The Jazz Pilot or Flying Above The Stars (part 1)

The High Society bandleader who made his greatest music in the skies. Or
The rich darling of Broadway who found himself by flying above the stars.

A film treatment based on the life of Roger Wolfe Kahn, 1920s bandleader and composer who became a daring test pilot in the 1930s

Roger Wolfe Khan (born 1907 died 1962)


Roger Wolfe Kahn was the boy who had everything. Youngest child of the millionaire American financier and philanthropist Otto Kahn, he was raised in luxury, free to indulge his twin passions for speed and jazz music. As a teenager he raced cars and speedboats – and learnt to fly an aeroplane. Resisting his family’s efforts to turn him into a classical musician, he taught himself over twenty jazz instruments and composed syncopated dance music. He formed ten separate dance bands, employing a host of jazz legends including Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Gene Krupa and Jack Teagarden, which were booked into leading hotels, night clubs, resorts and opulent private homes during the Prohibition era. He made dozens of popular recordings and composed music for Broadway shows, including “Crazy Rhythm”, and others which became standards.

He himself founded several nightclubs, which were the last word in elegance and luxury. Le Perroquet had a mirrored dance floor and an aquarium under each table. Initially casual in dress and lifestyle, he soon became a style icon himself, travelling to and from Europe with fifty handmade suits and innumerable neckties. Dark-haired, with fine, sensitive features, he had an adoring female following, but told interviewers he was looking for a natural girl, without any High Society airs.

Outside his musical career he drove a series of racing cars and speedboats and flew private aeroplanes – each one faster than the one before.

At age 19, he made the cover of the newly launched Time magazine – one of the youngest people ever to do so. But his father had been on the cover before him. This hints at the one shadow in his celebrity superstar life. The shadow of his father, Otto Kahn.

Under a calm and urbane exterior, Otto Kahn had a powerful personality. A great lover and patron of “serious” music, Kahn initially discouraged his youngest son’s jazz career but then changed his mind and backed him financially to the hilt. (Roger had discovered that jazz musicians, night clubs and above all, finding a reliable bootlegger, were expensive outlays.) But not for the first time a son found that an indulgent father has more power than a hostile one. For all his musical genius, he could not escape the tag of being Daddy’s boy. Patronizing journalists refused to take him seriously as a bandleader or composer; some even hinted that his bands never followed his beat and kept their own time. In performances, to his suppressed fury, audiences regularly requested him to perform the corny old favourite “Baby Face.”

In 1931, still only 23, Roger thought he had found his chosen girl. Hannah Williams was a Broadway star, singer and comedienne and half of the Williams Sisters, famous for her number “The Cheerful Little Earful”. They were married secretly in the massive Kahn country house, Oheka Castle, in Long Island. The secrecy was at the insistence of Otto Kahn who also forced her to give up a starring role in a Broadway musical, “Sweet And Low.” Although he was reconciled to his son’s jazz career, no Kahn could marry a showgirl. They had a honeymoon in Europe – but Otto came too.
The three were photographed, elegant and exquisite, in Berlin. In 1931, with Hitler in the offing, this was already a dangerous place for a Jewish family to visit.

When news of the marriage was eventually released, Roger and Hannah of course were adopted among America’s favourite celebrity couples. He called her publicly “my cheerful little earful.” But the marriage was soon under strain. She wanted to resume her Broadway career, Otto and Roger wanted her to stay at home as a Kahn wife.

Restless and unhappy, Roger found more and more solace in flying. He regularly flew himself between engagements with his different bands. He began to enjoy these journeys more than the actual engagements.

In 1933 Roger and Hannah divorced. By then, they had each chosen other partners. Hers was the former heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Dempsey.

Roger’s new love was Edith (Daisy) Nelson, daughter of a Maine politician. They married very soon after his divorce, and had two children, a girl and a boy.

In 1934 Otto Kahn died suddenly. At this point Roger decided to give up music altogether for flying. He fulfilled his last band engagements, paid off his musicians, and became a full-time pilot. For some years he demonstrated the Cabot Airmail Pick-up Device, which required daring, low-level flying. Then he became a test pilot for the Grumman air company, working on the prototype fighters and dive bombers (mostly with Cat in their name, Wildcat, Hellcat etc) which became famous in World War Two.

He rose to senior executive positions with Grumman, but still flew his modified Bearcat to get to meetings. He died young (54) in 1962.

Roger made one reluctant comeback as a bandleader, in 1938. He was persuaded by the artist and fellow pilot, Aline Rhonie Hofheimer, to conduct a one-off assembly of musicians at the airport at Roosevelt Field, NY, at the party to celebrate the unveiling of her giant mural on the Golden Age of Aviation. He left the orchestra pit for the last time and went back to his new life of flying.

04. May 2022 by rkh
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