The Jazz Pilot or Flying Above The Stars (part 3)

continuing the story of Roger Wolfe Kahn, dance band leader and pilot

Boy Roger (1910s)


The Kahn family in a private box at a classical concert. Roger, the smallest, bored and fidgety. ON his hands, playing an imaginary syncopation, until he gets a slap.

The Kahn family at home watching Roger reluctantly at the piano. He gets through a classical piece accurately enough but lifelessly. Then to their horror he starts playing it in ragtime.

Roger’s twelfth birthday, celebrated at their astonishing country home in Long Island, Oheka Castle. He receives not only a scaled-down powered car but a flight in an aeroplane (a very rare treat for a child in 1919). ON his small hands, caressing the instruments. He wants the aeroplane to go higher – above the stars.

Teenage Roger (1920-27)

The Kahn family in their mansions enduring his attempts (O.S.) to learn one instrument after another … terrible school reports from his exclusive private school, he does nothing except play cheap music … Roger working on the engines of the family’s fleet of cars in the garage to make them faster (ON his hands again, dirty for the first time)… racing cars and boats against his elder brother Gilbert … persuading his father to buy a private plane and hire a pilot (the co-pilot of the opening sequence) and learning to fly himself.

Roger regularly uses the fire escape to leave the family mansion at night, bribing the janitor to keep silent. He slips away to speakeasies (Prohibition has started) where he jams with other musician. Later he takes to spending nights away from home, living in cheap hotels or even sleeping on other musicians’ floors. He jams with a wider and wider set of jazz musicians, overcoming jibes about his youth and wealth, and starts recruiting for one band after another by paying lavishly.

Roger in demand as a bandleader in better and better locations. (Again, these are all artificial environments, lit exclusively by artificial lighting. They will contrast visually with the wide-open flying landscapes, with natural light and colour.) Roger is in also in greater and greater demand as a composer of tunes for shows and as a recording artist. He is a perfectionist and a disciplinarian in the studio, and never satisfied with the final take.

Maintaining his flying ambitions, he orders his own state-of-the-art aircraft. He can already fly it, but cannot get a full pilot’s licence until he becomes 21.

His father is still disapproving, although he continues to pay Roger’s generous allowance.

Roger being reluctantly photographed for Time. The photographer asks him to wear a smarter suit. He refuses – his off-the-peg department store number is good enough for him.

Roger at various engagements, evading a succession of vapid High Society flappers by citing band business and taking off in his aeroplane (which becomes a literal and figurative means of escape.)

Roger setting up two luxurious nightclubs. They are successful and he gets even deeper into fashionable society. One of his buddies is Jimmy Walker, a witty, glad-handing, fun-loving but corrupt New York politician and author of a successful sentimental song “Will You Love Me In December As You Do In May?” On Walker’s piano, Roger rearranges and peps up the sickly 1905 melody by Ernest R Ball, but Walker cannot persuade him to introduce it into his band’s repertoire. Roger also resists the dapper Walker’s attempts to get him to visit a good tailor. But he does assist Walker’s successful campaign to become Mayor of New York in 1926.

In spite of the popularity of his bands and nightclubs, Roger is soon in financial difficulties. He asks for a bail-out from his father. Otto agrees, shrewdly realizing that this will give him financial control over Roger’s life. He not only bails him out but buys him a new aeroplane. But he imposes two conditions – Roger must dress better and he must employ a reliable personal manservant. Otto (an Anglophile) has the perfect candidate – Jeeves.

07. May 2022 by rkh
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