Paul Whiteman – The ‘King of Jazz’

Known to millions in the ’20s & ’30s as “The King of Jazz”, Paul Whiteman was a pioneer of early Jazz music and discovered some of the most talented vocalists and musicians of the Big Band era. Born in Denver, Colorado in March of 1890, his mother was a former opera singer, and his father was the supervisor of music for the Denver Public Schools. At an early age, Whiteman’s father insisted that he learn an instrument, and Paul gravitated to the viola. A natural talent, Whiteman was hired to perform with the Denver Symphony Orchestra in 1907 at the age of just 17, and later moved to San Francisco where he played with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in 1914. At the outbreak of World War I, his abilities as a classical musician opened the door for Whiteman to conduct the 40-piece United States Navy band for the duration.

After the war, he formed the ‘Paul Whiteman Orchestra’ and returned to San Francisco as the ‘house band’ at the Fairmont Hotel. From the onset, the orchestra was an instant success. In 1920 he was offered a recording contract with RCA Victor, and Whiteman relocated the band to New York City where he would record such early hits as ‘Whispering’ and ‘The Japanese Sandman’, which eventually would sell over two million copies and make Whiteman a star. With solid success to his credit, in the mid-1920’s Whiteman commissioned a young ‘up and coming’ composer by the name of George Gershwin to write a “jazz opera” for the orchestra. Whiteman introduced Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ with Gershwin at the piano, and the song soon became the band’s signature tune.

During the 1920’s and 1930’s, Whiteman’s organization became the “incubator” for such emerging talents as Red Nichols, Tommy Dorsey, Frankie Trumbauer, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Bunny Berrigan, Jack Teagarden and Bix Beiderbecke. In the late 20’s, a virtual unknown from Tacoma, Washington was introduced to Whiteman by singer Mildred Bailey- Bing Crosby was hired to sing with Whiteman’s vocal trio ‘The Rhythm Boys’, and went on to become a major star in his own right.

In 1930 Whiteman starred in the movie “King Of Jazz”. In his autobiography, Duke Ellington declared, “Paul Whiteman was known as the King of Jazz, and no one as yet has come near carrying that title with more certainty and dignity.” Whiteman, known by his musicians as “Pops”, paid his employees the highest salaries in the business and was well liked by them. At the height of the orchestra’s popularity, Whiteman employed over 35 vocalists and musicians. Whiteman recorded many jazz and pop standards during his career, including “Wang Wang Blues”, “Mississippi Mud”, “Rhapsody in Blue”, “Wonderful One”, “Hot Lips””, “Mississippi Suite”, “Grand Canyon Suite”, and “Trav’lin’ Light”.

During the 1940’s and 1950’s, Whiteman was hired as musical director for the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), and reformed his orchestra from time to time during those decades. In the early 1960’s Whiteman played in Las Vegas before retiring.

Paul Whiteman’s 1927 recording of “Rhapsody in Blue”, was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1974, followed by his 1920 recording of “Whispering” 1998. Whiteman was inducted in the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1993, and has two Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Recording at 6157 Hollywood Boulevard and for Radio at 1601 Vine Street in Hollywood.  Paul “Pops” Whiteman died of a heart attack on December 29, 1967 in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, aged 77.