Paul Samuel Whiteman was born in Denver, Colorado, on March 28, 1890. His father Wilberforce was director of music for Denver School District #2. Paul was given his first violin at age seven, but chose instead to play the viola. He became a proficient enough violist to join the Denver Symphony at age 17.
In 1915, Paul Whiteman persisted and secured a place in the 80-piece Panama-Pacific Exposition Orchestra even though he had been told at first there was no place for him. While in San Francisco, he began to moonlight in hotel dance bands, and met bandleader Art Hickman. Hickman was already dabbling in jazz, which would become ubiquitous within the next few years. Whiteman, still with one foot planted in the world of concert music, suggested that Hickman apply symphonic principles to jazz. Hickman wasn’t hearing it. Instead, Paul decided to act on the idea himself.
By 1919, Paul Whiteman hired cornetist Henry Busse and pianist/arranger Ferde Grofé; they were to accompany him to the East Coast where he became established at the Ambassador Hotel in Atlantic City. In August 1920, Whiteman recorded “Whispering,” which sold over two million copies.
The early 1920s were dominated by the Whiteman dance-band sound. He contracted out 20 other bands, all playing Ferde Grofé arrangements—which offered “room” for musicians to add jazz solos. His own orchestra achieved an unprecedented popularity and eminence. On February 12, 1924, the Paul Whiteman Orchestra presented An Experiment in Modern Music at Aeolian Hall, in New York. There the symphonic approach reached its apogee with the premiere of Rhapsody in Blue, then arranged for jazz band by Grofé with composer George Gershwin improvising much of what he played that night.
Through the 1920s, Whiteman’s band boasted an all-star jazz personnel: Red Nichols, the Dorsey Brothers, Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang. Even into the 1930s, as the orchestra veered somewhat away from jazz, Whiteman still had Jack Teagarden, Bunny Berigan, and Al Gallodoro in his lineup.
In the 1940s, Paul Whiteman disbanded his orchestra and became Music Director for the ABC Radio Network, though he still occasionally recorded and conducted concerts into the early 1960s. Paul Whiteman died in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, on December 29, 1967. —Andy Senior