Commentary Magazine

King of the Jazz Age

In 1930, Paul Whiteman, then the most popular dance bandleader in America, appeared with his 28-piece orchestra in a Hollywood musical called King of Jazz. The title of the film was also Whiteman’s “official” nickname, coined in 1924 by a publicist. Though he is said to have been uncomfortable with the name, he never tried to suppress it, and it stuck with him to the end of his life (he died in 1967) and beyond.

By then, the notion that Whiteman was ever the “king of jazz” had long since been refuted by critics who had no use for what one of them, Gary Giddins, has termed “the damp rhythms and minimal improvisation” of Whiteman’s “concert ballroom music.” Never mind that Whiteman had written himself into the history of American modernism by commissioning George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in 1924, or that his band in the late 20’s featured such indisputably authentic jazz instrumentalists as Bix Beiderbecke, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Eddie Lang, Red Nichols, and Frank Trumbauer (not to mention Bing Crosby, who at the time was for all purposes a jazz singer). True, but irrelevant-at least to those who saw Whiteman’s commercial success as an insult to the jazzmen whom he employed and admired.

As early as the 40’s, criticism of Whiteman and his “symphonic jazz” (as it came to be known) began to take on a racial tinge, and even today some writers continue to make jokes about his surname. More seriously, it is widely assumed that the success of the Whiteman band came at the expense of worthier black groups. (To be sure, Whiteman’s orchestra, like every other American dance band of the 20’s and early 30’s, was racially segregated, though he employed such noted black arrangers as Don Redman and William Grant Still and recorded their work.) Even some who freely acknowledge the significance of the great white musicians of the period are nonetheless reluctant to give Whiteman his due.

Perhaps the most puzzling example of anti-Whiteman bias has arisen out of his relationship with the cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, after Louis Armstrong the most influential jazz musician of the 20’s and 30’s. Beiderbecke played with Whiteman’s band from 1927 to 1929, recording some 40-odd solos with the group. He never played better than on these recordings, and he was both excited and stimulated by the challenge of fitting his harmonically advanced style into the similarly advanced contexts created by Whiteman’s arrangers. Yet Beiderbecke’s liking for Whiteman’s music was never accepted by many admirers of the cornetist, including one so perceptive as the poet and jazz connoisseur Philip Larkin:

[T]o hear him explode like Judgment Day out of the Whiteman Orchestra . . . only to retire at the end of sixteen bars into his genteel surroundings like a clock-cuckoo is an exhibition of artistic impotence painful to witness. Bix should have been dominating his own group, not decorating the Whiteman cake.

Not until 1968 did Whiteman begin, tentatively, to receive serious critical attention. In that year, Gunther Schuller published Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development, the first full-length study in which a trained musician would analyze in detail the technical workings of pre-1930 jazz. Significantly, Early Jazz contained a 35-line footnote in which Schuller describes the Whiteman band as “an orchestra that was overflowing with excellent musicians and virtuoso instrumentalists” and whose arrangements were “marvels of orchestrational ingenuity.”

This departure from conventional wisdom was followed by equally thoroughgoing reappraisals by Richard M. Sudhalter, who wrote perceptively about Whiteman in Bix: Man and Legend (1974, with Philip R. Evans and William Dean-Myatt) and Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945 (1999), and William H. Youngren, whose series of groundbreaking essays about Whiteman began to appear in 1976. Sudhalter also organized a “revival” band, the New Paul Whiteman Orchestra, which performed and recorded the Whiteman band’s original orchestrations.

And now Don Rayno has published the first installment of a massive two-volume monograph, Paul Whiteman: Pioneer in American Music, Vol. 1, 1890-1930.1 The book contains a narrative history of Whiteman and his band, a day-by-day chronology, and a comprehensive discography, including a list of all currently available CD reissues of Whiteman’s recordings. Though Rayno writes in the homemade prose style and with the uncritical enthusiasm of the hobbyist, there is nothing amateurish about his meticulous scholarship, and the facts he has so painstakingly assembled have cleared the way for a fully informed reconsideration of Whiteman’s place in American music.



Paul Whiteman was born in 1890 in Denver, Colorado, the second child of Wilberforce Whiteman, a European-trained choral director who organized and directed the music program in Denver’s public-school system. Paul started playing violin at the age of seven (he later switched to viola), and his father, who disliked popular music, clearly expected him to pursue a career as a member of an orchestra. In due course, he played in the Denver and San Francisco Symphonies, but he also worked regularly with pit orchestras and dance bands. Unlike his father, he took a keen interest in the new musical style known as “ragtime.”

In 1917, Whiteman, then living in San Francisco, heard jazz for the first time. He found it raw but intriguing:

I liked it, though it puzzled me. Even then it seemed to me to have vitality, sincerity, and truth in it. In spite of its uncouthness, it was trying to say something peculiarly American, just as an uneducated man struggles ungrammatically to express a true and original idea.

By then he had lost interest in orchestral work, and longed to start a dance band of his own. At that time, jazz was usually performed by small groups whose simple “arrangements” were worked out by ear and then committed to memory. (The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, which made the first jazz recordings in 1917, consisted of clarinet, trumpet, trombone, piano, and drums.) It was Whiteman’s idea to create a more formalized version of jazz, to be played from written-out scores by a larger ensemble. He was, however, neither a jazz musician nor an arranger, and it was not until 1920 that he found a collaborator who could help him realize his vision.

Ferde Grofé (1892-1972), now best remembered for his Grand Canyon Suite (1931), was a classically trained pianist and arranger who, like Whiteman, had worked with both symphony orchestras and dance bands. He moved to San Francisco in 1919, where he met and joined forces with Whiteman, who by then was leading a nine-piece band. It was Grofé who worked out the ensemble style that became central to Whiteman’s musical identity, and who arranged the best-selling 1920 recordings of “The Japanese Sandman” and “Whispering” that made Whiteman and his band famous.

The Whiteman-Grofé sound of the early 20’s is now so dated that it is hard to grasp how innovative it was. Essentially, the two men were trying to create a popular-music counterpart to such “light-classic” ensembles as the dance orchestras of the Strauss family and the concert band led by John Philip Sousa. These groups had deliberately blurred the distinction between classical and nonclassical music. The Whiteman band did much the same thing, playing waltzes (“Three O’clock in the Morning”) and semiclassical miniatures (“Parade of the Wooden Soldiers”) along with the popular songs that were its customary fare. Most were lightly flavored with elements of jazz and ragtime, and all were played from fully scored arrangements by Grofé that made room for occasional improvised solos.2

Today, Whiteman’s earliest recordings sound over-polite and rhythmically stiff-but so did most other “jazz” on record in 1920, and for some years afterward. (It was not until 1925 that Louis Armstrong made his first recordings as a solo artist.) For most Americans, unaware of more musically adventurous developments taking place outside the recording studios, Paul Whiteman’s music was jazz, the music that socially aware novelists like F. Scott Fitzgerald and John O’Hara had in mind when they wrote about the manners and morals of what came to be known as “the Jazz Age.”3

In addition, Whiteman’s music, for all its undeniable limitations, exercised a huge influence on other popular musicians, white and black alike. They saw in his orchestra a model for a new kind of large-group dance music, one that (in the words of Richard Sudhalter) “to some degree captured the loose intensity of a small improvising ensemble” while simultaneously offering wider expressive possibilities than those of the semi-improvised small-band jazz of the early 20’s.



In speaking about his band, Whiteman left no doubt as to what he and Grofé were trying to do:

Lots of good musicians refuse to play dance music. I think their attitude is unsound. They should help to elevate it [emphasis added]. The modern jazz can be played without so much roughness and made quite attractive. That’s what I aim to do.

These remarks show that Whiteman initially saw jazz not as a finished product but as the raw material for the more polished and “elevated” American concert music he sought to create. To this end, he presented “An Experiment in Modern Music,” a 1924 concert at New York’s Aeolian Hall in which he performed works that showed off the various sections and styles of his band. By then the ensemble had grown to 23 pieces, including eight violins-far larger than any comparable American popular-music group.

According to the program, the purpose of Whiteman’s “experiment” was

to point out . . . the tremendous strides which have been made in popular music from the day of discordant Jazz, which sprang into existence about ten years ago from nowhere in particular to the really melodious music of today, which-for no good reason-is still called Jazz.

Accordingly, the band played only one “real” jazz number, “Livery Stable Blues,” first recorded by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. The remainder of the program consisted of concert pieces, including a pair of sharply contrasting large-scale works commissioned by Whiteman that demonstrated the remarkable stylistic range of his orchestra. Victor Herbert, a classical composer now mainly remembered for such operettas as Naughty Marietta (1910), contributed A Suite of Serenades, a beautifully scored set of light-classical genre pieces with no jazz content, while George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was a loosely knit piano concerto (orchestrated by Grofé) that made highly stylized use of devices drawn from jazz and American popular song.4

Both works were enthusiastically received, but it was Rhapsody in Blue that left a permanent mark on American music, as well as on the Whiteman band. In 1926, Whiteman started hiring well-known jazz instrumentalists, along with jazz-conscious arrangers who could write for the band in such a way as to integrate their adventurous playing into its existing style. That he was willing to do this is all the more impressive in light of the fact that “pure” jazz was not easily marketable in the late 20’s. As one Whiteman sideman recalled:

If you got yourself a jazz band, you would starve. That was the story of the music business-jazz was always hard to sell. Only Paul’s great power and prestige could put jazz over commercially in those days.

Be that as it may, the Whiteman orchestra was soon playing a kind of music that did more than merely flirt with jazz. Whiteman still programmed the waltzes and light classics that had always been central to his band’s appeal, and he also continued to commission and perform works in the “symphonic-jazz” idiom of Rhapsody in Blue. But he also featured Bix Beiderbecke and the saxophonist Frank Trumbauer in popular songs arranged by Bill Challis, Matty Malneck, and Tom Satterfield, all of whom were encouraged to use the band in whatever ways they saw fit.

The result was a series of lightly swinging performances in which the forward-looking solos of Beiderbecke and Trumbauer (and the equally creative singing of Bing Crosby) were displayed to imaginative and sophisticated effect. Not only did Challis, Malneck, and Satterfield draw wonderfully varied colors out of Whiteman’s celebrated saxophone section, all six of whose members “doubled” on numerous other wind instruments, but they made no less resourceful use of the orchestra’s eight violinists. If such Whiteman recordings as “Changes,” “Dardanella,” “From Monday On,” “ ‘Tain’t So, Honey, ‘Tain’t So,” “There Ain’t No Sweet Man That’s Worth the Salt of My Tears,” and “You Took Advantage of Me” are not so much jazz as jazzy, they are nonetheless wholly delightful period pieces played with an engaging blend of polish and warmth, and they retain their musical interest to this day.5



With the coming of the Great Depression, Whiteman was no longer able to afford his orchestra’s huge payroll. In 1930 he cut it back to seventeen musicians, in the process diminishing (though never entirely eliminating) the jazz element that had made its most recent recordings so memorable. Though he continued to lead a band well into the 40’s, he would never again be as popular as he was at the height of the Jazz Age, and with the arrival of the swing era his music came increasingly to be viewed as old-fashioned.

Still, his influence would continue to be felt in American popular music, albeit indirectly, for many years to come. Not only was the vocabulary of all subsequent big-band arrangers based on Ferde Grofé’s original innovations, but, starting in the 40’s, a number of prominent bandleaders, including the Whiteman alumnus Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Glenn Miller (in the band he organized for the Army Air Force), and Artie Shaw, added string sections to the then-standard lineup of brass-saxophones-rhythm, there by creating quasi-symphonic, popular-music ensembles modeled on Whiteman’s late-20’s orchestra.

As for the retrospective criticism of Whiteman’s nickname and its implications, Don Rayno has given what ought to be the last word:

For most of the public, largely unfamiliar with jazz, Whiteman provided at least an introduction to jazz-oriented music. His was not a jazz band in the purest sense, nor did he ever claim that it was. Whiteman’s repertoire encompassed a much broader scope of music, which included jazz, as well as classical, popular, folk, novelty, and theatrical themes.

Now that jazz is widely seen as America’s most original contribution to musical modernism, many critics seem inclined to suppose that the quality of other kinds of popular music can be judged by the closeness of their resemblance to it. This, no doubt, accounts for the unsympathetic way in which Whiteman’s music has been described by critics like Gary Giddins and Philip Larkin. Yet jazz, as Rayno suggests, is not an absolute value; rather, it is but one among many worthy varieties of modern American music. Instead of expecting Whiteman’s recordings to sound like “real jazz,” one would do better to take them for what they are, much as Gunther Schuller did in 1968:

There is in the best Whiteman performances a feeling and a personal sound as unique in its way as Ellington’s or Basie’s. It was just not based on a jazz conception. For this we cannot automatically condemn it. At their best, Whiteman’s musicians played with a richness and bounce that has its own validity. . . . Excellent intonation, perfect balances, and clean attacks do not necessarily equate with superficiality.

Indeed they do not. Anyone who resists the “richness and bounce” of Whiteman’s exquisitely well-crafted recordings of the late 1920’s, merely because they do not sound like Duke Ellington or Count Basie (or like Bix Beiderbecke’s small-group 78’s), is depriving himself of an experience both pleasurable and historically illuminating. Paul Whiteman was no king of jazz, but he was, without doubt, king of the Jazz Age-and worthy of the title.



1 Scarecrow Press, 773 pp. $49.95.

2 The King of Jazz (ASV Living Era CD AJA 5170) and Say It With Music (CD AJA 5291) contain a representative cross-section of early Whiteman recordings, including “The Japanese Sandman,” “Three O’clock in the Morning,” “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” and “Whispering.” These CD’s, as well as the others mentioned below, can be purchased online by viewing this article during the month of December on COMMENTARY’s website,

3 Here is a typical passage from O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra, published in 1934 but set in 1930: “ ‘I think, if you don’t mind, I think we shall play a little tune,’ he said aloud. He played Paul Whiteman’s record of [George Gershwin’s] ‘Stairway to Paradise,’ and when the record came to the ‘patter’ he was screaming with jazz.”

4 The original 1924 recording of Rhapsody in Blue with Gershwin at the piano is on Historic Gershwin Recordings (RCA Victor Red Seal 09026-63276-2, two CD’s). Music for Moderns contains nine concert pieces from 1927 and 1928, including A Suite of Serenades and the 1927 remake of Rhapsody in Blue, remastered from 78’s in heavily filtered sound (Naxos Nostalgia 8.120505). Paul Whiteman: Original 1927 Recordings, brilliantly remastered by John R.T. Davies, gives a better idea of what the band sounded like in person (Nostalgia Arts NOCD 3006).

5 All of the Whiteman recordings on which Beiderbecke solos (many of them also featuring Trumbauer and Crosby) are on Bix Beiderbecke with Paul Whiteman, Vols. 1 and 2 (Classics 1208 and 1235).


About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

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