Monday, March 28, 2016

Paul Whiteman: The Syncopated Showman

Paul Whiteman was born on this day in 1890 in Denver. Once known as the "King of Jazz," but now almost forgotten outside of tight circles of music history, he was primarily responsible popularizing the integration of jazz in popular music throughout the United States. Historian Glenn T. Eskew says this about him:

Alert to the emerging style, Whiteman pioneered standardized settings of the songs, capturing the melodies on paper and leaving room for improvisation while making jazz appear "respectable" for dancing by using symphonic arrangements. Whiteman made recordings in 1920 of "Avalon" and "Whispering" songs that inspired Johnny Mercer. By 1924, in a bid to blend the "serious" with the "popular," Whiteman conducted his Palais Royale Orchestra in the world premier of George Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue,' which revealed the omnipresence of syncopation. Indeed, Whiteman's various approaches to jazz gained him his crown, for he mastered a jazz-inflected light-sweet music that while never the hot music of [Louis] Armstrong nonetheless popularized the genre in the United States. From the cabaret to the symphony hall, musicians embraced the rhythm and blues of playing as Americans consumed Whiteman's liberating jazz. 

Paul Whiteman in Radio Stars.jpg
Paul Whiteman in in the magazine, Radio Stars, February 1934

Indeed, Whiteman was quite the showman as can be viewed in this excerpt from the 1930 film, King of Jazz. The film was the first to use a prerecorded studio soundtrack "made independently of the actual filming." It was also one of the earliest Technicolor films. 

And we can't let Whiteman's birthday pass without an opportunity to hear his celebrated orchestra performing the popular music that made them famous. This 1928 recording features 25 year-old Bing Crosby singing his first number one hit. Crosby would go on to shape popular singing for the rest of the century.

That's happy music. Tap your feet, did you?


Photos and Illustrations:
Whiteman photo, photographer uncredited,


Glenn T. Askew, Johnny Mercer: Southern Songwriter for the World, University of Georgia Press: Athens and London, 2013

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