Paul Whiteman

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Popular song purists tend to dismiss Paul Whiteman because he was dubbed “The King of Jazz.” Whether his was actually a jazz band is beside the point. Whiteman brought popular music into the jazz age as a transitional figure who understood how popular music needed to change. To implement those changes he hired up-and-coming talents and provided a showcase for new kinds of music. Whiteman defined the big band, fronting one of the first and certainly the most popular of its day. He promoted great talent and introduced new styles of music, most notably George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

The Whiteman band set the standard for future bands as well as the the format for performance.

The Whiteman band set the standard for future bands as well as the the format for performance. It was the first band to feature a female vocalist, when Mildred Bailey stepped out in 1929. Later, Whiteman hired Bailey’s brother, Al Rinker, along with Harry Barris and Bing Crosby, and introduced the idea of a vocal trio. With Ferde Grofe and later Don Redman and Bill Challis on payroll, it was only natural that Whiteman’s band would be the first to use written arrangements. Grofe and Whiteman introduced the full reed and brass sections to the big band, another milestone. When he booked the band into vaudeville and led it on a European tour he racked up two more firsts.

Whiteman had played violin and viola with the Denver Symphony, which instilled in him a respect for the classics and an interest in promoting new classical works in a modern idiom. During World War I he served as a bandsman and upon being mustered out of the service in 1919, he started his own big band on the West Coast. Arranger and pianist Ferde Grofe, who would later write the Grand Canyon Suite, worked with Whiteman on that early band.

In 1920, Whiteman moved the band to New York where he continued in the dance band tradition but with a slight difference. He employed jazz musicians and, as the decade progressed, they became more and more integral to Whiteman’s music. Whiteman signed with Victor in 1920 and his fame grew outside New York. He soon toured throughout America and Europe, his popularity growing all the while.

In 1924, Whiteman commissioned a number of new works which he presented at the Aeolian Hall under the title, “Experiment in Modern Music.” Chief among these works was George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, billed as a study in jazz—but it was actually a thrilling hybrid of jazz, classical, and popular music. The impact of that concert and the stunning reception to Rhapsody boosted Whiteman’s reputation. He was encouraged to expand his repertoire and bring more jazz instrumentalists and singers into the fold.

The success of the Aeolian Hall concert encouraged Whiteman to commission additional works for the band. Some of the better compositions include Rube Bloom’s Soliloquy, Metropolis by Matt Malneck and Harry Barris, pianist Dana Suesse’s Blue Moonlight, and Peter De Rose’s Deep Purple.

Bix Beiderbecke, Red Nichols, Frankie Trumbauer, Henry Busse, Jack and Charlie Teagarden, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Eddie Lang, and Joe Venuti all played for Whiteman. Mildred Bailey and Ramona and Joan Edwards supplied the distaff singing and future lyric great Johnny Mercer also sang with the Whiteman ensemble. Each and every member of the Whiteman band loved their leader because he supported them wholeheartedly. Whiteman wasn’t afraid to share the spotlight with a singer or player—or give it to them entirely.

When the 1930s rolled around, Whiteman was more popular than ever on stage, in concert, and in films. The 1930 showcase film The King of Jazz, produced by Universal Pictures, was an immediate sensation. Whiteman, The Rhythm Boys (with Bing Crosby making his film debut), Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Roy Bargy, and Wilbur Hall (playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever” on a bicycle pump!) were among the featured band members along with the Brox Sisters (an ur Boswell Sisters group) and John Boles. Universal considered the film so promising that it paid for early Technicolor sequences including a cartoon, the first ever in Technicolor, directed by Walter Lantz, later the creator of Woody Woodpecker.

As the 1930s dawned, Whiteman turned to radio as a chief means of reaching ever greater audiences. In 1932, he began coast-to-coast broadcasts and decided to bring in new talent by holding local contests. It was in this way that he discovered Johnny Mercer, who was hired to sing and write special material at a princely $75 a week.

With the rise of the big bands in the ‘40s, Whiteman’s productivity slowed. In the face of other more modern bands, he reformed his organization three times but couldn’t shake off the dust of the past. Just as he began to gain some momentum, the draft decimated his roster and by the time the war was over so was the era of the big band, of which he was the consummate pioneer.

In the 1950s, Whiteman was repaid by Mercer by being one of the first artists signed by the new Capitol Records, but, though he was highly regarded historically, he just wasn’t in vogue. He enjoyed the occasional television appearance and briefly led a band in Las Vegas in the early 1960s, but by the mid-‘50s Whiteman was essentially retired.

Paul Whiteman’s legacy is not necessarily musical, though he did produce some excellent sides in the “symphonic jazz” style. He is remember more for his vision and enthusiasm as well as his good heart. As such, both professionally and personally, he served as a model for all who came afterwards. (KB)

Saw the connection

The flip side of “Marie,” this tune was suggested to Tommy Dorsey by Victor recording chief, Eli Oberstein. “The funny part of it was that for months, driving home at night, I had been singing to myself that lick that we used on the introduction—you know: DUH—duh deed a dee duh duh duh duh duh—DA DA—but I could never get a tune to follow that figure. As soon as Eli suggested ‘Song of India’ I saw the connection.”Song of India

Original title

“I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise was originally titled, ‘A New Step Every Day.’”I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise

Like the song? Vote for me!

Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s “I’m Just Wild About Harry” was another old standard that was revived for political purposes—this time for Harry Truman. Jack Yellen and Milton Ager’s song “Happy Days Are Here Again” was written for the movie musical, Chasing Rainbows. It had a new lease on life as the campaign song of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932.I'm Just Wild About Harry

Got the girl and the hit

“What’ll I Do” came to Berlin when he was slightly drunk on champagne and feeling sorry for himself at a birthday party. It seems Berlin wasn’t good enough for Clarence Mackay, the industrialist father of Ellin Mackay, Berlin’s intended. Eventually, Berlin got the girl and a hit song in the bargain.What'll I Do

Needed another number

Andy Razaf remembered how the song was written: “I remember one day going to Fats’s house on 133rd Street to finish up a number based on a little strain he’d thought up. The whole show was complete, but they needed an extra number for a theme, and this had to be it. He worked on it for about forty-five minutes and there it was.” Razaf’s memory doesn’t include Harry Brooks, who is credited with co-writing “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and other songs for the show Connie’s Hot Chocolates. He might have been a cut-in or he might have written the verses. Brooks once recalled that in "Ain’t Misbehavin’," “It was an attempt to copy the successful formula Gershwin used for ‘The Man I Love.’ We imitated the opening phrase that began just after the first beat and the minor part of the bridge, too.”Ain’t Misbehavin’

Wrestling with death

When faced with the deaths of his wife and mother, Irving Berlin decamped to the Ritz Hotel in Atlantic City. He wrote “All Alone” as an expression of his sadness.All Alone

He put it in the concert hall

“Pops got jazz up out of the sewer. We’d been playing in toilets. He put it in the concert hall.”Joe Venuti

on Bing Crosby

“They thought Bing Crosby was such a bad singer that they insisted I not let him sing a solo. Two years later he came back [to the Paramount] a star.”Paul Whiteman

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Recordings
Atlantic City
Paul Whiteman
Nola, Perella & Turner (courtesy Vince Giordano)
pianists Harry Perella and Ray Turner
Rhapsody in Blue, Victor Irwin Orchestra (courtesy Vince Giordano)
Victor Irwin Orchestra
Rhapsody in Blue, Willard Robison Orchestra (courtesy Vince Giordano)
Willard Robison and his Deep River Orchestra
The 3 part PBS Series
Own the DVD