With a handful of phrases in The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald lets us know that he missed his vocation: he would have made a first-class jazz critic. Consider, for example, his description of the music played by the band during the first of Jay Gatsby’s parties at the mansion on Long Island Sound attended by Nick Carraway, the book’s narrator: “The moon had risen a little higher, and floating in the Sound was a triangle of silver scales, trembling a little to the stiff, tinny drip of the banjoes on the lawn.” Wow. How many opponents of trad jazz must have wished they’d come up with the lethal precision of that “stiff, tinny drip”?
Even better is this, a couple of pages earlier: “The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music…” Yellow cocktail music! Who could not read those words and imagine exactly the sound the author had in mind, or at least its effect?
In Carraway’s words, the orchestra hired to entertain Gatsby’s guests is “no thin five-piece affair, but a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos, and high and low drums.” Not the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, then, but a more lavish ensemble very much along the lines of the outfit led in the early 1920s by Paul Whiteman, the pioneer of “symphonic jazz”.
The resemblance becomes even more marked when the orchestra leader announces: “Ladies and gentlemen, at the request of Mr Gatsby we are going to play for you Mr Vladmir Tostoff’s latest work, which attracted so much admiration at Carnegie Hall last May. If you read the papers you know there was a big sensation.” The piece, he continued, was known as “Vladmir Tostoff’s Jazz History of the World”.
If we are searching for a real-life inspiration for the fictitious Mr Tostoff, we might alight upon the figure Ferdy Grofé, a pianist and composer who met Whiteman in California in 1919 and worked closely with him until 1933. It was he who orchestrated George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, commissioned by Whiteman, for its concert debut at New York’s Aeolian Hall in 1924, with Gershwin himself at the piano. I still have my mother’s two-sided 12-inch 78 of their studio recording for the Victor label, released in the UK on His Master’s Voice; you can hear and see a later (and rather differently staged) performance here in an extract from the 1930 film King of Jazz.
Fitzgerald began work on Gatsby in 1922 — the year of Gershwin’s one-act opera Blue Monday, which inspired Whiteman to invite him to write a longer work — and made his final revisions in 1925, by which time “symphonic jazz” had become a part of the American music scene. Meanwhile there had been the premiere of Darius Milhaud’s much discussed La Création du Monde, another work which attempted to blend jazz and European classical music. (Milhaud, a French composer who had heard jazz during a visit to Harlem in 1922, later taught at Mills College in Oakland, California, where his pupils included Dave Brubeck and Burt Bacharach.) Grofé’s Mississippi Suite would come along in 1927, part of a phenomenon that withered in the face of critical disdain but provided a pre-echo of the Third Stream movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The Great Gatsby always reminds me of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue: no amount of mishandling can tarnish the essence of a work of 20th century art that comes as close to perfection as makes no difference. So I’m looking forward to Baz Luhrmann’s new film version, released in the UK later this month, with Leonardo di Caprio as Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan and Tobey Maguire as Carraway, and with music by Jay Z, Beyonce, Bryan Ferry and others. After all, Shakespeare survived Luhrmann’s marvellously inventive 1996 version of Romeo & Juliet, with its gun-toting gangbangers and a soundtrack that included Garbage, the Butthole Surfers and Radiohead.
Paul Whiteman, incidentally, earned the undying disrespect of purists who correctly believed he had no right to the absurd “King of Jazz” title (bestowed by a journalist in 1919 but eagerly seized upon as a marketing slogan), at least as long as Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington and other African American innovators were around. But an unbiased listen to some of his 1920s recordings reveals a man who hired good soloists — including the cornetists Red Nichols and Bix Beiderbecke and the saxophonists Jimmy Dorsey and Frank Trumbauer — and definitely had some sort of a feeling for jazz.
As for “Vladmir Tostoff’s Jazz History of the World”, wouldn’t it be fun if some modern composer with an understanding of the period took it upon himself to imagine the piece into actual life? I’d love to hear it, tinny banjoes and all.
* The photograph of Paul Whiteman’s Ambassador Hotel Orchestra was taken in Atlantic City in 1920; the leader is on the extreme left, a violin under his arm. It is included in the booklet to the CD Paul Whiteman ‘King of Jazz’ 1920-1927, released on the Timeless Historical label.