The Mystery of Roger Wolfe Kahn’s Symphony and Other Compositions

Had Roger Wolfe Kahn not gone against his parent’s wishes, it’s more than likely he would have launched his music career at the age of sixteen as a member of a “supergroup”—the first-ever such group to be termed as such. Roger’s father, the wealthy financier, opera buff, and all-around entrepreneur, was formulating plans to launch such a group in 1924 that would comprise the “best” jazz and classical musicians available, including his son Roger. It was a novel concept.

However, as history recalls, Roger did go against his parent’s wishes and instead formed his own jazz band, details of which seeped into the press at the beginning of February 1924. One of the direct consequences of Roger acting so maverick and against his parent’s wishes was to have his scheduled public debut performance on February 12, 1924, mysteriously withdrawn. Roger was to have performed at Paul Whiteman’s hugely anticipated concert, An Experiment in Modern Music, at New York’s Aeolian Hall—a venture Otto Kahn was financing. George Gershwin premiered Rhapsody in Blue at the concert; a composition Paul Whiteman had specially commissioned from Gershwin.

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To imply Roger was a rebellious teenager is an understatement. He could almost have coined the term. Unperturbed, though rattled by his parent’s mean-spirited retribution, Roger went ahead with his plans to steer his own musical path, thereupon leaving his father to quietly shelve his “supergroup” plans, which never saw the light of day.

Roger’s music career quickly took off and went from strength to strength. By the time he’d reached 18, his popularity was challenging that of Paul Whiteman’s—Whiteman was widely recognized as America’s No. 1 bandleader. Nevertheless, Roger was not easily satisfied with his success, mainly because the press gave him such a hard time. They perpetually referred to him as Otto Kahn’s “renegade son” and readily implied he probably would never have reached the giddy heights of success he’d achieved had it not been for the Kahn name and his father’s string-pulling. That, however, could not have been further from the truth. Roger’s determination to succeed was purely down to his talent as a musician and his desire to prove everyone that doubted him wrong.

Top-notch jazz and classical musicians were lining up to play in the Kahn band, which directly led to Roger launching several identikit bands that took the Kahn nametag, all of whom Roger’s booking agency personally handled. Roger would instruct them musically and provide them with Kahn song arrangements. He even opened his own School of Jazz housed in New York’s landmark Dakota building, where fellow musicians from his band taught their respective instruments to students. He paid all his musicians exceedingly well; their salaries were considerably higher than in other bands the musicians had played in. Hence, the turnover of musicians in the Kahn stable was substantial due to Roger’s desire always to hire the best musicians available.

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Roger didn’t limit his composing skills to just jazz melodies; he also wrote theatrical numbers for Broadway shows and, though not widely known, composed classical pieces. This brings me to several large classical works he composed that have mysteriously gone missing or been mislaid.

In writing and researching The KAHNS of Fifth Avenue, I discovered that much of Roger’s music career had never been correctly documented. The whys and wherefores of his actions had never been put into context with what was happening around him, especially within his family life and how that directly impacted his career. Early in my research, what became apparent was just how well-respected he was by his fellow musicians, irrespective of the regular knocking he got from the press.

Roger Wolfe Kahn
Roger Wolfe Kahn and his Hotel Biltmore Orchestra, 1926. Front row: (L to R) Joe Raymond (violin), Joe Venuti (violin), Arthur Schutt (piano), Roger Wolfe Kahn (conductor), Arnold Brilhart (alto sax), Alfred Evans (alto sax), Harold Sturr (tenor sax). Back row: (L to R) Tony Colucci (banjo), Vic Berton (drums), Tommy Gott (trumpet), Arthur “Babe” Campbell (bass tuba), Leo McConville (trumpet), Miff Mole (trombone). (Photograph copyright protected © The Roger Wolfe Kahn Collection, The Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University Libraries Archival Collections)

However, his father’s wealth did have a detrimental effect on him, a fact which he openly admitted throughout his career. It also affected how people acted towards him—several of his musicians surreptitiously tried to dupe extra money out of him in various obscure ways. Roger was no fool and quickly learned how to handle himself. He knew he had to if he wanted to stay in the music industry for the long haul. He had riders inserted in his residency contracts that would only permit his musicians to run up bar and restaurant tabs at the venue up to a fixed sum. He’d been caught out in the past by some musicians running up exorbitant bills at the bar, which he was expected to settle. Such misdemeanors brought about unnecessary rifts within his units between those who did and those who didn’t play by the rules.

After Roger’s three siblings had married and moved out of the Kahn palazzo at 1100 Fifth Avenue, Roger installed a music studio on the fourth floor. Here he often spent long hours late into the night composing new pieces or writing song arrangements. Unsurprisingly, the practice led his parents to believe he was over-working himself and feared for his health. He was already underweight and smoked incessantly, a habit all the Kahn family cultivated. At one point, they packed him off to a health resort, hoping the change would do him good. It did, but only for a short while; he soon returned to his antisocial ways.

This neatly brings me back to Roger’s classical works, several of which were composed in his studio. The press reported that Paul Whiteman commissioned Roger to write a rhapsody along the lines of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, but not imitative of. Roger did create the piece, which Paul Whiteman assigned Ferde Grofé to arrange. Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra went on to perform the rhapsody in public. It was purportedly titled, Birth of the Blues. However, what happened to the composition afterward remains unknown. Roger also composed a symphony, which he was very excited about. Again, information about the work was documented in the press, but what has since happened to the manuscript remains a mystery. Roger also embarked on a project he christened Spiritualana, an adaptation of original old-time camp meeting songs. Again, newspaper reports mention the piece, but there is no record of it in any music archives.

After Roger’s death on July 12, 1962, his wife Daisy donated dozens of large cardboard boxes (containing manuscripts and memorabilia relating to Roger’s music and aviation careers) to The Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University Libraries in Newark. To date, the boxes remain uncatalogued due to their quantity and the library’s lack of funding—the expense is way beyond the library’s financial resources. The boxes had lain undisturbed on shelves in the archive until the day I visited Rutgers in 2018 during my trip to America to do research for my book. I was the first person to request to view the boxes. Unfortunately, because of the sheer volume of material Daisy bequeathed, I only managed to look inside around ten of the boxes at most. Time was against me.

Before Roger died, he set up a trust fund to take care of his estate and finances—to provide for his wife and two children. After their death, the residual money in the trust was earmarked to benefit the Institute of the 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 (neé Kahn) died in 2016. Thereafter, the trust was transferred to the AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics)—with the first payment of $7 million. The AIAA are a precursor of the now-defunct Institute of the Aerospace Sciences. The trust is also the depository of Roger’s music royalties.

The AIAA were overwhelmed by Roger’s generosity; it was the largest donation they had received. Upon receipt of the money, the AIAA invited its members to submit suggestions on how they could best put the money to good use, taking into consideration 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 AIAA for a grant to pay for cataloging Roger’s archive—bearing in mind the archive also contains Roger’s aviation documents. Surprisingly, AIAA rejected the library’s proposal.

Which now leaves Rutgers University Libraries with a mountain of boxes of uncatalogued documents, manuscripts, and aviation paraphernalia slowly gathering dust. Are the original manuscripts of Roger’s rhapsody, symphony, and Spiritualana sitting in those boxes? I believe they might be, but until someone offers to donate finance for the cataloging of the Kahn bequest, the whereabouts of Roger Wolfe Kahn’s classical works will continue to be unknown.

Iain Cameron Williams was born in Sheffield, Yorkshire, of Scottish and Welsh ancestry. His mother was born in New York and his father was born in Kalimpong, West Bengal, India. Iain Cameron Williams is the writer of The KAHNS of Fifth Avenue (2022), The Empirical Observations of Algernon (2019), and Underneath a Harlem Moon: The Harlem to Paris Years of Adelaide Hall (2003). The KAHNS of Fifth Avenue by Iain Cameron Williams (ISBN-13: ‎978-1916146587) is available to purchase via Amazon and all good bookstores or via the website www.thekahnsoffifthavenue.com.

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