This biographical article is part of JAZZ.FM91’s supplementary research component to expand on The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights documentary podcast series. Click here to find out more.
Paul Samuel Whiteman was born on March 28, 1890, in Denver, Col., to a family of reputable musicians. His father, Wilberforce James Whiteman, was the supervisor of music for the Denver Public Schools for 50 years, and his mother, Elfrida Dallison, was a former opera singer. From an early age, Whiteman’s father insisted that his son learn an instrument, preferably the violin, but Paul chose the viola.
Whiteman’s skill at the viola allowed him to join the Denver Symphony Orchestra by 1907, and he later joined the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in 1914. In 1918, during the First World War, Whiteman conducted a 12-piece U.S. Navy band, the Mare Island Naval Training Camp Symphony Orchestra (NTCSO). After the war, he formed the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.
Shortly after the end of the war, Whiteman went on to lead his first dance band in San Francisco, and after short stints in Los Angeles and Atlantic City, he and his band settled in New York in 1920. In the same year, the Paul Whiteman Orchestra began recording for the Victor Talking Machine Company. These early recordings (such as “Japanese Sandman” and “Whispering”) were extremely popular, and soon, Whiteman became a “household name.”
As Whiteman’s fame grew throughout the 1920s, the media began referring to him as “The King of Jazz.” While most jazz musicians and fans consider improvisation to be essential to the musical style, Whiteman believed the genre could be improved with formal written arrangements. Eddie Condon and several other musicians criticized him for this. Nevertheless, Whiteman’s recordings were popular “critically and commercially, and his style of jazz was often the first jazz of any form that many Americans heard during the era. Whiteman wrote more than 3,000 arrangements.”
The popularity of Whiteman during this era offers a unique case study surrounding the treatment of white versus Black musicians, and how each were received by the American public. As David Schroder highlights in the episode, “Paul Whiteman is an interesting character because he saw the opportunities in jazz. He … saw that there was this great interest in Black music in Black communities and so his term was, ‘I’m going to make a lady out of jazz,’ and kind of sanitize it for white audiences.” While he supposedly did encourage up-and-coming African-American musical talents (and while he did plan to hire Black musicians), his management persuaded him that doing so would destroy his career due to racial tensions in America.
As Alana Bridgewater points out in the second episode of The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights, Whiteman “did pay African-American composers like young Duke Ellington to write some of his music. But it was Whiteman who found national fame, or at least, he got there first. While Black musicians like King Oliver and Duke Ellington were playing a different kind of jazz for smaller, exclusive audiences at the Cotton Club in New York, Paul Whiteman became a movie star.” Again, this had everything to do with the fact that Whiteman was a white musician, and could deliver the same music that Black Americans could without discriminatory undertones or judgement. Despite Black musicians (like Ellington and Oliver) matching or exceeding the level of talent that Whiteman and other white musicians possessed, they did not receive the same recognition, and were not afforded the same opportunities.
After several years of fame through radio, television, and musical performances, Paul Whiteman passed away from a sudden heart attack on Dec. 29, 1967.