forgot all about until reading about the concert in a newspaper.

Under intense pressure, Gershwin cranked out "Rhapsody" in a matter of weeks, on such a tight schedule that Whiteman's orchestra barely had time to rehearse it. He also had to be talked into including the piece's signature E-major slow theme, which Gershwin had written years earlier. Yet "Rhapsody" was an immediate sensation that greatly enhanced both Gershwin's and Whiteman's popularity.

In Whiteman's case, however, that popularity didn't translate into a well-known legacy. He was largely forgotten by the end of the 1950s, and today is not as well-remembered as peers such as Guy Lombardo or Lawrence Welk.

"He did a lot of different styles and didn't fit into any one easy category," Rayno says. "So he never had a place to be remembered. But maybe this book will help some people discover Paul Whiteman. Unless I'm with a group of really elderly people, I can pretty much count on getting blank stares when I mention his name."

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