Beiderbecke comes into the Whiteman ranks in 1927, and he’s grateful to be there, in part because some solidity was offered, which played its role in keeping his alcoholism in abeyance. Most people now who listen to Whiteman do so by listening around Whiteman, all but putting a finger in one ear and leaving the other unblocked for the moments when Beiderbecke will play a fill or have a brief solo. The cornetist died aged twenty-eight, there are not a ton of recordings from him, and if beggars are going to choose, they’re not going to have much Beiderbecke to satiate them. So, Whiteman is played. Reluctantly. I’d also say, though, that he’s approached with pre-conditions, as if there’s a fix in place before the music is actually heard.
His image has something to do with the overall conception. Whiteman was rotund, with the glossy sheen of a man who wanted to sell you a used car that might not make it back home. In both visage and sound, he doesn’t exactly scream out that here is anything cutting edge. There’s a strain of sentimentalism in a lot of his recordings with enough sugar to remind you to book that dental appointment.
So it went, too, in the early 1920s. We were a saccharine people in a lot of our preferred entertainment after the Great War. You have to work your way through dross to find the nitty-gritty “real” stuff. There was a prevailing prettiness and sentimentality. Think of the pictures of Charlie Chaplin: They haven’t aged as well as those of Buster Keaton because the Little Tramp favored the saccharine, whereas the Great Stone Face kept it real.
At the time, sugared melodrama meant box office. Whiteman had a Chaplin-esque aspect. Like Chaplin, he was also artistically savvy—neither was ever entirely about cloying sentiment—and thus smart enough to rope in the vocal talents of Bing Crosby. Crosby paired with Beiderbecke on record is one of the true early treats of jazz. You can hear how the one made the other think in each of their respective approaches. “Whispering,” meanwhile, is its own kind of treat, one that does anything but whisper to you.
Remember, we are going back more than 100 years ago, so this isn’t the rhythmic barrage of Metallica circa 1991, but for its age, “Whispering” represented a dynamic approach to rhythm. Whiteman billed himself as the King of Jazz, a bit of bumptiousness that has done his legacy no favors in the century since, but we must keep in mind that jazz as a viable musical outlet, at least so far as most of America was concerned, was seen as modish, faddish. There was an expectation that it would pass, was akin to a craze, like the twist later was, and even the Beatles. Band leaders were carnival barkers; the show wasn’t expected to stick around long.
Whiteman couldn't have Black players—those tragic times being those tragic times—but he could have the best white ones, and they were canny enough to give themselves over, collectively, to something that would later be known as swing. The Whiteman musicians didn’t play jazz as novelty music, as the Original Dixieland Jazz Band would do at times. There is real sincerity in the sound of “Whispering,” right from its opening 12-bar intro, a kind of prefatory blues statement that I bet Charlie Parker would have loved, even as he cranked it up to 300 beats-per-minute.
That sincerity matters; Whiteman wasn’t stealing anyone’s culture or their act. He loved jazz. And if we love jazz, we should welcome anyone who wants to make it. If they’re skilled at making it, we should also take the time to listen. We may learn something. We may find new music—even when it is old music—that we can love.
Immediately you detect a strong pulse in this ensemble work. There’s an assertion of a swirling center, almost like the photographed eye of a storm, bur rendered in motoric notes instead. The previous autumn had seen the release of a Gershwin piano roll of the same tune, and if you think there’s an unspannable gulf between Gershwin as he viewed the piano and rhythm composition and as Count Basie and Thelonious Monk did, you’d miss your guess.
Atop that skeleton, Whiteman hung the flesh. I’m not going to tell you that Whiteman was a maestro auteur of helming a band, a la Miles Davis, but he knew who could play and who couldn’t. I suspect, after that, with a really good chart in hand—as he had here—he mostly got out of the way and let the boys blow.
The original Victor release bills the tune—via a subtitle—as a foxtrot. A hundred years back ago, this was a wave of advancing rhythm that boggled the mind. It sounds quaint to make the remark now, but the banjos wail. They provide the same intense chording as you get with a lot of early Who songs, or we might think of that iron-grip John Lennon has on his guitar with “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You.” If the foxes were trotting, they were doing so at speeds to outrun the hounds. At your party, “Whispering” would have been the humdinger number.
There is also eeriness and mystery, with the song’s sole solo being played by an instrument you’ll have a devil of a time identifying. It’s high-pitched and ululating, like a Theremin before Theremins. My best guess is it’s a saw—as in, the thing you cut down trees with—played with a violin bow (shades of Jimmy Page), but I will also hear arguments for some doctored slide whistle. The beat is incessant, and you want the song to modulate, but it’s not going to; it’s committed to its homophonic form of wave.