Whiteman was born in Denver, Colorado. He started out as a classical violinist and violist, then started leading a jazz-influenced dance band which became locally popular in San Francisco, California in 1918. In 1920 he moved his band to New York City where they started making recordings for Victor Records which propelled Whiteman and his band to national prominence. Whiteman's became the most popular band leader of the decade. In the late 1920s he recorded for Columbia Records.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s Whiteman billed himself as The King of Jazz (see: Jazz royalty), though much of what his band played hasn't been considered "true" jazz by later generations. Others reject thses notions, and regard Whiteman's music as an interesting development in jazz history.
While today most fans of jazz consider improvisation to be essential to the musical style, Whiteman thought it sloppy and uncouth, and thought the music could be improved by eliminating it, except occasionally in elaborate arrangements. While it is easy to sneer at Whiteman in retrospect, his notions were critically popular and commercially successful at the time, and Whiteman's music was often the first jazz of any form that some people heard. Whiteman claimed that he was "making a lady out of jazz".
Whiteman appreciated jazz musicians and hired many of the best white jazz men for his band, including Bix Beiderbecke, Frankie Trumbauer, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Steve Brown, Gussie Mueller, Jack Teagarden, and Bunny Berigan. While Whiteman gave them very limited chances to improvise, he paid them top salaries and encouraged them to make small band jam recordings on the side.
Bing Crosby got his start singing with the Whiteman Orchestra.
In 1931, Whiteman married motion picture actress Margaret Livingston.
Pal Whiteman died at the age of 77 in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.