A full portrait of jazz great Paul Whiteman

Cary author completes two-volume biography on 'King of Jazz'

dmenconi@newsobserver.comJanuary 12, 2013 

  • About the author Don Rayno of Cary Age: 55 Married: 31 years to Cindy Rayno Other: Originally from Hudson Falls, N.Y. Education: Bachelor in chemistry from Rensselaer (N.Y.) Polytechnic Institute

— When Don Rayno published part one of his Paul Whiteman biography nine years ago, he was optimistic that part two would follow soon after. Rayno had been researching the big-band leader’s life for two decades by then, and 2003’s “Paul Whiteman: Pioneer in American Music, 1890-1930” covered the early years of his career.

“Volume two will not take as long,” Rayno declared in a News & Observer interview.

Reminded recently of that quote and his prediction that volume two would be out in 2006, Rayno threw back his head and laughed a great length.

“That’s great,” he said, still snickering. “Hung on my own petard!”

Nearly a decade later, redemption is finally at hand with the long-awaited publication of “Paul Whiteman: Pioneer in American Music, 1930-1967” (Scarecrow Press). The two volumes add up to around 1,600 pages, and they’re not exactly light reading (or cheap – the new book has a list price of $85). But Rayno’s work is admirably thorough, the official record of one of the 20th century’s key musical figures.

Rayno is 55 now, and this is a job he started before his two children were born. Both are in their late 20s now.

“My daughters have grown and gone with this project, which really puts it in perspective,” he said. “I started in 1983, a year before my first was born. I was a young man. But I’m a very patient, plodding worker, and I’m pretty picky about getting everything right. I’m the tortoise, but I do get there.”

A nuclear chemist by training, Rayno has worked since the mid-1990s for a group of multidenominational pastors, arranging retreats and church events. But studying music, especially Whiteman’s music, has always been Rayno’s passion – a labor of love he pursues evenings and weekends in libraries and his own cluttered archive in the basement of his Cary home. And it’s not just the music that intrigues Rayno but the historical details of who played with whom, an interest that led quite naturally to this project.

Three decades ago, Rayno was reading up on Bing Crosby. Long before “White Christmas” established Crosby as an iconic crooner, he was one of many musicians who first gained notice while in Whiteman’s orchestra. As Rayno discovered, the Dorsey Brothers, Johnny Mercer, Jack Teagarden and Bix Beiderbecke were among the other jazz notables who went on to big things after starting out with Whiteman.

“I just got fascinated with Whiteman because he had so many well-known players in his band,” Rayno said. He kept going and amassed a huge volume of material over the years, as his Whiteman research evolved from hobby to calling and led to him starting the book project.

What might be Whiteman’s most enduring musical contribution is his connection to “Rhapsody in Blue,” one of the signpost compositions of American music. As documented in 2003’s first volume (which Rayno said has sold around 1,000 copies over the years), Whiteman commissioned George Gershwin to write “Rhapsody,” and his orchestra debuted the piece in 1924 with Gershwin himself on piano.

“Rhapsody” was the apex of Whiteman’s symphonic jazz, which combined jazz stylings with the precision of classical music, and it was wildly successful. During the Roaring Twenties, Whiteman was as prominent in the big-band world as, say, Garth Brooks was in country music during the 1990s.

Yet Whiteman is largely forgotten today, in part because of racial tension as reflected in the historical record. He was a white man known as the “King of Jazz” during the era of segregation. That has not sat well with succeeding generations of musicians and critics, many of whom downplayed his accomplishments as not nearly as important as his African-American contemporaries. “Jazz,” the 2001 documentary by noted filmmaker Ken Burns, was particularly dismissive.

Rayno contends that Whiteman’s bad rap was undeserved, citing the band leader’s close friendships with black musicians including Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson. As recounted in Rayno’s new book, Whiteman also was presented with an award from “Father of the Blues” W.C. Handy at a Depression-era show at New York’s Savoy Ballroom, thanking him for his contribution to black musicians.

By now, a lot of music historians are coming around on Whiteman.

“These days, when people think of 1920s jazz, they tend to focus on New Orleans, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and other black artists,” said Scott DeVeaux, a music professor at the University of Virginia. “From that perspective, the whole idea of Paul Whiteman seems almost completely off the mark – even his name, literally ‘White Man.’ But he was a crucially important big-band leader in the ’20s. His arrangements and orchestral polish were something a lot of people looked up to, like Duke Ellington.”

Rayno’s first Whiteman volume ended with his subject at a low point, having to lay off nearly half his band at the start of the Great Depression in 1930. But as volume two recounts, Whiteman quickly rebounded and again had the most popular band in America. Even after Benny Goodman’s style of swing took off in the mid-’30s, Whiteman was still among the country’s top bandleaders – and always on the lookout for new young players.

“Whiteman’s pattern was to find talent, nurture it and export it from his band when people were ready,” Rayno said. “He got a lot of legitimate jazz players, even though they’d play any style of music, which might be another reason why he’s forgotten. You couldn’t really categorize him. Whiteman’s orchestra wasn’t a jazz band, but they’d play jazz – also tangos, show tunes, classical. They really ran the gamut.”

Whiteman’s success led to Hollywood. He appeared in a series of films through the 1940s, usually playing himself in dramatic biopics such as 1945’s “Rhapsody in Blue” opposite Robert Alda (father of Alan) as Gershwin. Whiteman also appeared in the 1940 Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney musical “Strike Up the Band,” as head of a talent contest.

By 1949, there was also ABC-TV’s “The Paul Whiteman TV Teen Club,” the “American Idol” of its day. It originated from the same Philadelphia station that later aired “American Bandstand” – Dick Clark was an announcer on the Whiteman show. Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon and Dion DiMucci were among the future hit-makers who performed on “TV Teen Club,” and Rayno interviewed all of them for the book.

“Dion was 13 when he went on the show and his voice hadn’t changed yet,” Rayno said. “He even had a recording from it that he played me over the phone. He was a big Hank Williams fan, and it was him singing ‘Jambalaya’ in soprano. That blew my mind. This was long before the Belmonts.”

As the rock era dawned in the 1950s, Whiteman was a relic of a bygone era. While he no longer had a band of his own, he stayed active with guest-conducting spots, often of “Rhapsody in Blue.” A longtime car enthusiast, he also served as a NASCAR director at Daytona Speedway during the ’50s and ’60s.

Plenty of the artists he’d helped on their way up remembered him fondly. More than one who Rayno interviewed referred to their old boss as “Pops.”

“They all spoke of his fatherliness, the way he’d always look out for others,” Rayno said. “He touched a lot of lives and unearthed so much talent. He was a great storyteller and humorist, too. He had unusual lingo, early sort of jive talk and stuff he’d make up. Like people who would talk during rehearsals or chat excessively on the phone, he called that ‘quonking.’ Or he’d say a violinist was ‘sawing off the round steak.’ His musicians used to love hearing him.”

Since his death from a heart attack in 1967, Whiteman has had a few posthumous honors, including two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and 1993 induction into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame. Until Rayno, however, nobody had attempted a truly comprehensive biography. Someday, Rayno might condense his two books into a single volume. But other projects beckon first.

“My next book won’t be music,” Rayno said. “When I was a nuclear chemist, I interviewed a lot of people who worked on the first nuclear reactor during World War II – probably 30 people who were there, a lot of whom have since died. That’s a book I want to write because it was a major event that led to a lot of things, both good and bad. I wish I’d had today’s nice digital recorders back then, but I’m still working off cassettes. I’ve already started transcribing interviews.”

Menconi: 919-829-4759 blogs.newsobserver.com/beat

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