Paul Whiteman

Photo of Paul Whiteman
  • Born

    March 28, 1890
    Denver, Colorado
  • Died

    December 29, 1967 (age 77)
    Doylestown, Pennsylvania

Though called the King of Jazz,” Paul Whiteman was any­thing but. During his long ca­reer as an or­ches­tra leader, he rarely ven­tured into true jazz ter­ri­tory. Whiteman’s great­est legacy to jazz lies in his eye for tal­ent. Whiteman alumni in­clude such lu­mi­nar­ies as Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Jack Teagarden, Charlie Teagarden, Bix Beiderbecke, Bunny Berigan, Bing Crosby, Mildred Bailey, and Johnny Mercer.

Technicalities aside, Paul Whiteman was one of the most im­por­tant fig­ures in twen­ti­eth cen­tury American pop mu­sic. Formed at a time when the coun­try’s mu­si­cal land­scape was chang­ing, Whiteman’s or­ches­tra broke much new ground. His was the first or­ches­tra to pop­u­lar­ize arrange­ments, the first to use full reed and brass sec­tions, the first to play in vaude­ville, the first to travel to Europe, the first to use a fe­male singer (Bailey), and the first to use a vo­cal trio (the Rhythm Boys).

Born in Denver to a mu­si­cal fam­ily, Whiteman learned vi­o­lin and vi­ola as a boy, even­tu­ally land­ing a spot in the Denver Symphony Orchestra. He later trav­eled to San Francisco, where he was a mem­ber of sev­eral clas­si­cal en­sem­bles. It was in San Francisco that he be­came in­ter­ested in the pop­u­lar mu­sic of the day and de­cided to pur­sue it as a ca­reer. He was side­tracked by WWI, how­ever, dur­ing which he trained mu­si­cians in the Naval Training Camp Symphony. After the war, he re­turned to San Francisco and formed a dance band, later mov­ing to Southern California be­fore head­ing to the East Coast. The group made their first record­ing for Victor in August of 1920 and went on to be­come the most suc­cess­ful record­ing artist of the 1920s. The band made its first ra­dio ap­pear­ance on Newark sta­tion WJZ in 1922.

As the late 1930s came around, Whiteman’s mu­sic sounded old-fash­ioned when com­pared to the mod­ern rhythms of Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. In 1938, Whiteman tried un­suc­cess­fully to re­vamp his style, hir­ing new arrangers and bring­ing in the Modernaires. When that failed he dis­banded the old group, in 1940, and started a new one, only to dis­band it shortly there­after in or­der to star in the film Strike Up the Band. He formed an­other group at the end of 1940, fi­nally achiev­ing the mod­ern sound for which he was look­ing, and in 1942 he broke his long ab­sence from the record­ing stu­dio to lay down two sides for the newly-formed Capitol Records (co-founded by Whiteman alum­nus Mercer). The draft even­tu­ally took its toll on Whiteman’s line-up, though, and he soon dis­banded.

In 1944, Whiteman or­ga­nized and toured with a new nos­tal­gic or­ches­tra. After the war, he set­tled down at ABC, con­duct­ing stu­dio or­ches­tras for ra­dio and tele­vi­sion. He used sev­eral singers on an as-needed ba­sis, though he fa­vored Eugenie Baird. In the mid-1950s he hosted his own telev­sion show. Paul Whiteman died in 1967.

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  • Jeepers Creepers
    Paul Whiteman (The Four Modernaires and Jack Teagarden), Decca (1938)

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