Born in Denver in 1890, Whiteman was raised in serious music by his father Wilberforce, director of music for the Denver Public Schools. As a student at East High School, he learned viola and started in 1916 with the Denver Symphony Orchestra as first chair. After time with the San Francisco Symphony, he formed the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in 1918. The nine-piece ensemble had relocated in New York City by 1920; it played the Palais Royal for the next four years—the earliest dance band from the West to take the East Coast by storm. In 1924, Whiteman staged a concert blending symphonic music and jazz at Aeolian Hall, New York’s temple of classical music. George Gershwin, playing piano, introduced “Rhapsody in Blue,” which became Whiteman’s theme song.
Whiteman had the country’s largest and best-paid dance orchestra, an imposing ensemble of up to 35 musicians—the first to play arrangements; the first to use full brass and reed sections; the first to tour Europe. Sidemen included many greats and future bandleaders—Bix Beiderbecke, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Johnny Mercer and Jack Teagarden. In late 1926, Whiteman signed the Rhythm Boys to sing for his band; Bing Crosby’s prominence in the trio helped launch his career. Whiteman had 28 No. 1 records during the Roaring Twenties, and his version of “Ol’ Man River” with Paul Robeson on vocals would be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2006.
By 1928, Whiteman was on the air when live radio programming was on the increase. He and the band made The King of Jazz for Universal Pictures in 1930, one of the first feature-length movies filmed entirely in Technicolor. As the band became more of a show unit, the size decreased, but as late as 1938, his personnel roster included 27 musicians and a vocalist.
When disc jockeys took over radio, Whiteman briefly spun platters on ABC. After television came onto the market, he made a number of special appearances and was Jackie Gleason’s summer replacement in 1955. In the early 1960s he promoted sports car racing in Florida and California. Whiteman died in a Pennsylvania hospital in 1967 at the age of 77.