Andrei Strizek

Music | Musings

King of Jazz

Here are some video clips from the 1930 film King of Jazz that starred Paul Whiteman & his orchestra.

The opening clip of the movie - which is essentially a revue in the manner of Ziegfeld Follies - is the first color animated sequence, showing Whiteman hunting in the jungles, serenading a lion with his violin, and getting "crowned" King of Jazz. Whiteman's portly figure is fitting for a cartoon.

The clip prior to a performance of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue is almost baffling to me: it's a dancer, in black greasepaint, clearly imitating impressions of Africa and African dance and music - exactly who's impressions they are though isn't known - though by today's standards we're more wont to see this as overtly racist and stereotypical. It's also quite dull.

The Rhapsody in Blue clip is somewhat surreal. This was Whiteman's theme song; he commissioned & premiered the piece in 1924, and played it for the rest of his career. There's a moment where the ladies are dancing and I feel like I'm in an acid-induced hallucination, like something out of a Stanley Kubrick film. It's also a little creepy to see the clarinet player "shrink" at the beginning.

I wonder what we're supposed to make of the piece through this viewing. Is it jazz, or is it something else? The inclusion in a movie with the title King of Jazz, and the (brief) history of it to this point seems to imply that it's jazz, yet the formal attire of the performers seems to suggest it's more in the classical vein. And then there's the dancers ... is this supposed to be a vaudeville number?

Note too how Rhapsody in Blue is performed: it's not played in the Neo-Romantic style that we frequently hear the piece played today. It's much more brisk and exciting. More rambunctious, not as schmaltzy. Some of today's purported "authentic" performances should listen to this version for advice. And check out how fast some of the reed players have to switch instruments! (Orchestral musicians must be grateful for the different orchestration that's usually played today.)

The final sequence is also telling of the times. It claims that jazz is a "melting pot" (which it was viewed as by many in the 1920s and 1930s), but notice the lack of any African-Americans on film - whom Gershwin & others have mentioned, worked with, and clearly owed some debt to.

It's an interesting look back on how jazz was viewed in the late 1920s & early 1930s. I'm still trying to get around the idea that what we think of as jazz wasn't the same as what the majority thought of as jazz then ... This was before the Big Band Era, and Louis Armstong had only been in New York for a few years. The Great Depression hadn't set in too deep yet, Broadway was still extremely popular, ragtime had recently been the popular form of music ... Are we being revisionist by focusing on Armstrong, Henderson & Ellington as being "the" jazz of the 20s? Perhaps we need to pay more attention to Whiteman, Gershwin, Berlin, Europe, and others.

Powered by Squarespace. Background image by Andrei Strizek.