Snapshot in Prose: Paul Whiteman

By 1935, when this Snapshot in Prose was first published, Paul Whiteman was a huge star (in both senses of the word) and had been for a decade or more.

Today, he is, in some circles, something of a joke because he was sometimes referred to as the King of Jazz, a title no one would afford him today, and, of course, there have been since and were then musicians who were much greater masters of their respective instruments than was Whiteman, who was more of a spotter of talent than an influential musician.

But as a promoter of talent and an early adopter of jazz music, when there were not as many white musicians playing that new style, he was very important in his day, and remains so today.

IT’S “sterling” on silver and Paul Whiteman for music. With his modern syncopation, personable Paul has probably grossed more money than any other musician in the history of the world. What’s more, he’s earned it, with his distinctive rhythms and superlative musicianship.
Paul, though, would be far wealthier than he is today if he had devoted himself as wholeheartedly to any other calling, for music is an art and material gain is usually sacrificed for true art’s sake.
Paul’s story, dramatic though it is, is no Horatio Alger yarn. He didn’t have to go to work at the age of three to support an invalid family and he has been completely broke only at distant intervals. It isn’t likely that he ever will be again.
On the other hand, his success was not dished out to him on a gold platter and since the first days of jazz, when critics’ ears heard it as some sort of peculiar noise, Paul has travelled over some rough and heart-rending roads.
Paul was actually born into music. His father, Wilberforce J. Whiteman, was director of musical education in the public schools of Denver, Colorado, for more than thirty years and his mother, who died only recently, was a singer in oratorio and in the church choirs of the city while Paul was growing up. Both of his parents took a hand in his musical education and between them managed to instill some idea of musical technique into the mind of young Paul, albeit against his will, at that time.
“I was no child prodigy; I didn’t even like to practice,” Paul told us, “but at the age of three I did make some squeaky noises on a toy violin, and even as a kid music affected me in a strange way.
“I can remember feeling faint when my mother would sing bits of the opera ‘Parsifal’ around the house while I was sitting in my high chair. Later, when my parents took me to hear this opera in its entirety, I felt weak and sick for a whole day afterwards. Strangely enough, though, ‘Parsifal’ is still my favorite opera—and it still has that curious effect on me whenever I hear it.”
It might have been only play, or unwilling compliance at the time, but Paul’s toy violin started something. By the time he was 17 years old he was chief viola player in the Denver Symphony Orchestra. Three years later, at the mature age of 21, he went to the Pacific Coast in search of adventure, which he found playing with the symphony orchestra at the World’s Fair in San Francisco.
Symphony work—and symphony pay—didn’t prove entirely satisfactory to the youthful virtuoso and he was unhappy. Then, along came jazz!
“I first heard those crude rhythms and fantastic beats in a dancehall on the Barbary Coast,” related Paul. “I felt that in spite of its roughness and utter lack of polish, here was an effort—a sincere effort—to express something that was purely American.

“Well, for a while it looked like I liked jazz a lot better than it liked me. I finally induced a local bandsman to give me a job with his orchestra and was fired two days later because I couldn’t play jazz! Then I tried to arranged musical compositions in the weird new rhythms in hall bedrooms—and got myself kicked out of those hall bedrooms for making unholy rackets at all hours of the night.
“I even went so far as to become a taxi driver, which must have been pretty tough on the poor taxi, for weighed about 300 pounds in those days. Finally, by borrowing, scrimping and saving I managed to get together my first band of seven youngsters.
“I think that being fired because I didn’t know how to play jazz made me madder than anything else that has ever happened to me. I thought when I had that little band of seven boys gather together that I was going to show the world whether or not I could play jazz—and then I awoke one morning to find myself a bandmaster in the Navy. I guess I was too big for any ordinary line of duty—I would have made such an easy target—so they delivered 40 men to me and told me to make a band out of them.”
This was the opportunity of a lifetime to Paul. He had 40 fairly good musicians who couldn’t quit and who had to acknowledge the fact that order from Paul were orders from their Uncle Samuel. Experimenting with his Navy band, Paul fully mastered the jazz technique but, after the War, he found his return to civilian life meant only that he would have to go back to his former hand-to-moth existence and the dream of his own orchestra seemed more remote than ever.
Paul became ill and lost more than 150 pounds. Just as things seemed at the lowest possible ebb, a friend offered him a job at the Hotel Alexandria in Los Angeles. Quickly gathering together the boys who has stuck with him throughout his bad luck, Paul opened a the swank spot which was then being frequented by the biggest movie stars.
In 1921, Whiteman received an offer to come East, to Atlantic City, New Jersey. At first the Jerseyites didn’t seem quite able to understand the new brand of rhythm being served by the Whiteman band, but soon the place was packed every night and Paul became the year’s sensation.
Not long after that he and his orchestra were making Victor phonograph records, many of which sold more than 1,000,000 copies and the band was engaged to play the entire winter season at the Palais D’Or, on Broadway.
Paul received about $1,100 for his first week at this de luxe restaurant. The second week his salary was considerably more than double that amount. The same thing happened in vaudeville and overnight, almost, everything that Paul touched turned into gold—for everywhere that Paul went, the crowds were sure to go.
As the money began to flow in, Paul started improving his orchestra. He weeded out the ordinary string sawyers and horn tooters, replacing them with men who were outstanding artists on their respective instruments.
Gradually, Paul’s weekly salary list increased until it reached the staggering sum of $6,000. He undertook his first “experiment” in modern music by staging a concert at Aeolian Hall. It was a tremendous success and was additionally notable for the fact that it marked the first public performance of George Gershwin‘s “Rhapsody in Blue”.
Following his successful American tour, White made the musical movie, “The King Of Jazz,” for Universal Pictures. Then he went over to Europe for an extended tour which was also financially and artistically unrivalled. Upon his return he then had the finest group of musicians in the United States, with a total weekly salary list of nearly $16,000.
Among the stars which have their places in the firmament under the guidance of Paul Whiteman are Mildred Bailey, Jeannie Lang, Jack Fulton, Ferde Grofe, Joe Venuti, Irene Taylor, Morton Downey, Bing Crosby, Peggy Taylor, Henry Busse, Ramona, Red McKenzie, the original Rhythm Boys (Crosby, Harry Barris and Al Rinker) and dozens of others, including many composers such as Gershwin, Rube Bloom, Johnny Green and Dana Suesse, to mention only a few.
Paul Whiteman, the King of Jazz, is more than that today—he is the king of modern music and a prince among men. He is happily married to Margaret Livingston, formerly a very well known movie star.

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