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Duke Ellington on WHN 1927-29: ‘Serving the masses, not the classes’ September 26, 2010

Posted by wallofsound in Jazz, Music Radio.
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As most Ellington fans and scholars will be well aware, on the 4th December 1927, Ellington’s band, the Washingtonians, opened at the Cotton Club in Harlem, New York City (Haskins 1985, 47). They were soon featured in the broadcasts of the local Manhattan-based radio station, WHN. The band could actually be heard on the station for some years leading up to their Cotton Club debut: from 1924 at the Hollywood Club, and again in January 1927 at the same location, by then renamed the Kentucky Club (Collier 1987, 55 & 96; Lawrence 2001, 81 & 409). Collier suggests that these broadcasts had been instigated by a young fan working for the radio station, although it is more commonly believed that the initiative belonged to Ellington’s manager, Irvin Mills. Collier’s story works well as mythology because that fan is identified as Ted Hushing, who became perhaps America’s best known ‘sportscaster’ from the late 1920s, while the Mills angle misses the point that the Washingtonians had broadcast before he took over the reigns of their careers. Lawrence states (but without a cited source) that the band played on Mondays between 11.30 and midnight, and on Wednesday and Friday evenings between 7.00 and 7.30 (Lawrence 2001, 113), while Collier is less precise, although he concedes that accuracy is difficult when relying on anecdotes from contemporary listeners.

As biographers and jazz writers, the authors of such accounts of Ellington’s life and music naturally focus more on the developing story and recording details. However, a more complex and more interesting sense of the social world in which Ellington operated emerges if we seek to understand both the nightclub and the radio station broadcasts in greater detail. In fact, by the time The Washingtonians were broadcasting from the Hollywood/Kentucky club, their shows were part of WHN’s extensive remote broadcast initiative, which embraced perhaps thirty theatres on Broadway and a good number of clubs in Harlem, including the three biggest: Connie’s Inn, Small’s Paradise and the Cotton Club (Doerksen 2005, 32). The Washingtonians were broadcasting mainly because of where they were, rather than who they were. A similar argument, by the way, could be made for their records. Ellington’s Vocalion releases were swiftly assigned first to the Kentucky Club Orchestra, and then to the Cotton Club Orchestra within a few days of his first appearance there. Their associations with key clubs was clearly very important in signalling who they were.

The evidence also suggests that the first Ellington broadcasts were made live from the radio studios in the mid-evening, while the later ones took the form of ‘radio remotes’ from the Cotton Club at around midnight, the time at which we know that the Ellington Orchestra was featured. Owned by a Brooklyn newspaper entrepreneur, but programmed by the publicist for the down-market Loew vaudeville theatre group, Nils Thor Doerksen, WHN developed a form of ‘cabaret broadcasting’, promoting first Loew acts and then those of other entertainment businesses through performances based in the studio, and subsequently relaying their performances live from the venue itself (Granlund 1957). In addition, WHN time-shared their frequency with two, and subsequently three, other stations up until 1934 (Jaker, Sulek et al. 1998, 124). In 1926, the station was broadcasting from 12.30 pm until midnight, and its programme schedule featured two ‘Dance Orchestra’ programmes: one at 7.00 pm and one at 11.30 pm (Jaker, Sulek et al. 1998, 84). However, its published schedule for late 1929 reveals that, by that date, one of the other time-share stations broadcast on the frequency from 9:30 pm to midnight (New York Times 1929). It is very likely, then, that the loss of the night-time broadcast slot meant that the Cotton Club remotes were no longer possible, and that this was the reason that, by February 1929, the Ellington band could be heard on WABC.

While it might have only been possible to hear Ellington’s WHN Cotton Club remotes for about a year, it is still significant that they started on that station. WHN features prominently in early radio histories, mainly for two controversies: one around its on-air style; and a second, but connected, dispute around its compliance with patents. Both highlight the adverse reactions to the station’s forceful commercial approach to the then new medium. We should therefore see the station, and the Ellington Orchestra’s musical broadcasts, as being at the centre of a series of connected struggles over the future of radio, struggles that were themselves indicative of competing cultural discourses of value in American society. In fact, it is not too fanciful to suggest that Ellington’s cultural practices at this time can be read as those of a bricoleur, manipulating visual and aural signs to construct a persona which he hoped could (but never would) resolve the tensions between competing black and white cultural values. The result was experienced by audiences through the mediation of a set of new technological forms of communication – records, radio and film – that would come to define what it was to be a modern American.

Perhaps what I mean by this will become clearer if I provide some background to radio, to its technological and economic base, and to the debates that raged around its implementation as a broadcast medium. In the early part of the twentieth century, it was not clear what purposes the relatively new wired and wireless technologies would be used for, and while by the 1920s wireless had been established as the basis of broadcast radio, and wired technology as the basis for point-to-point telephony, the owners of the patents in these areas were keen to ensure they controlled and exploited them for profit. The point at which Ellington’s band were broadcasting, then, was a transitional period, where radio broadcasts were dominated by small independent stations but the right to exploit the potential of these broadcasts was dominated by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). This corporation was an alliance of patent-holding companies, who pooled their technology with the radio assets of the US military to determine the post-war development of domestic radio and telephony. For land-based radio, the American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T) was the most powerful, as they held the right to license the transmitter technology and approve the commercial exploitation of both wired and wireless broadcasting. In addition, the broadcast stations came under the regulatory control of the Department of Commerce, and after 1927 the Federal Radio Commission, with the former emphasising content and the latter frequency allocations.

WHN was, then, part of a much more diverse and unsettled radio system than that which would be apparent in the network systems of a decade later. At the time Ellington’s band first broadcast, only 7% of stations were profit-maximising commercial broadcasters like WHN (Dimmick 1986), and radio content was produced by broadcasters run by universities, religious groups, political parties, wireless manufacturers, and newspapers (Barnouw 1966, 4). Further, WHN could not broadcast when and to whom it wanted. It was allocated a time-shared frequency with another station based at a New Jersey Amusement Park (WPAP), with the Calvary Baptist Church (WQAO) and, after frequency re-allocations in 1928, with a station run by an electronics magazine publisher (WRNY) (Jaker, Sulek et al. 1998, 84).

The station was far from typical of the time. WHN’s experiments with remote broadcasting were a novel use of both wired point-to-point technology (to relay the performance to the transmitter) and wireless broadcast technology (to get the performance to listeners). Further, compared with even its time-share stations, WHN stood out for its emphasis on using broadcasts as a basis for direct revenue generation, its collaboration with New York clubs and cabarets, and its exuberant presentation style, which many saw as crass or even indecent.

It was these characteristics which defined the way in which radio listeners would interpret the Ellington band’s performances. While other stations followed WHN in establishing remote broadcasts of music, these tended to relay performances from midtown upmarket venues like the Waldorf Astoria, Biltmore, Lafayette Hotel, and Hotel Roosevelt, and when dance music was featured it would be from bands led by the likes of Paul Whiteman, Ben Bemie, Meyer Davis or Paul Specht. The Ellington band’s WHN broadcasts were in the company of other black entertainers like Ethel Waters, Clarence Williams and Eva Taylor, Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, Florence Mills, LeRoy Smith, Charlie Johnson, Wilbur Sweatman, Leona Williams, and Fletcher Henderson’s Club Alabam’ Orchestra featuring Louis Armstrong (Doerksen 1999, 88). While other stations, in other cities, also broadcast such ‘hot’ jazz bands, it was far from a common activity (Barlow 1995).

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