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January/February 2006

Joshua Berrett
Louis Armstrong and Paul Whiteman: Two Kings of Jazz

At one time, the mere mention of Paul Whiteman in jazz circles would be greeted with hoots of derision. But for anyone who cared to listen, the recorded evidence of some of Whiteman's 1920s output, most notably at a time when Bix Beiderbecke was a member of his orchestra, offered material of genuine substance and interest to jazz fans. Indeed, this was a period when Whiteman could count on none other than Duke Ellington as one of his fans. It is perhaps inevitable, therefore, that the "King of Jazz" would eventually become the subject of some drastic revisionism, something that was kick-started by Don Rayno's 2003 epic Paul Whiteman Vol. 1 1890-1930. Now we have Berrett's concise summary of Whiteman's achievements, cleverly juxtaposed with the life of Louis Armstrong, that probes beneath the music to examine the social milieu behind each life to give context and meaning to their music.

A study of both Armstrong and Whiteman might seem an impossible circle to square, a black innovator and a white usurper, but Berrett suggests things were not quite as simple as that with a myriad of cross-influences that transcended race as ideas and inspirations freely crossed the racial divide that contributed to the richness and diversity of early jazz. The result is a fascinating study conducted with the kind of rigor and reality too often missing in more romanticized studies of the period.

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