Paul Whiteman Biography

28 March 1890, Denver, Colorado, USA, d. 29 December 1967, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, USA. Whiteman’s father was a distinguished music teacher and a career in music seemed the most natural thing for the youngster to follow. A tall, heavily-built individual, Whiteman first learned classical violin, and in his teens was a member of the local symphony orchestra. During World War I he organized bands in the US Navy and thereafter led his own bands in Los Angeles, Atlantic City and eventually New York City. By 1920, he already had a recording contract with RCA - Victor Records; in 1923 he took a band to London, and in the following year presented a spectacular concert at New York’s Aeolian Hall. Billed as an ‘Experiment In Modern Music’, the occasion was later hailed, inaccurately, as the first jazz concert. It was typical of what was to become the Whiteman trademark: lavish presentation, many musicians, and music of all kinds mixed together, whether compatible or not. The concert also saw the premiere of a work specially commissioned for the occasion, George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody In Blue’, with the composer at the piano. Whiteman’s star rose and he performed concerts at Carnegie Hall and in capital cities across Europe. He always took a highly commercial view of the music business, and when he saw the growing popularity of jazz (allied to the fact that he loved this kind of music), he decided to hire the best white jazz musicians money could buy.

Amongst those Whiteman employed over the years were Joe Venuti, Jack Teagarden, Frank Trumbauer, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Bunny Berigan, Red Norvo and, most significant of all, Bix Beiderbecke. Whiteman also hired good singers, including Mildred Bailey and Bing Crosby. Although he subsequently took much criticism for his outrageous publicity claims (he angered many when he was labelled as ‘The King of Jazz’), Whiteman was genuinely enthusiastic about jazz and the manner in which he treated his sidemen was exemplary. Musically, Whiteman’s recordings of the late 20s and early 30s are often zesty, and many of the arrangements, notably those by Bill Challis, are worthy attempts to showcase the jazz talents in this often cumbersome orchestra. During this period he had numerous hit records, including ‘Whispering’ (reported sales in excess of two million), ‘The Japanese Sandman’, ‘Wang Wang Blues’, ‘Bright Eyes’, ‘My Mammy’, ‘Make Believe’, ‘Cherie’, ‘Song Of India’, ‘Say It With Music’, ‘Canadian Capers’, ‘When Buddha Smiles’, ‘Do It Again’, ‘Stumbling’, ‘Hot Lips’, ‘Three O’Clock In The Morning’, ‘I’ll Build A Stairway To Paradise’, ‘When Hearts Are Young’, ‘Parade Of The Wooden Soldiers’, ‘Bambalina’, ‘Last Night On The Back Porch’, ‘Linger Awhile’, ‘What’ll I Do?’, ‘Somebody Loves Me’, ‘All Alone’, ‘Oh! Lady Be Good. ‘Valencia’, ‘The Birth Of The Blues’, ‘In A Little Spanish Town’, ‘My Blue Heaven’, ‘Among My Souvenirs’, ‘Together’, ‘Ramona’, ‘Ol’ Man River’, and ‘My Angel’. Most important of all, however, Whiteman’s efforts helped to make jazz acceptable to the wider public. He may have misjudged the true nature of jazz, and did it little good by sanitizing the earthier aspects of the developing music, but he did it all the same.

As Harry Carney observed, Whiteman ‘made a lady out of jazz’. Because of the nature of his music, Whiteman was never a part of the swing era, despite making some good records with the Swing Wing and the Bouncing Brass, featuring Jack and Charlie Teagarden and Miff Mole in the late 30s. Instead, he continued to present musical stage and film extravaganzas. Among the cast of one of his movies, King Of Jazz (1930), were the Rhythm Boys, a vocal trio which included Bing Crosby and was resident with the Orchestra for a time. Whiteman’s other films included Thanks A Million (1935), Strike Up The Band (1940), Atlantic City (1944), and Rhapsody In Blue (1945), He was also in the Broadway musical shows George White’s Scandals Of 1922, Lucky (1927), and Jumbo (1935), and remained immensely popular on radio throughout the 30s. In the 40s Whiteman retired from music to become musical director of ABC radio. He later made occasional appearances with specially formed orchestras. In the 70s, some years after Whiteman’s death, Dick Sudhalter formed the New Paul Whiteman Orchestra, which effectively recreated the music if not the glitz of the original. Latterly, most of Whiteman’s recorded output is readily available although it is usually released under the name of Beiderbecke, his star sideman.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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