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History's Headlines: The Lehigh Valley hosts the king of jazz

The last week in January 1928 was the coldest anyone in the Lehigh Valley could remember. Sub-zero temperatures had the region in an icy grip. But for some lovers of jazz, Monday, January 30, 1928 was red hot. For that one night only Paul Whiteman, hailed in the press as the King of Jazz, and his orchestra would be appearing at Mealey’s Auditorium on Hamilton Street in Allentown, located roughly where Allentown City Hall is today. This was not Whiteman’s first “gig” in Allentown. An earlier version of his band had performed at Mealey’s in April, 1921. But that was before they had become among the most recognized musical organizations in the country. In that decade that F. Scott Fitzgerald had christened the Jazz Age, Whiteman held a unique place.  But his approach to jazz was, some critics felt, so far from its African-American roots, they wondered why it was even called jazz.

Whiteman himself never claimed to be originating jazz. He worked closely with black composers like Fletcher Henderson. He even tried to hire black musicians for his band, only to be met with a wall of protests from theater owners and agents in the de facto segregation of the North who told him the white public would walk out the door if black musicians sat next to whites. But Whiteman’s place in American jazz history was secure because of the way he combined it with different types of music to send it into homes and to audiences who had not heard it before. And his collaboration with George Gershwin in the creation of Rhapsody in Blue in 1924 gave Whiteman an immortal place in American music history.

Whiteman was born in 1890 in Denver, Colorado into a musical family. He received classical training but rejected the violin, which his father wanted him to play, for the viola. He played for a time with the Denver and San Francisco symphony orchestras. But he was attracted to jazz while in the Army in 1918 and conducted a band. In 1920 he created the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and took it to New York. Critics refer to the music of this band as jazz influenced rather than a jazz band. For one thing, Whiteman’s orchestra consisted of 35 members rather than the normal jazz band standard of 12 to 15. But Whiteman did not care what critics said. His orchestra’s record sales were making him a rich man. He was, as the saying goes, “crying all the way to the bank.”

In November of 1923, Whiteman asked Gershwin to write a concerto type of piece for a jazz concert he was going to be giving the following February. He had worked with Gershwin before in the revue “George White’s Scandals of 1922.” At first Gershwin turned Whiteman down, saying he did not have enough time to complete one. On January 3, 1924, Gershwin’s brother and lyrist Ira saw an article in the newspaper saying George was working on a jazz concerto for Whiteman. He told his brother who contacted Whiteman who explained the line was placed in the article by fellow band leader and Whiteman rival Vincent Lopez who was trying to steal the idea. In the following five weeks, including on a train trip to Boston, Gershwin put Rhapsody in Blue together.

On February 12, 1924 at Aeolian Hall in New York, Whiteman’s orchestra played the piece with Gershwin at the piano to raves from the audience. Critics ever since have felt the piece lacked this or that to have the music called a concerto. But it remains one of the most popular pieces of American music ever written.

On April 24, 1925 in the Morning Call, buried back on page 12, was the announcement that on May 4, 1925, Whiteman’s orchestra would be offering a concert at Allentown High School. On Monday, May 4th a large ad showed an illustration of Whiteman and his orchestra playing. The concert would start at 8:15 and ticket prices ran from $1.75 to $2.75.

Unfortunately, little information was given in the press about what music was actually played. The only piece that is mentioned is “Synconata” by Leo Sowerby. Commissioned by Whiteman shortly after Rhapsody in Blue, it was panned by critics in the 1920s as not really jazz. In 1946 Sowerby was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

But the local newspaper critic apparently enjoyed the other pieces Whiteman played.

“In his varied program he (Whiteman) gave a representation of many phases and types of music by American composers with special arrangements prepared by himself…those who heard the concert last night accorded Mr. Whiteman an ovation that he is pioneer in directing the modern orchestra. Mr. Whiteman is trying to raise jazz music to the level of symphonic orchestration.” He went on to note that the orchestra responded to the applause with several encores.

For the dance mad younger set of the Lehigh Valley all this must have seemed relentlessly highbrow and boring. What they wanted was to Charleston, Black Bottom and Shimmy-Shake the night away to hot jazz. That’s why Whiteman and his band returned to Allentown in 1928 during a tour of midsized Pennsylvania cities. And with musicians in his band like Bix Beiderbecke and Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, they were sure to keep the music going. Whiteman was known to pay top dollar for talent.

“Large Crowd Dances to Whiteman’s Music,” was the headline in the next day’s Morning Call. “A crowd upwards of 5,000…swayed to the music of the internationally famed orchestra leader and his thirty-two piece band…Four hours of harmony was given by the musicians, every minute of which was a treat to the large crowd.”

The reporter noted that five vocalists sang with the band that night. Among them was a group of three newcomers called the Rhythm Boys: Al Rinker, Harry Barris and a young fellow named Bing Crosby who was just making a name for himself.  In 1954, in response to a letter from Morning Call critic John Y. Kohl, Crosby recalled singing in Allentown with the Rhythm Boys. There were also “quite a number of instrumental soloists who responded to the call from the leader and played solos.” Perhaps the crowd heard the Dorsey brothers and Beiderbecke who had just joined Whiteman’s orchestra that year.

Summing up the scene before him the reporter had this to say:

“From the first notes of the band until the final number was played, as the dancers moved about the floor under the vari-colored lights, reflected from a crystal suspended above the dancers, it was a night that set a precedent to Allentown dancers and one that will be long remembered.”

As far as is known Whiteman and his band never returned to Allentown or the Lehigh Valley. The arrival of the 1930s brought a change in musical taste, interestingly one that Whiteman with his large band pioneered. As the country got “in the mood” with Glenn Miller, Whiteman, now quite wealthy, retired to his estate, Walking Horse Farm in rural New Jersey near Lambertville.

But Whiteman was to prove, that, at least in his case, Scott Fitzgerald was wrong when he said there were no second acts in American lives. He continued to record with his band into the 1930s and 40s for Capital Records (in 1942 he recorded Billie Holiday), was heard on a number of radio programs and appeared in the movies. Whiteman portrayed himself in Hollywood bio-pics about George Gershwin and the Dorsey Brothers.

Whiteman even made the leap into television. From 1949 to 1954 he hosted “Paul Whiteman’s TV Teen Club” on a Philadelphia ABC station. One young man reading commercials for the program was a fellow named Dick Clark, of later American Bandstand fame.

In 1960 Whiteman and his wife sold their estate and moved into a home in New Hope that he named “Coda Cottage,” after the term for the concluding passage in a piece or movement in music.

It was there, on December 22, 1967 that Whiteman suffered a heart attack, dying at Doylestown Hospital. He was 77.

Duke Ellington, another member of jazz royalty, had this to say: “Paul Whiteman was known as the King of Jazz and no one, as yet, has come near to carrying that title with more certainty and dignity.”

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