Paul Whiteman (28 March 1890 - 29 December 1967)
- by Tim Gracyk
Excerpt from POPULAR AMERICAN RECORDING PIONEERS: 1895-1925, by Tim Gracyk. The book was published in late 2000.
In the last few years of the acoustic recording era, Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra was the most popular and influential dance music ensemble performing in the United States, and the orchestra remained incredibly popular throughout the 1920s, adapting well to the new electric recording process. Whiteman continued leading dance orchestras for decades--in concerts, on radio, on records. However, he will always be most closely associated with the Jazz Age.
He was born in Denver, Colorado into a musical family. His father, Wilberforce J. Whiteman, was superintendent of musical education for Denver schools. Paul became a violinist and violist, playing in the Denver Symphony Orchestra's string section and, by the time of San Francisco's Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915, in various San Francisco ensembles, including the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the People's Philharmonic Symphony, and the Minetti String quartet. Programs for the June 27, 1915 Exposition concert under Camille Saint-Saens' direction list "P. Whiteman" as one of eight viola players. He learned about a new music, jazz, in San Francisco's cafes.
In 1918 he served in the U.S. Navy. Stationed 25 miles from San Francisco at Mare Island, he organized and trained musicians in the Naval Training Camp Symphony. Moving back to San Francisco, he organized a dance band, soon playing in the city's prestigious Fairmont Hotel. He formed another band when given the opportunity to play in Santa Barbara's Belvedere Hotel, which required moving to the southern part of the state. He soon opened in Los Angeles' Alexandria Hotel, the eight musicians under his direction being pianist Charles Caldwell, trombonist Buster Johnson, tuba player J.K. Wallace, trumpeter Henry Busse, drummer Harold McDonald, saxophonists Leslie Canfield and Charles Dornberger, and banjoist Mike Pingitore.
This was close to the personnel of Whiteman's first recording session on August 9, 1920. By the time the orchestra reached the East coast, Caldwell had left, Ferde Grofe taking his place on piano. Also gone were the two saxophonists (Dornberger would form his own orchestra, his first record, Victor 19128, being issued on September 28, 1923--it was soon followed by Victor 19151, a Dornberger selection on one side, Whiteman on the other). Also added by the time of the first record session were Gus Mueller, Hale Byers, and Sammy Heiss. Ross Gorman, able to play all reed instruments, replaced Mueller soon after the August sessions.
The first recording session of August 9, 1920 was arranged by Victor executives who had heard Paul Whiteman and His Ambassador Orchestra five weeks earlier at S.W. Straus' new Ambassador Hotel in Atlantic City during that year's National Association of Talking Machine Jobbers' convention, which was held on June 28, 29, and 30. Whiteman writes in Jazz (J.H. Sears & Company, 1926), "Even though we eventually did well at the Ambassador and began to pay Mr. Straus back, we might have gone home if the Victor Phonograph Company had not held a convention at Atlantic City. A representative of theirs, Calvin Childs, happened to lunch at the Ambassador and heard us play." Sadly, the book Jazz is unreliable. Even in this passage Whiteman and co-author Mary Margaret McBride fail to give the correct name of the Victor Talking Machine Company and the correct name of recording director Calvin Child. Strictly speaking, the company did not hold the convention but company representatives attended a convention held nearby at the Hotel Traymore for an association of talking machine dealers.
In three sessions in August, various takes of six titles were recorded, and these six titles would be on Whiteman's first three discs.
Victor's November 1920 supplement announced the release of a twelve-inch disc (35701) featuring, on one side, "Avalon--Just Like a Gypsy" (the label describes it as a "Fox Trot Medley" of songs) backed by "Best Ever Medley." The supplement states, "These are the first records by Paul Whiteman and his orchestra from the Ambassador Hotel, at Atlantic City. They exhibit a new type of dance record--a new and singularly beautiful type, which must be heard to be taken at its true value. This orchestra has its own methods of scoring...'Best Ever' [Medley] is rather a startling record, even to anybody who knows music; for it introduces, first, a melody that seems strangely familiar and yet won't quite place itself. It is the 'Dance of the Hours,' from Ponchielli's opera, La Gioconda--and maybe it doesn't make some one-step!"
The supplement's claim that the records "exhibit a new type of dance record" is not wholly exaggerated. Whiteman's early records were different from most being issued by Victor, especially in instrumentation--a combination of saxophones, brass instruments, strings (banjo and violin), and percussion. Also, Whiteman's orchestra used nine musicians, making it larger than the typical dance orchestra of 1920. Joseph C. Smith's Orchestra at that time employed six musicians, sometimes seven. But it is worth noting that Selvin's Novelty Orchestra in late 1919 recorded the carefully arranged "Dardanella" (Victor 18633) with nine musicians using most of the same instruments that Whiteman used one year later for his first session. "Dardanella" was a huge hit and arguably a harbinger of dance records to come, including Whiteman's. Though Selvin would make many more records, appearing on many labels, no other Selvin performance duplicated the success of "Dardanella." Whiteman, in contrast, enjoyed hit after hit as an exclusive Victor artist.
Also issued in November was a Whiteman disc featuring an instrument with a novel sound. Victor literature called it a "bosun's-pipe-slide-trombone-whistle instrument," heard on "Whispering" on ten inch Victor 18690. The song was composed by John Schonberger and Vincent Rose but only Schonberger's name is on the record--Richard Coburn wrote lyrics but Victor labels usually omit lyricist credit if selections are performed without vocals. The other side features "The Japanese Sandman," a Richard Whiting-Raymond Egan song (only composer Whiting is credited on the label).
The record was incredibly successful, and Whiteman was thereafter associated with the two songs. Working decades later as an artist for Decca's subsidiary label Coral, Whiteman again recorded "Whispering" (61228) and "Japanese Sandman" (61254), leading the "New" Ambassador Hotel Orchestra
He did not actually introduce the songs on record. Versions of "Whispering" were issued in October, a month earlier than Whiteman's ten inch Victor disc was released. Other ensembles with versions issued in October were Harry A. Yerkes' Dance Orchestra (Aeolian 14100), the Van Eps Specialty Four (Emerson 10242), Nicholas Orlando's Orchestra (PathÅ 22422), and the Vernon Trio (Brunswick 2049). A paragraph dated November 2 in the November 1920 issue of Talking Machine World stresses that the song was composed by a Los Angeles composer and adds, "Phonograph companies were all urged some months ago to record this selection, but it takes some little time to persuade the East that good things sometimes originate in places removed from 'Little Old New York.' Thousands of 'Whispering' record[s] have already been sold here...The honor of 'first out' goes to the Emerson Co., and its dealers are correspondingly elated."
"The Japanese Sandman" as sung by the Orpheus Trio on Pathe 22422 was issued in October, a month before Whiteman's dance band version appeared. When Whiteman's disc was issued in November, at least six other versions of "Whispering" and three of "Japanese Sandman" were also issued. The two songs were among the most popular of late 1920 and early 1921, and Whiteman's were the most popular among recorded versions.
Victor's November 1920 supplement states about "Whispering," "Every instrument in the orchestra has its chance, even the whistle, which can speak as much romance as any of them." Victor promotional literature suggested that this instrument contributed greatly to Whiteman's early success. The novel instrument is heard again on twelve-inch Victor 35703 featuring "Grieving For You." Announcing that disc's release, Victor's January 1921 supplement states, "This record reintroduces the bosun's-pipe-slide-trombone-whistle instrument made famous in the first Whiteman records." Another selection to feature the instrument is "Oh Me! Oh My!" (Victor 18778). Victor's August 1921 supplement states, "The middle part introduces quaint rhythms, first in the saxes, then in the bosun's pipe whistle that first helped make the Whitemans famous." Still another selection to feature the instrument is "Linger Awhile" (19211).
The two debut discs, available in November, were followed a month later with the release of Victor 18694 featuring "Anytime, Anyday, Anywhere," composed by Max Kortlander, backed by "Wang-Wang Blues," composed by Whiteman band members Mueller, Johnson and Busse (other artists who recorded the song, such as Van and Schenck, included lyrics provided by Leo Wood). Victor also issued in December vocal versions of the two songs Whiteman performed on his first ten inch disc: John Steel sings "Whispering" on Victor 18695, and Olive Kline sings "The Japanese Sandman" on Victor 45201. Also noteworthy is that in December Victor issued the first records of the Benson Orchestra of Chicago. Like Whiteman's, this orchestra consisted of nine musicians (within a couple of years Whiteman's recording unit grew to twelve musicians, and the Benson Orchestra grew to eleven). Victor would regularly issue dance records made by these two orchestras, and because instrumentation was similar, their sound was often similar. Competition posed by the Benson Orchestra and others provided at least some motivation for Whiteman to seek increasingly innovative arrangements.
The first four Whiteman discs to be issued, from November 1920 through January 1921, are credited to Paul Whiteman and His Ambassador Orchestra. For the remaining years of the acoustic era discs would be credited simply to Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra. In Victor's electric era, some twelve-inch discs were credited to Paul Whiteman and his Concert Orchestra (early pressings of Victor 20514 give the name Whiteman's Orchestra but this was soon corrected, later pressings giving the name Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra). For four years the orchestra was featured almost nightly in Manhattan at 48th and Broadway at the Palais Royal, which Whiteman in his book Jazz calls the "largest cafe in New York City." It was owned by brothers named Thompson, who owned a number of similar establishments. The ensemble was called Paul Whiteman and His Palais Royal Orchestra even as late as 1924 when appearing at Aeolian Concert Hall, but the name Palais Royal was never used on discs.
In the autumn of 1921 the orchestra was featured for the first time in a vaudeville house, the prestigious Palace Theatre. Playing to an audience that had no opportunity for dancing was daring, but the engagement was very successful, proving that audiences were satisfied when simply listening to Whiteman's dance band. Victor discs left no doubt that Whiteman's records were for dancing. Virtually every ten inch Whiteman record of the acoustic era has, after the song title, the simple phrase "Fox Trot." The exceptions are "Medley Fox Trot," "Oriental Fox Trot," "Waltz," "Medley Waltz," "Medley One-Step," and "Blues Fox Trot." Victor 18744, featuring "Down Around the 'Sip, 'Sip, 'Sippy Shore," is characterized as a "Medley One-Step" and may be the first Whiteman recording to feature a human voice: someone supplies square dancing calls. Whiteman records issued through most of 1921 have the redundant phrase "For dancing" at the right of the spindle hole.
Whiteman began recording at a time when the one-step was losing favor, dancers instead preferring to fox trot. In an article titled "Why The Fox-Trot Flourishes," the October 1920 issue of Talking Machine World states, "It was not so long ago that the fox-trot was an unknown quantity. Shortly after its initial appearance it divided honors about equally with the one-step, but today it seems to have monopolized the dance field, with the exception of an occasional waltz....Those who attack this dance are prone to call it 'jazz,' thinking thereby to bring it into disrepute. There have been jazz fox-trots, but the best fox-trots can in no wise be termed 'jazz.'"
Ambitious as a businessman, he formed in late 1921 the company Paul Whiteman, Inc. for the purpose of developing and supplying dance bands throughout the New York City area. Whiteman served as president and opened an office at 158 West 45th Street. Page 147 of the December 1921 issue of Talking Machine World announced the appointment of Hugh C. Ernst as vice-president and treasurer. Ernst was Whiteman's business manager.
In introducing Whiteman releases, Victor promotional literature often stressed that the orchestra's sound was new. Announcing Victor 35704, the February 1921 supplement states, "In both numbers there are many new and beautiful ideas--in rhythm, harmony and orchestral scoring." Important to the orchestra's success were the imaginative arrangements used. His arranging staff during the acoustic era consisted of Ferde GrofÅ, Ross Gorman, and Albert Casseday. GrofÅ was especially important in shaping the Whiteman sound.
In the sense that his musicians followed carefully prepared arrangements, Whiteman took a symphonic approach to popular music. His musicians were proficient at reading music, with opportunities for improvisation given only to selected soloists, and in the early 1920s solos were generally straightforward expositions of the melody. Program notes for the February 12, 1924 Aeolian Hall Concert state, "Paul Whiteman's orchestra was the first organization to especially score each selection and to play it according to the score. Since then practically every modern orchestra has its own arranger or staff of arrangers."
Walter Haenschen, who did arrangements for Brunswick using the name Carl Fenton, describes in a 1973 interview with Cecil Leeson how arrangements evolved in the Brunswick studio: "I spent practically every day with these boys and somebody would hit a good lick and he's repeat it...many of these arrangements were never put on paper." He then identifies Whiteman as "the first one to really get legitimate arrangements."
The orchestra often played, in dance time, melodies taken from what was regarded at the time as "serious" music. Whiteman's first twelve-inch disc features music from Ponchielli's La Gioconda and, in "Avalon," a melody from Puccini's Tosca (in 1921 Puccini's publisher, Ricordi, actually sued Jerome H. Remick & Co., publisher of "Avalon," for copyright infringement). Two later examples are found on Victor 18777: the label for "Cho-Cho-San" states, "On melodies by G. Puccini arranged by Hugo Frey," and the label for the reverse side featuring "Song of India" states, "Adapted from Rimsky Korsakow's Chanson Indoue by Paul Whiteman." "Oriental Fox Trot" on Victor 18940 "introduces" a melody from Saint-Saens' opera Samson and Delilah. The popular "So This Is Venice" (19252), performed by the orchestra in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1923, was adapted from Ambroise Thomas' "Carnival of Venice."
Borrowing from composers of "serious" music for melodies in popular music did not begin with Whiteman. Ragtime composer George L. Cobb had already gained some notoriety after modifying Grieg's "Peer Gynt Suite" for his "Peter Gink." Cobb also adapted a famous three-note phrase from a Rachmanioff prelude for his "Russian Rag." A decade earlier Irving Berlin borrowed from the classics for his popular "That Mesmerizing Mendelssohn Tune." But few performers borrowed with as much commercial success as Whiteman, and some in the music industry expressed alarm. An editorial in the February 1923 issue of The Musical Observer deplored the trend of "jazzing the classics" and applauded a recent article by Richard Aldrich in the New York Times complaining that "jazz draws the line nowhere." Even worse, the editorial states, is "jazzing the 'spirituals' of the American negroes." It cites organizations that protested in 1922-23 the "jazzing" of "Deep River," including the National Association of Negro Musicians.
Though Whiteman's name is not cited in The Musical Observer's editorial, he was the most prominent dance band leader to arrange, for fox trot dancing, various melodies taken from the "classics" and "spirituals" (he never applied the same treatment to sacred numbers). Readers at the time would have understood that Whiteman was chief target of the criticism, especially since "Deep River" was incorporated in the Creamer and Layton composition "Dear Old Southland" which Whiteman performed on Victor 18856. Announcing its release, Victor's March 1922 supplement states, "'Southland' is based on American folk or negro tunes, the lamented Coleridge-Taylor's 'Deep River' prominent among them."
Whiteman was directly criticized by some music critics, including London Times critic Ernest Newman. Whiteman responded to Newman's objections with counter-arguments, undoubtedly aware that the exchange of opinions, covered in the October 2, 1926 issue of The Literary Digest, was excellent publicity.
On August 22, 1922, Whiteman recorded what would be perhaps his biggest hit of the acoustic era, "Three O'Clock In The Morning" (18940), a waltz composed a few years earlier by Julian Robledo and originally published as a piano piece. The song with lyrics by Dorothy Terriss, who was really Theodora Morse (Terriss later shared composer credit with Whiteman and Grofe for the popular "Wonderful One"), was recorded by many others, including John McCormack on Red Seal 66109. For Victor to issue a song as a dance band number and also as a vocal selection is not unusual.
Remarkably, Whiteman cut "Three O'Clock In The Morning" despite Joseph C. Smith's Orchestra having recorded it for the same company months earlier, on January 27, 1922. Issued as Victor 18866 in April 1922, Smith's version sold extremely well. That Victor issued competing dance band versions of the same song--an unusual practice--is testimony to the song's incredible popularity. Smith's Orchestra, which had been recording for Victor since 1916, had been the company's most popular dance band prior to Whiteman beginning his recording career, but with Whiteman's fox trots being issued regularly in 1921, Smith's Orchestra began recording more waltzes than fox trots, and Smith's popularity waned. Smith's Orchestra left Victor in 1922 to work for Brunswick, and this defection probably created the opportunity for Whiteman to record what was proving to be the most popular song of the year. Victor's November 1922 supplement, announcing the release of Whiteman's version of the waltz, states, "We have already made a record of it, but Whiteman's admirers have insisted that he record it too. So here it is. The various melodies are skilfully [sic] split up among new combinations of instruments." Smith's version as well as Whiteman's remained in the Victor catalog for the next few years. Whiteman recorded it again using the electric recording process in August 1926 (Victor 21599).
Also popular in 1922 was "Hot Lips" (18920), composed by two orchestra members, Henry Lange and Henry Busse, along with non-member Lou Davis. Labels characterize it as a "Blues Fox Trot."
On August 28, 1922, the orchestra was in New York's Globe Theatre pit for the introduction of George Gershwin's hastily written one-act opera Blue Monday, with singers on stage performing in black face. It was given as a second-act opener for George White's Scandals of 1922. Though Blue Monday was withdrawn from White's revue after this single performance, it helped establish a working relationship between Gershwin and Whiteman, one that led to Rhapsody in Blue. In 1925 Whiteman revived a newly orchestrated Blue Monday, using the title 135th Street, but it was not successful.
In the early 1920s the occasional dance band record issued by Victor and other companies included the brief contribution of a vocalist, and by the mid-1920s the practice of including a vocal refrain was common. At first Victor executives selected vocalists to be used for Whiteman sessions. By using non-orchestra members for vocals, Whiteman followed the practice of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and Joseph C. Smith. In the acoustic era Whiteman records featured Billy Murray more than any other vocalist. Other singers on Whiteman records made from 1923 to 1926 include the American Quartet, Ed Smalle, Lewis James, Gladys Rice, Franklyn Baur, Jack Fulton, Elliott Shaw, Wilfred Glenn, and the Southern Fall Colored Quartet. Whiteman had been using non-orchestra members on recordings as early as 1921, including whistler Margaret McKee as well as Hawaiian guitarist Frank Ferera. The use of whistling on early Whiteman records such as "Honolulu Eyes" and "Some Little Bird" probably owed something to the success of "Whispering." Whistling providing novelty to otherwise ordinary dance numbers.
The first vocal refrain to be included on a Whiteman recording was given by Murray on January 2, 1923 for "Mister Gallagher and Mister Shean" (Victor 19007), issued in March 1923. It is characterized as a "Fox Trot," the label nowhere indicating that it features a vocal refrain. The orchestra's next recording to feature a vocal was "Last Night On The Back Porch" (19139), made nine months later on September 4. The American Quartet, which included Murray, was used on this occasion as well as on February 1, 1924 for "Why Did I Kiss That Girl?" (19267). Murray was again used for "Walla Walla" (19389), made on June 18, 1924, and "Doo Wacka Do" (19462), made on September 5, 1924. In 1925 Murray sang on a few more Whiteman records, including on some of Whiteman's early electric recordings.
Like Edgar Benson, Paul Sprecht, Jean Goldkette, and a few other astute businessmen in the 1920s, Whiteman controlled various dance bands. Page 174 of the April 1923 issue of Talking Machine World announced, "Paul Whiteman, Inc., which controls the activities of a great many dance orchestras, has changed its name to United Orchestras, Inc. This change in no way affects the name of personnel of the famous Whiteman Orchestra, Victor artists, which will continue to be known as Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra."
Whiteman's orchestra had been entering Victor studios on a monthly basis since the first session in August 1920, but after it recorded several titles in February 1923, there is a gap of seven months due to a tour of England from March to August. During the summer months the orchestra recorded four titles in Hayes, Middlesex at the HMV headquarters. The orchestra toured England again in 1926.
Paul Whiteman was first called "King of Jazz" in 1923, and the title is infamous. Whiteman has long been used as a scapegoat by writers who resent white musicians for popularizing a music that originated with African-American musicians. For example, Hendrik Hertzberg and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. write in the April 29-May 6, 1996 issue of The New Yorker, "In the early decades of the century, Negro music came to dominate the new technologies of sound recording and radio so thoroughly that, in 1924 [sic], an alarmed music establishment sought out a syncopationally challenged bandleader by the comically apt name of Paul Whiteman and designated him 'the King of Jazz.' But jazz and its offshoots could not be so easily tamed." Given the evidence in newspapers and journals that by 1923 the word "jazz" had become synonymous in some circles with "dance music," the epithet King of Jazz arguably fit this incredibly popular bandleader.
The event during which Whiteman was first called "King of Jazz" is covered in the September 1923 issue of Talking Machine World. The "crowning" occurred on August 13, 1923, when Whiteman and his musicians returned from their first tour of England. The Buescher Band Instrument Company of Elkhart, Indiana, coordinated the event--Whiteman had just begun endorsing Buescher instruments in advertisements. The ship S.S. Leviathan was met, according to the trade journal, at the dock by "representatives of the music industries in New York." The article states, "[A] reception was held on the 'Leviathan' dock, in the course of which Paul Whiteman was crowned 'King of Jazz.' The crown for the coronation was made by the Buescher Band Instrument Co....[T]he crown bore replicas of...various instruments, including, of course, the popular saxophone. The coronation address came over the long-distance telephone...sent by F.A. Buescher. The golden crown is inscribed 'To Paul Whiteman in appreciation of his art and artistry and his aid to self-determination in the music of the nation.'"
Whiteman's homecoming was a media event, with a boatload of celebrities meeting Whiteman's ship "down at the Quarantine station about twenty miles below the city." Overhead, "a big army bombing plane" carried Charles Dornberger and His Orchestra, which provided music for the occasion. The band, led by a former Whiteman musician, had just begun to make Victor records and was enjoying success in George White's Scandals.
Another account of the event is on page 16 of the August 14 issue of the New York Times. Whiteman is called "Jazz King of America" in the opening paragraph and a later paragraph calls him "King of Syncopation" (the now-familiar phrase "King of Jazz" is not used). According to the New York Times, "six orchestras combined in a serenade from the deck of the steamship Tourist, which went down the bay filled with jazz fans." It reported that six musicians "in life-saving suits" performed in the water at the side of Whiteman's ship (a photograph in Talking Machine World shows more than six). The New York Times identifies two of the musicians: saxophonist Harvey Hauser and clarinetist Frank Winkler. According to the New York Times, "Whiteman and His Orchestra were the guests of honor at a banquet and reception given at the Waldorf-Astoria." Celebrities who welcomed Whiteman home included Victor Herbert, Irving Berlin, George M. Cohan, and John Philip Sousa.
Whiteman's first book, co-authored by Mary Margaret McBride, is titled Jazz. It says nothing about when or where the bandleader was crowned King of Jazz but includes a photograph of an opera singer placing a crown on Whiteman's head, the caption stating, "Jeanne Gordon of the Metropolitan Opera, crowning the King of Jazz." Another photograph of Whiteman in cowboy attire features the caption, "The King of Jazz Dons His Chaps." The photographs and captions suggest that Whiteman did not take seriously the title "King of Jazz." Nonetheless, the title had excellent publicity value. Announcing the release of Victor 19139, Victor's supplement of October 19, 1923 supplement states that Whiteman "has been crowned 'King of the Jazz,'" and the October 26 supplement includes a photograph of Whiteman with a crown. Victor dealers exploited the title. The June 1924 issue of Talking Machine World reports that the Chubb-Steinberg Music Shop in Cincinnati created a special window display at the time Whiteman visited the city. The article states, "A regal-looking chair was placed in the center of the window and on the chair were placed a crown and a scepter to designate Whiteman as the 'king of jazz.'"
Upon its return from England, the orchestra played in Ziegfeld Follies of 1923, which ran at the New Amsterdam on October 20, 1923 until May 10, 1924.
On the afternoon of February 12, 1924, at Aeolian Concert Hall at 34 West 43rd Street, Paul Whiteman and his Palais Royal Orchestra ("assisted by Zez Confrey and George Gershwin") performed what was billed "An Experiment in Modern Music." The concert program listed two dozen selections under 11 section headings--"True Form of Jazz," "Comedy Selections," "Contrast--Legitimate Scoring vs. Jazzing," "Recent Compositions With Modern Score," "Zez Confrey," "Flavoring A Selection with Borrowed Themes," and so on.
For various reasons, the concert was instantly recognized as an important musical event, but it should be best remembered for introducing a Gershwin piece titled "A Rhapsody in Blue" in program notes (the title was soon simplified to Rhapsody in Blue), the composer at the piano. That work, much appreciated at its debut, was recorded by Whiteman's orchestra and Gershwin a few months later on June 10, 1924 and issued on blue label Victor 55225.
The February 1924 issue of Talking Machine World cites these observations by one concert attendant: "At Aeolian Hall on Tuesday, February 12, there was presented a program of American music that because of its uniqueness, marked a distinctly new development in the concert field. It was none other than the much-advertised concert offered by Paul Whiteman and his Palais Royal Orchestra, which records exclusively for the Victor Talking Machine Co. It ably demonstrated the fact that it was quite competent to elevate popular songs above the ranks of so-called jazz and at the same time render capably compositions of a higher order. The demonstration, too, proved that a typical dance orchestra of the Whiteman caliber, with the addition of a string section, can give a thoroughly interesting interpretation of compositions ordinarily confined to the field of the full symphony orchestra." (The phrase "a typical dance orchestra of the Whiteman caliber" implies other dance bands of 1924 matched Whiteman's in terms of musicianship, but it is unclear what those other bands are.)
The concert's program notes do not celebrate jazz, so it is not surprising that this the Talking Machine World writer stresses Whiteman's talent for elevating popular songs "above" jazz. The notes vaguely describe the evolution of jazz but also state, "Attaching the name Jazz to all modern music is a gross injustice to composers of modern music and directors of modern orchestras." Historians have erroneously called the Aeolian Concert Hall presentation a jazz concert, but it was not called that in 1924. It was promoted only as "An Experiment in Modern Music." Program notes in fact take an ambiguous stand on jazz. A section of the program notes, written by Whiteman's business manager Hugh C. Ernest, questions whether Whiteman's music should be called jazz: "The experiment is to be purely educational. Mr. Whiteman intends to point out, with assistance of his orchestra and associates, the tremendous strides which have been made in popular music from the day of the discordant Jazz...to the really melodious music of today, which--for no good reason--is still called Jazz."
Page 6 of the January 1924 issue of Talking Machine World states that a goal of the upcoming concert was to "increase the respect in which the so-called dance orchestra is held by music enthusiasts who are inclined to look down upon the work of this type of artists." It also states that Whiteman would offer "a program of classical music," including Tchaikovsky's Nut Cracker Suite (it was not performed). The word "jazz" is not used. Evidently nobody knew ahead of time exactly what would take place on February 12. The announcement that classical music would be played is significant, suggesting that at one point the concert was meant to establish mainly that Whiteman's men had the skills of concert musicians. Only years after the event would the concert become known as a jazz concert. Alfred V. Frankenstein writes in his "Music and Radio" column in the September 1929 issue of The Golden Book, "Jazz was the music of places of popular entertainment until the afternoon of February 5 [sic], 1924. On that occasion Paul Whiteman gave his first concert, and jazz fell into the category of Art with a capital A. There had been jazz concerts before, but they had no tag of sophistication to them." Whiteman himself in his 1926 book Jazz made the concert seem more of a "jazz" event than it really was, undoubtedly because the book was supposed to be about "jazz."
In reviewing the concert for the New York Times on February 13, music critic Olin Downes uses the word "jazz" only twice, once in summarizing the printed program's attitude towards "Livery Stable Blues" (Downes states that this opening number was "introduced apologetically as an example of the depraved past from which modern jazz has risen"), the other as an adjective for the hefty Whiteman ("a piece of jazz jelly").
One measure of the orchestra's popularity as a recording ensemble is the sheer numbers of releases by 1924. In March, six titles were issued on four discs; in April another six were issued on four discs (the reverse side of one disc features the Virginians--a group of Whiteman musicians); in May another four titles were issued on two discs. Around this time Victor issued twelve-inch Victor 35744, which was specially promoted as a "four-in-one" record. Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra performs "Where Is That Girl of Mine?" and "Driftwood" on one side, "Mandalay" and "Step! Henrietta" on the other. Page 29 of the June 1924 issue of Talking Machine World devotes an article to this "distinct innovation in dance records designed for those who protest against repetition," calling it a record with "two different dance numbers on each side." It was not a significant innovation since for years the company had been issuing twelve-inch dance records that featured medleys, the music arranged so dancers would not grow weary of a single melody. In any case, this Whiteman disc did not sell well.
By issuing 16 Whiteman titles in the three months following the Aeolian Hall Concert, the Victor Talking Machine Company took advantage of that concert's success. Meanwhile, Whiteman repeated the concert, with some modifications, in Aeolian Hall (March 7), Philadelphia's Academy of Music (April 13), Carnegie Hall (April 24), and concert halls of various cities in a whirlwind tour in the autumn. The tour led to a relatively long gap in Whiteman's recording activities, the gap lasting from September 18 until November 17. According to the October 1924 issue of Talking Machine World, it was Whiteman's "first important concert tour."
Whiteman's musical training enabled him to adopt a symphonic approach for popular tunes, but his success sprang from a number of talents--a flair for publicity, an ability to get the most from his outstanding musicians, a gift for "discovering" musicians with major talent, an instinct for hits, a willingness to change his sound as times changed. The most impressive records were those of the late 1920s when the orchestra--far larger than that of the early 1920s--included such outstanding musicians as Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, and Bing Crosby. But Whiteman's influence was arguably greatest in the early 1920s when his group helped establish-- more so than Victor predecessor Joseph C. Smith--an orchestral sound as standard for the performance of popular tunes for the purpose of dancing. It was also very influential in the use of elaborate and imaginative arrangements.
Whiteman began recording only a year or two after most record companies ceased relying heavily on military bands for dance music. In time, Whiteman's innovations made the sounds of Joseph C. Smith's Orchestra and similar society dance ensembles seem quaint and simplistic. Even the music of small groups that first recorded jazz, notably the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, was considered dated by the record buying public enthusiastic about Whiteman. Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra during its eight years with the nation's most prestigious record company, the Victor Talking Machine Company was incredibly influential (Whiteman switched to Columbia in 1928. and by the time he switched back to the original company several years later, it had become RCA Victor).
If one accepts the premise that Whiteman's dance music included jazz elements, then one may safely say that Whiteman did more to popularize jazz than any other musical celebrity of the 1920s. Although most of his early dance band records are devoid of significant jazz influences, he was characterized as a jazz artist throughout the 1920s. There is no question that his was the most popular dance band of the decade.
Thomas A. DeLong's biography of Whiteman, titled Pops (New Century, 1983), gives a satisfying account of some parts of Whiteman's career, but the book is without documentation and says little about the recordings.