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.