If Roger Wolfe Kahn hadn’t gone against his parents’ wishes, it’s more than likely that he would have launched his musical career at the age of sixteen as a member of a “supergroup”. – the very first group of this type to be named so. Roger’s father, a wealthy financier, opera lover and versatile entrepreneur, was drawing up plans to start such a group in 1924 which would include the “best” jazz and classical musicians available, including his son Roger. It was a new concept.
However, as history recalls, Roger went against his parents’ wishes and instead formed his own jazz band, details of which leaked to the press in early February 1924. direct consequences of Roger acting so outspoken and against his parents’ wishes was to have his first public performance scheduled for February 12, 1924, mysteriously pulled. Roger was scheduled to perform at Paul Whiteman’s highly anticipated concert, An experience in modern music, at the Aeolian Hall in New York, a company that Otto Kahn financed. George Gershwin created Rhapsody in Blue concert; a composition that Paul Whiteman had specially commissioned from Gershwin.
To imply that Roger was a rebellious teenager is an understatement. He could almost have invented the term. Unfazed, though shaken by his parents’ petty retribution, Roger proceeded with his plans to lead his own musical path, then leaving his father to quietly shelve his “supergroup” plans, which never saw the light of day.
Roger’s musical career quickly took off and went from strength to strength. By the time he had reached 18, his popularity challenged that of Paul Whiteman – Whiteman was widely recognized as America’s No. 1 conductor. Nevertheless, Roger was not easily satisfied with his success, mainly because the press gave him a hard time. They perpetually called him Otto Kahn’s “renegade son” and readily implied that he probably never would have reached the dizzying heights of success he had had it not been for Kahn’s name and the draw of his dad. That, however, couldn’t be further from the truth. Roger’s determination to succeed was purely due to his talent as a musician and his desire to prove everyone who doubted him wrong.
Top-notch jazz and classical musicians lined up to play in the Kahn band, which directly led to Roger starting several identikit bands that took Kahn’s name, all personally managed by Roger’s booking agency. Roger would instruct them musically and provide them with arrangements of Kahn songs. He even opened his own jazz school in the iconic Dakota building in New York City, where fellow musicians in his band taught students their respective instruments. He paid all his musicians extremely well; their salaries were considerably higher than in other bands the musicians had played in. Consequently, the turnover of musicians from the Kahn stable was high due to Roger’s desire to always hire the best musicians available.
Roger did not limit his talents as a composer to only jazz melodies; he also wrote theatrical numbers for Broadway shows and, though little known, composed classical plays. This brings me to several great classical works he composed that have mysteriously disappeared or been misplaced.
In writing and research Fifth Avenue KAHNS, I discovered that much of Roger’s musical career had never been properly documented. The ins and outs of his actions had never been put into context with what was going on around him, particularly in his family life and how that directly impacted his career. Early in my research, what became apparent was how much he was respected by his fellow musicians, regardless of the regular slaps he received from the press.
However, his father’s wealth took a toll on him, a fact he has openly admitted throughout his career. It also affected the way people acted towards him – several of his musicians surreptitiously tried to extort extra money from him in various obscure ways. Roger was no fool and quickly learned to handle himself. He knew he had to if he wanted to stay in the music industry long term. He had endorsements inserted into his residency contracts that would only allow his musicians to mount bar and restaurant tabs on-site up to a fixed sum. He had been surprised in the past by musicians charging exorbitant bills at the bar, which he had to pay. Such misdemeanors caused unnecessary divisions within his units between those who did and those who broke the rules.
After Roger’s three siblings married and moved out of the Kahn Palace at 1100 Fifth Avenue, Roger set up a music studio on the fourth floor. Here he would often spend long hours late at night composing new pieces or writing song arrangements. Unsurprisingly, this practice led his parents to believe he was working too much and fearing for his health. He was already underweight and smoked incessantly, a habit the entire Kahn family cultivated. At one point, they took him to a spa, hoping the change would do him some good. He did, but only for a short while; he soon reverted to his anti-social ways.
This brings me right back to Roger’s classic works, many of which were composed in his studio. The press reported that Paul Whiteman commissioned Roger to write a rhapsody modeled after George Gershwin. Rhapsody in Blue, but not imitative of. Roger created the piece, which Paul Whiteman commissioned Ferde Grofé to arrange. Paul Whiteman and his orchestra then performed the rhapsody live. It was supposedly titled, Birth of the Blues. However, what happened to the composition afterwards remains unknown. Roger also composed a symphony, which he was very excited about. Again, information about the work has been documented in the press, but what has happened to the manuscript since remains a mystery. Roger also embarked on a project he called Spiritualana, an adaptation of original songs from old-fashioned camp meetings. Again, newspaper articles mention the piece, but there is no record of it in the music archives.
After Roger’s death on July 12, 1962, his wife Daisy donated dozens of large cardboard boxes (containing manuscripts and memorabilia related to Roger’s musical and aviation careers) to the Institute of Jazz Studies at the Libraries of the ‘Rutgers University in Newark. To date, the boxes are not cataloged due to their quantity and lack of library funding – the expense far exceeds the financial resources of the library. The boxes had sat untouched on archive shelves until the day I visited Rutgers in 2018 on my trip to America to do research for my book. I was the first person to ask to see the boxes. Unfortunately, due to the sheer volume of material Daisy bequeathed, I only managed to look inside about ten boxes at most. Time was against me.
Before he died, Roger set up a trust fund to take care of his estate and finances, to support his wife and two children. After their deaths, residual money from the trust was appropriated for the benefit of the Institute of Aerospace Sciences.
Roger’s wife, Daisy, died in 1994. Their son Peter died tragically in 1974 in a gas explosion in Santa Clara, California, and their daughter Virginia Cumley (née Kahn) died in 2016. , the trust was transferred to the AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics) — with the first installment of $7 million. The AIAA is a precursor to the now defunct Institute of Aerospace Sciences. The trust is also the custodian of Roger’s music royalties.
The AIAA was overwhelmed by Roger’s generosity; it was the most important gift they received. Upon receipt of the money, the AIAA invited its members to submit suggestions on how best to use the money wisely, taking into account the notion of “paying it forward”. During my visit to the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University Libraries in Newark, I mentioned the Kahn Trust. As a result, the Institute applied to the AIAA for a grant to pay for the cataloging of Roger’s archives – bearing in mind that the archives also contain Roger’s aviation records. Surprisingly, the AIAA rejected the library’s proposal.
Which now leaves the Rutgers University libraries with a mountain of boxes of uncatalogued documents, manuscripts and aviation paraphernalia slowly gathering dust. The original manuscripts of the rhapsody, symphony and Spiritualana sitting in those boxes? I think they might be, but until someone offers to fund the cataloging of the Kahn bequest, we still won’t know where the classic works of Roger Wolfe Kahn are.