The Jazz Pilot or Flying Above The Stars (part 5 and finis)

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

Roger transforms himself into a flyer (1931-38)

Roger finds his musical career less and less satisfying. Apart from the constant references to Daddy’s boy, reinforced by Hannah, he finds his dance band life out of tune with the times. His conscience troubles him – can he really go on playing dance band music in the Depression? Millions are out of work, and former patrons of his bands and clubs have been wiped out financially. Some are selling apples in the street, others have committed suicide.

Otto remarks that Roger is providing employment for hundreds of musicians and support staff who might otherwise be out of work. “Or rather, I am” he remarks rather caustically, rubbing in the very point that Roger most resents. And he adds that Roger’s friend, Mayor Jimmy Walker, has asked New York’s entertainment centres to play only happy tunes. He suggests that Roger help him. But Jimmy Walker has been broken by the Depression. He has run out of wisecracks. He is about to flee the city to Europe to escape corruption charges. This conversation reinforces Roger’s feeling that his own era is over.

Roger also senses that the world will eventually have to confront the Nazis. What good will dance music do in that struggle? Thinking of the pro-Nazi patrons of the Berlin nightclubs, he even wonders whether dance music is “on the wrong side.”

Roger takes to his aeroplane more and more to escape from his problems and worries for the future. (More contrasts visually between beauty and freedom in the air and the artificial gaiety of night clubs and now, the miserable Depression-hit streets below the aeroplane).

Roger makes a forced but safe landing in a field in Maine. He meets a local girl, Edith Nelson (always called Daisy) who does not recognize him. He is taken with her immediately, but dare not identify himself: he is, after all, still married. When she asks his name he blurts the first one he can think of – Bertie Wooster. He pretends to be just a visiting British flyer.

Still as Bertie Wooster, he flies back to Maine secretly at regular intervals to see her again. His silly-ass manner is rather at odds with his obvious skill as a pilot, but Daisy accepts him as Bertie the pilot. He is acute and revealing about the appeal of flying – alone and dependent on his own skill to escape the Earth. She takes her first ride in his aeroplane. Normally a daredevil, he becomes very cautious. She urges him to be more ambitious, as she has watched him before. She demands to know the aircraft’s ceiling and when he tells her, demands that he go higher. “Higher than the stars?” he asks in his real voice. “That’ll do,” she replies. He pushes the aeroplane beyond its limits.

When they land safely, Roger is undone by her tiresome younger brother, an obsessive aircraft enthusiast. He recognizes the aeroplane as a unique model, owned by Roger. Quickly Roger pretends to be his personal pilot, borrowing the aircraft for a joy ride. But later alone with Daisy he admits his real identity. He could not tell her that he was a married man – but the marriage will soon be over. Will she forgive him and wait for him? She agrees at once. Whether Bertie or Roger, or anyone else, he was the man she wanted.

The final break with Hannah is relatively amicable until she reveals that she has been seeing heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey. A prizefighter, he snorts. Yes, she snaps back. Someone who had to make his own way without Daddy’s money, and all alone in the ring, dependent on his own efforts and no one to cover any mistake. He admits her logic.

They divorce. He proposes to Daisy in his aeroplane, sky-writing “Will you marry me?” She accepts.

Otto dies suddenly. Roger is genuinely grieved. He has lost a loving father. But he is also free of the shadow. He marries Daisy only ten days later.
He finally makes up his mind to give up music. NOTE: Daisy became very deaf in later life. If this was apparent when she met Roger it gives him a powerful emotional motive to give up music – if she cannot hear his beautiful arrangements. Possible scene of the orchestra playing to an appreciative, dancing audience – from which she alone is excluded. Daisy asks if he is certain – there are hundreds of pilots but only one Roger Wolfe Kahn, bandleader. He is certain.

After some hair-raising stunts promoting the Cabot airmail pick-up device, Roger signs up with the Grumman company as a full-time test pilot.

He puts their new prototypes beyond their limits. We see more hair-raising stunts. We see him working hard as a mechanic fixing engines. ON his hands again – not manicured any more, but dirty and calloused. ON all his fine suits being given away (this time the hobo with style is delighted with what he gets.) But his musical gifts have not gone. He plays the piano for his workmates at Grumman. Once he accompanied the best performers in the world, now it is amateurs in the canteen. At the Grumman airfield, he sees a teenage apprentice at the canteen piano, painfully trying to pick out “Begin The Beguine”, a hit that year (1938) for his former employee Artie Shaw. Roger takes over and shows the boy the chords. The boy asks if Roger was really once a famous band leader. “Not really. I knocked around a bit with Artie Shaw when I was a kid.”

However, his musical ear remains intact and helps him spot problems with engines. “This engine should hum in E flat, it’s doing F, almost F sharp.”
He is never tempted to a musical comeback, except once. A celebrity band is assembled in 1938 at Roosevelt Field for the unveiling of the giant mural on the golden age of aviation. Rhoda the painter, herself a flyer, persuades him to pick up the baton. ON his hands, once again, even more workmanlike. The band canters through some of his old repertoire to great applause. We hear the same taut performance of “Crazy Rhythm” as at the opening, clearly at his direction. Rhoda and Daisy congratulate him but he says modestly “I’m just a pilot now, the boys were smart enough to ignore my baton”.


09. May 2022 by rkh
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