Dubbed the “King of Jazz” in the 1920s, Paul Whiteman was credited with bringing jazz music into the mainstream during the decade after World War I. He was the first to arrange music for jazz orchestra, creating a “symphonic jazz” sound that was especially popular with youthful audiences because it was so dance-able. His bands featured some of the top musicians of his day, among them Bix Beiderbecke, Jack Teagar-den, Bunny Berigan, Eddie Lang, Red Norvo, and the Dorsey brothers. Whiteman also helped popularize the notion of a vocalist with an orchestra—a rare combination before he came on the scene. Over the years Whiteman introduced many singers who went on to great success, including Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, Mildred Bailey, and Morton Downey.
By smoothing over jazz’s rough edges, Whiteman made the genre more respectable to the average listener while at the same time inviting the scorn of jazz purists. He even added jazz elements to classical music to make it more appealing to general audiences. As noted by Charles Nanry in The Jazz Text, “Paul Whiteman represented ’nice jazz’ to a large proportion of the American public. Whiteman managed to combine dance music with just a dash of hot jazz and the trappings of the classical music concert in order to make his music palatable to the masses.”
Whiteman’s debut commercial release, “Whispering,” was one of the first records to sell over one million copies. His band recorded more than 200 hits through 1936 that included “Hot Lips,” “Three O’Clock in the Morning,” “My Blue Heaven,” “OI Man River,” “All of Me,” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” “Three O’Clock in the Morning” sold 3.4 million copies and made Whiteman rich.
Whiteman was surrounded by musical influences as a child. His father, Wilberforce Whiteman, was a supervisor of music in the Denver public school system, and his mother and sister were vocalists. Whiteman’s father used to lock young Paul in the house sewing room with his violin to make him practice, but his son rebelled by smashing the instrument to pieces. Whiteman later bought himself a viola and then revealed a genuine musical talent. As a teenager he played first viola in the Denver Symphony Orchestra, then performed with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra after moving to California in 1914. He considered this early classical training vital to his later career. The bandleader was quoted in the New York Times as having said: “You’ll never learn to bounce in jazz if you don’t know your Bach and Beethoven.”
For the Record …
Born March 28, 1890, in Denver, CO; died of a heart attack, December 29, 1967, in Doylestown, PA; son of Wilberforce James (a public school music supervisor) and Elfrida (a vocalist; maiden name, Dallison) Whiteman; married Nellie Stack, 1908 (annulled 1910); married Jimmy Smith, 1921 (divorced 1922); married Mildred Vanderhoff, 1922 (divorced 1931); married Margaret Livingston (an actress), 1931; children: Paul Jr., Margo, Julia, Jan, and Dickie (deceased).
Became violist with Denver Symphony Orchestra, 1907; moved to California, 1914; violist with the San Franciso Symphony Orchestra, 1915-18; formed band that played at Alexandria Hotel, Los Angeles, CA, 1919; moved to New York, signed contract with Victor Talking Machine Company, and released first record, “Whispering,” 1920; played long run at New York’s Palace Theatre, 1921; performed in England, 1923; organized “An Experiment in Modern Music” concert at New York’s Aeolian Hall, which premiered George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, 1924; hired the Rhythm Boys (featuring Bing Crosby and Al Rinker), 1926; signed Mildred Bailey, the first female vocalist with a jazz orchestra, 1929; introduced Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite, 1931; started Kraft Music Hall radio series with Al Jolson, 1933; broke up band and went into semiretirement, 1940; organized new band, 1941; began Philco Radio Hall of Fame, 1943; Blue Network (later ABC), music director, 1943-50s; set attendance record in three-concert series at Hollywood Bowl, 1954; emceed White House musicale at request of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1959. Also appeared on Broadway and in films, including 1930’s King of Jazz. Military service: Served in U.S. Navy as bandmaster at Mare Island, CA, 1918.
While in California Whiteman became hooked on the rhythm of jazz after hearing some combos perform in local clubs. He quit his job with the symphony in 1918 and devoted his professional life entirely to this burgeoning new sound. “Jazz was beginning to be popular, and I made the surprising discovery that, while I was able to earn only $40 a week in the symphony, I could get $90 playing what was then called ‘jazz’ fiddle,” said Whiteman, according to Thomas A. DeLong in Pops: Paul Whiteman, King of Jazz.
Whiteman was fired from his first job with a jazz band because he couldn’t adapt to their style of music. After service as a bandmaster in the U.S. Navy, he formed his own band to play at a hotel in California. The band included Ferde Grof6 as pianist and arranger and Henry Busse on trumpet. Whiteman’s dance band introduced his original brand of “symphonic jazz,” which began winning over the public with performances at the Hotel Alexandria in Los Angeles, a hot spot that attracted famous guests of the era such as film luminaries Charles Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks.
Persuaded to bring his sound back east, Whiteman and his band played at the opening of the Ambassador Hotel in Atlantic City in 1920. He became a smash hit at the hotel and also attracted the attention of a Victor Talking Machine Company executive (the company was later known as RCA Victor), who was in the city for a company convention. The executive signed Whiteman to a recording contract that resulted in a string of Number One hits. Later that same year Whiteman moved to New York City and began a long engagement at the Palais Royal on Broadway. The next year his band debuted at the Palace Theatre, a famed vaudeville showcase.
In 1924 Whiteman gave his “concert jazz” a higher profile with a memorable performance at Aeolian Hall, a celebrated venue for classical music in New York City. Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler, Leopold Stokowski, Igor Stravinsky, and Sergei Rachmaninoff were among the notables in the audience impressed by Whiteman’s music. His program included “Limehouse Blues,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and “The Volga Boatman,” as well as some pieces composed by Victor Herbert especially for the program, somewhat symphonic arrangements of Irving Berlin songs, and the first public performance of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” with Gershwin on piano. Following the performance, Whiteman became one of the highest priced musical performers in the country, receiving the then astronomical fee of $5,000 for a single broadcast. He would often brag that his own musicians were the highest paid in the business, and he lived in luxurious style.
Throughout the 1920s Whiteman played at leading concert calls and conducted the symphony orchestras of many cities. He made his debut on Broadway in George White’s Scandals of 1922, which featured music by Gershwin, and later appeared in Florenz Zieg-feld’s “Follies” productions. His band was at its best in terms of musical talent by the end of the 1920s, when it included Beiderbecke on trumpet, Eddie Lang on guitar, Jimmy Dorsey on saxophone, Tommy Dorsey on trombone, and Bill Challis as arranger. The Whiteman sound became so popular that the bandleader established some 50 bands to play under his name around the country.
Whiteman was one of the first bandleaders to star in films when he appeared in King of Jazz in 1930. He made the move to radio in the early 1930s, launching the Kraft Music Hall on NBC with Al Jolson in 1933 and later hosting his own programs. But by the mid-1930s his reign as the “King of Jazz” began to be threatened by the swing bands of Benny Goodman and the big band jazz of Don Redman, Fletcher Henderson, and others. Whiteman began to sound dated, and his attempts to reorganize his band to adapt to the swing era did not succeed. He broke up the group in 1940, only to form a new one the following year.
The Whiteman sound regained some status in the early 1940s with songs such as Travelin’ Light, which featured a vocal by Billie Holiday. Whiteman remained active in radio during the 1940s and in 1943 became musical director for the Blue Network, which became ABC. That year he began the Philco Radio Hall of Fame, which ran for seven years. By the mid-1940s, Whiteman had earned more money than any other conductor in America. Even as his bands were eclipsed over the years, his music retained its widespread popularity because it was so easy to dance to.
Television did not prove a viable medium for Whiteman, although he made various forays into it with shows like Paul Whiteman’s Goodyear Revue and TV Teen Club, which was cohosted by his daughter Margo. From the 1950s on Whiteman’s main activity was serving as musical director of ABC in New York City. He also indulged his obsession with car racing, attended many races at the Daytona race track in Florida and becoming a member of the boards of several tracks.
While Whiteman’s long lasting popularity cannot be denied, his position in musical history is now regarded by many as somewhat lightweight. He did little composing or arranging on his own but surrounded himself with people who could—and with musicians who ranked among the best. As Albert McCarthy wrote in The Dance Band Era, “It is probably true that Whiteman succeeded best when his own inclinations towards ’symphonic jazz’ were least in evidence…. By his insistence on a high quality of performance, and his willingness to pay well to obtain the leading instrumentalists, there is little doubt that he did help to raise the level of popular music, though his influence may have been more oblique rather than direct.”
“Whispering” / “Japanese Sandman,” Victor, 1920.
“Wang Wang Blues,” Victor, 1920.
Tribute to Gershwin, Mark 56, 1936.
Concert: 1927-32, Sunbeam.
With Bing Crosby (recorded 1928-31), Columbia.
(Coauthor) Wonderful One, 1922.
(Coauthor) Charlestonette, 1925.
(Coauthor) My Fantasy, 1940.
(With Mary Margaret McBride) Jazz, J. H. Sears & Co., 1926.
(With Leslie Lieber) How to Be a Bandleader, 1941.
Records for the Millions, 1948.
Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, 8th ed., revised by Nicolas Slonimsky, Schirmer Books, 1992, p. 2043.
DeLong, Thomas A., Pops: Paul Whiteman, King of Jazz, New Century Publishers, 1983.
McCarthy, Albert, The Dance Band Era: The Dancing Decades from Ragtime to Swing, 1910-1950, Chilton, 1971.
Nanry, Charles, The Jazz Text Van NostrandReinhold, 1979.
The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Volume 20, edited by Stanley Sadie, Macmillan, 1980, p. 388.
The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Donald Clarke, Viking, 1989, p. 1234.
Schuller, Gunther, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945, Oxford University Press, 1989.
Whiteman, Paul, and Mary Margaret McBride, Jazz, J. H. Sears & Co., 1926.
New York Times, December 30, 1967, pp. 1, 24.