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Paul Whiteman: Biography & Songs

Instructor: Robert Huntington

Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.

Popular bandleader Paul Whiteman (1890-1967) is best remembered for his contributions to symphonic jazz in the 1920s. Learn about his unusual and influential career, and then test your knowledge with a quiz.

King of Jazz

Paul Whiteman promoted himself as 'king of jazz' and promoted his music as 'symphonic jazz'. In reality much of his music was more popular and dance band oriented, but he did lean toward a semi-classical style.

Whiteman was born to a vocalist mother and music supervisor in Colorado in 1890. He actually began his career as a violist with the San Francisco Symphony. After a stint with the Navy, he formed his own dance orchestra in 1919 and went on to sell millions of records in the early 1920s featuring hits like 'Avalon', 'Whispering', 'Japanese Sandman' and 'Three O'clock in the Morning'.

Paul Whiteman band, 1921
whiteman band

Whiteman starred in the 1930 autobiographical movie 'King of Jazz'. In 1933, he began a radio program with Al Jolson and went on to host other programs. His 'reign' as 'king of jazz' drew to a close about the mid-1930's when swing bands, such as those led by Benny Goodman ('The King of Swing') and Glenn Miller, became more popular.

Symphonic Jazz

As a classically trained musician, Whiteman was able to elevate jazz to a symphonic level by taking a big band instrumentation and adding orchestral winds and strings to his ensemble. His revolutionary approach of successfully blending these two styles, along with his excellent showmanship, appealed to the average listener, particularly because the music was easy to dance to. He moved from California to the East coast, first performing in Atlantic City and later, in New York.

In 1924, he gave an important concert in Aeolian Hall (a classical music venue in New York) that was called 'An Experiment in Modern Music'. That program included several symphonic arrangements of popular jazz works. Whiteman also commissioned a jazz concerto-like piece from George Gershwin which resulted in the famous 'Rhapsody in Blue'. Gershwin played the piano and the iconic opening clarinet glissando was created by Ross Gorman from Whiteman's band. Notable audience members included conductor Leopold Stokowski, composers Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff, and other well-known classical performers.

Ferde Grofé was one of Whiteman's arrangers. Grofé orchestrated Gershwin's music for that 1924 premiere. Grofé eventually composed Mississippi Suite and the famous Grand Canyon Suite, both of which Whiteman premiered. Whiteman also commissioned a work from Grofé called Metropolis and later commissioned Scherzo a la russe from Stravinsky.

Ferde Grofé
Ferde Grofe

In 1929, Grofé arranged a melody from Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov for Whiteman that became 'Song of India'. It begins with a symphonic sound that leads into a rhythmic dance. This song, in a very similar version, was later recorded and made popular by Tommy Dorsey in 1937. Other swing era bands would also turn to classical melodies as source material for some of their arrangements and would endeavor to imitate the symphonic sound established by Whiteman.

Discovering New Talent

Whiteman seemed to have an ability to recognize great talent. He was able to attract the best players because of his demanding level of musicianship and because he himself could pay well. Some of the famous jazz instrumentalists that worked with Whiteman included Bix Beiderbecke, Jack Teagarden, Bunny Berigan, Jimmy Dorsey, and Tommy Dorsey. (Both Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey would go on to lead their own bands.) Some of Whiteman's more pure jazz performances included 'Happy Feet' and 'Body and Soul', both recorded in 1930 and highlighted by various instrumental solos.

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