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WE FIRST MET ... JAZZ AND I ... AT A DANCE DIVE ON THE BARBARY COAST. IT SCREECHED AND BELLOWED AT ME FROM A TRICK PLATFORM IN THE MIDDLE OF A SMOKE-HAZED, BEER-FUMED ROOM.... MY WHOLE BODY BEGAN TO SIT UP AND TAKE NOTICE. IT WAS LIKE COMING OUT OF BLACKNESS INTO BRIGHT LIGHT.... I WANTED TO WHOOP. I WANTED TO DANCE.
Paul Whiteman's confession harks back to a time in 1917 when he was adrift in San Francisco, often "blue all day," frustrated with dead-end symphony work, yet on the cusp of the most dramatic change in his life. He was not long out of Denver, where he had grown up as the son of Wilberforce Whiteman. His father, named after the great English abolitionist William Wilberforce (1759-1833), was a stern man who made no bones about his disgust with Paul's lack of direction. On his son's twenty-fourth birthday, March 28, 1914, Wilberforce had served the floundering youth with what was in effect an eviction notice from the family home. Paul reportedly overheard his father say to his mother: "It seems that our son has his mind set upon not amounting to anything. I've tried to see that he have a proper start. I've led the horse to water, asthe saying is. But what do we see? A lazy fellow who indifferently plays a viola in a theater orchestra, and then drives a taxicab the rest of the night in the most immoral part of the city.... His proper place is no longer here with us, Mother. We've done all we can for the boy. The truth is I don't want him around any longer."
Soon after, with the help of five hundred dollars surreptitiously given him by his mother, Paul Whiteman packed his bags and left Denver for good, heading west to San Francisco. He hoped to find work there as a symphony musician, another foray into the classical music world which he hoped, fruitlessly, would win his father's respect. Job prospects on the West Coast looked especially promising that year. The Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a 288-day wonder in 1915, was drawing crowds from all over the world. Rising like a phoenix from the ashes of the 1906 earthquake, San Francisco was also celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal. Paul Whiteman had the good luck to get a position in the viola section of the eighty-piece San Francisco Exposition Orchestra performing at the Union Pacific Railroad exhibit on the fairgrounds. The repertoire was far-ranging. One of the stars was the octogenarian Camille Saint-Saëns, visiting from France, who conducted several of his own works. There was also an American Composers' Day, featuring native composers like Amy Marcy Beach and George Chadwick, both of Boston, and Horatio Parker, teacher of Charles Ives from Yale. And there were added attractions, like performances by the charismatic dancer-choreographer of the day Loie Fuller and her company, beguiling audiences with such presentations as "A Thousand and One Nights."
The young Whiteman, knowing that his nights in the orchestra would necessarily number fewer than a thousand, kept his eye out for other work and was fortunate to be given a seat in the San Francisco Symphony under Alfred Hertz in September. But that too would be short-lived. With guaranteed earnings during the 1915-16 season of only $25 a week for sixteen weeks-subsequently raised to the munificent sum of $40 per week-he was constantly on the alert for other opportunities to make money. Convinced that the orchestra was a dead end financially, he resigned at the end of the 1917-18 season and turned to playing popular numbers and ragtime novelties with a combo he organized, performing mostly at such venues as an ice rink and various San Francisco hotels. He was surprised to discover how much he could earn by playing jazz fiddle, and how much he liked playing this new kind of music.
San Francisco's Barbary Coast was the hotbed of this brand of music, coming from a "stagnant pool of immorality and crime spread[ing] its contaminating vapors over the surrounding blocks on either side ... the haunt of the low and vile of every kind," who could be found thronging at dance houses, concert saloons, gambling houses, and opium dens. The district-located in the northwestern area of the city bounded by Broadway and Pacific Streets, and extending from Stockton east to the waterfront of San Francisco Bay-had, by "the Gay Nineties," given San Francisco notoriety as "The Wickedest City in the World."
In order to fully enter his new life, the rebel son had to consciously reject the moral high ground of his early Denver roots and the possibility of his father's approval. Wilberforce's attitude toward jazz has been widely quoted. In 1938, when his son was a well-established international celebrity, Wilberforce remained the inveterate curmudgeon: "When it comes to 'swing music,' you can have my portion. I have always been addicted to frank speech, and I say plainly that I DO NOT LIKE swing or jazz or ragtime or whatever you choose to call it.... They say swing started with the savages back in the wilds of Darkest Africa. As far as I am concerned, they can have it right back. I am not a jungle chieftain, and I don't see why I should have to listen to jungle music any more than I have to eat jungle food."
Whiteman himself implies that his painful experience of depression and his strong determination to make something of himself in the burgeoning world of jazz were related to his growing up the son of Wilberforce Whiteman at the end of the nineteenth century. A child of the frontier, Paul was born in Denver on March 28, 1890, the eighty-seventh day of "the Gay Nineties," a decade that brought a surge in the popularity of ragtime. It was also only fourteen years since the Colorado Territory had been admitted to the Union as the thirty-eighth state, and memories were still fresh of the "fifty-niners" striking gold in Cripple Creek, and very soon also silver and lead elsewhere. In 1894, when Paul was four years old, his father assumed a position of considerable local authority when he was appointed superintendent of music for Denver's entire school system, a position he was to occupy for thirty years until his retirement in 1924. Even afterward he continued to be a force on the local scene until his death in 1939. It is ironic, considering his low opinion of jazz, that two notable African-American jazz musicians, Andy Kirk (1898-1992) and Jimmie Lunceford (1902-47), received their first musical training in Denver schools on Wilberforce's watch. Another member of this generation was the pianist Harry Barris, who with his New York Jewish family relocated to Denver when he was in his teens. Not only did he study music in high school with Wilberforce Whiteman, he, Al Rinker, and Bing Crosby later also became an exciting part of Paul Whiteman's act as the Rhythm Boys.
Wilberforce was an American "type" of his time. He believed in the work ethic. He was known for his weekly official visits to area high schools, never missing the Monday morning assembly. His ritual on the first Monday morning of each new school year was particularly memorable. Gene Fowler, a contemporary of Paul Whiteman's who passed through the local school system, vividly recalls:
Wilberforce would pass from desk to desk, at which the students sat in threes, to select a chorus to occupy the rostrum of the assembly hall. During the master's march along the aisles, pianist Sue Miller would play "America" over and over. Mr. Whiteman would pause briefly, now with a tuning fork instead of a pitch pipe in hand, diagnose a voice, leaning over a candidate like a specialist in lung diseases.... Mr. Whiteman leaned above me and my two friends. He endured my phrasing ... then turned to Sullivan, taking everything but his blood pressure. Then he crooked a finger, not at Sullivan but at me, and motioned for me to take a chair on the platform.
This emphasis on the work ethic perhaps best explains Wilberforce's obsession with drawing up formal contracts between himself and Paul. This seems to have started when the boy was all of seven. One of Paul's hobbies was woodworking, which carried with it written obligations specified by Wilberforce:
1. Paul Whiteman, herein known as the party of the second part, agrees to take the best care of all tools provided by the party of the first part, Wilberforce J. Whiteman.
2. Said tools will be kept sharp and clean and well oiled after each time they are used.
3. Said party of the second part agrees and promises to put tools away after use, sweep all sawdust and shavings from the bench and floor, look out for fire hazards, and not waste nails, screws, or wood.
However Paul might have bridled at his father's autocratic ways, he did learn some valuable lessons for later in life; for it is no secret that his acumen in the handling of business contracts was formidable, what with the hundreds of sidemen, singers, arrangers, publishers, and media moguls with whom he had to deal over several decades. It comes as no surprise that when Paul was learning to play the violin or viola at a tender age, his father once again had him sign a written agreement. This specified, among other things, that the party of the first part would spend a total of sixty-five dollars on an instrument and cover the cost of lessons during the year. Paul, in return, would owe his father one hour's practice a day; any day he failed to keep his end of the bargain, he would owe his father an hour's service.
Matters came to a head one summer's day around 1901, when Paul was about eleven years of age. It came at a point when he would just as soon have been outdoors playing ball or swimming. Besides, he had already protested by threatening to run away, but no one paid heed. True to form, Wilberforce, rigidly following the letter of the law he had imposed, was simply not going to yield one iota. "We can't get around something we both signed. I haven't quite decided what I want you to do during the time you owe me. So, until then, suppose you spend it in your mother's sewing room."
Once locked in the room, Paul discovered that his violin and a book of études had been deliberately placed there ... a further form of humiliation by his father. Understandably enraged, Paul smashed the instrument over his mother's sewing machine, only to have his father come into the room and insist that Paul pay back the sixty-five dollars spent on the instrument: "damages, you know." And before long Wilberforce was back with a lawnmower and shears, not to mention a new contract: mowing lawns for the next two years was Paul's immediate fate. The labor apparently traumatized him so that the smell of newly cut grass forever reminded him of the rage he felt at having been imprisoned in that sewing room.
Wilberforce had strong opinions on the importance of channeling boyhood aggression and cultivating manliness. He was a man with powerful forearms who had been a champion cornhusker in his native Ohio, one who would put on the boxing gloves with his son every day except Sunday. This commitment to physical activity would seem to have taken a leaf or two from the immensely popular book of Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown's Schooldays. In Hughes's book, Thomas Arnold, the legendary headmaster of Rugby School, is a proponent of the idea of a hardy masculinity, dubbed Muscular Christianity. In the words of the baseball pro turned star evangelist, Billy Sunday, Jesus was "no dough-faced, lick-spittle proposition" but rather "the greatest scrapper who ever lived." Paul's formative teenage years coincided exactly with the two presidential terms of Theodore Roosevelt, the preeminent public figure of the day and quintessential muscular model, who occupied the White House from 1901 to 1909. Wilberforce Whiteman might not "speak softly and carry a big stick," regularly go on the mat with a pair of judo experts, or engage in pillow fights with his children, but he did take boxing very seriously.
Fists indeed helped define young Paul, muscle sometimes superseding music. He grew up imbibing a form of muscular Christianity on the frontier that promoted the development of manliness and self-discipline through sports, athletic organizations, the branches of the Young Men's Christian Association, the Boy Scouts, and the like. These values are broadly hinted at by Paul Whiteman in the course of his 1926 book Jazz: "Wilberforce J. Whiteman, my father, is the best balanced man I know. For thirty years, he was director of music education in the Denver schools. He never had a drink until he was fifty-five and never smoked until he was sixty. Yet he wasn't priggish in the least. He was always keen on athletics and was really proud of me the time the Denver Y.M.C.A. named me among a dozen physically perfect fellows in the gym class. He was plumb disgusted when I began to get fat and used to try to make me box it off."
Thirty years later, in 1956, reminiscing about those years on the occasion of the dedication of Denver's Wilberforce J. Whiteman Elementary School, Whiteman injected a note of boyhood realism: "The Denver kids then, including myself, weren't exactly what you would call music lovers. They used to call dad 'Willie Willie Whiteman, do-mi-so.' Naturally they called me that too. That's how I learned to fight." We learn also that Wilberforce himself could make a news splash, readily resorting to fisticuffs outside of the home to settle scores. Writing in 1933 as a Broadway columnist, Ed Sullivan recounted an episode on Denver's West Side:
The elder Whiteman, a slender and wiry gentleman, was popular in all Denver schools, but on the West Side he loomed a hero. In 1905 he incurred the dislike of an especially tough gangster at the Elmwood School. Professor Whiteman had decided that the young thug was a tenor, whereas the affronted young man decided he would sing bass or not at all. One word led to another, and when school let out for the day, it was reported that the young man was waiting to paste the professor in the nose. "I'd leave by the side door if I were you," the principal advised Whiteman. "If you were I," said the professor, "you'd leave by the front door and that's how I'm leaving." When he reached the street he found a hundred boys waiting to witness the massacre. As the disgruntled young tough stepped up, raising a right fist, Paul Whiteman's dad countered with the nicest left hook ever delivered, until Jack Dempsey, another Colorado product, began to make pugilistic history. The professor received an ovation as he walked calmly away to catch a Lawrence Street car. From that time on a male pupil would even sing falsetto if Professor Whiteman counseled that register.
Yet except for a few occasions, attaining a robust manliness was something that eluded Paul. Indeed, during his teen years we find his physical problems multiplying. Stricken with typhoid fever, he permanently lost most of his hair and during recovery developed an insatiable craving for food. Chronic weight problems and baldness were to dog him for the rest of his life. When he eventually returned to school, he did poorly, attending at least three different high schools between 1903 and 1907. Failing grades and difficulties with his father were coupled with confrontations with teachers and administrators. And it was not long before he landed in juvenile court charged with greasing the city's trolley tracks with butter. A subsequent brief stint at the University of Denver meant taking "physics, football and my lunch."
Careening as he did through his teens, Paul did nevertheless find a measure of stability in his music making ... a source of fulfillment to both his father and himself. In fact, in a sanitized family history, dated 1936, Wilberforce Whiteman makes a point of praising his son, who, following the violin-smashing episode in his mother's sewing room, had taken up the viola. Referring to a performance of Messiah which he directed, Wilberforce writes of his son: "Although only 12 years old ... after seven lessons [he] played the viola parts perfectly." In addition, as a big booster of the musicians' local, Wilberforce ensured that his Paul became a member of the union. Under existing rules orchestras had to exhaust the supply of local talent before importing musicians from elsewhere.
Excerpted from LOUIS ARMSTRONG & PAUL WHITEMAN by JOSHUA BERRETT Copyright © 2004 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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