A New Era Of American Music: Rhapsody In Blue

On this day in in 1924, the New York Times carried a review by music critic Olin Downes. The review began, “A concert of popular American music was given yesterday afternoon in Aeolian Hall by Paul Whiteman and his orchestra of the Palais Royale.” Downes had attended the concert that was billed as an “Experiment In Modern Music.” Downes noted that one composition in particular “shows extraordinary talent” and was “fresh and new.” Downes’ review concluded, “The audience packed a house that could have been sold out twice over.”

It was on Tuesday, 12 February 1924, that “America’s Homegrown Music” – Jazz – put on white tie and tails and entered the lofty precincts of the halls of “serious” music with the premier of the classic Rhapsody In Blue. Paul whiteman, the leading figure in popular Jazz in the 1920s, had approached the young George Gershwin some months before to propose that Gershwin write a Jazz work specifically for a symphonic setting. Gershwin, whose work to that time had consisted of Tin Pan Alley songs and light-hearted musical fare, apparently agreed to undertake Whiteman’s commission.

I say “apparently” because as George’s brother Ira told the tale, it was not until January of 1924, when Ira showed George a item in the paper that the February concert would include a “Jazz Concerto” by Gershwin, that George realized he was committed! Improbably enough, in about five week’s time, Gershwin had essentially completed the work which became known as Rhapsody In Blue.

Whiteman’s orchestra premiered the work at Aeolian Hall in New York, a locale not usually associated with popular music, and Whiteman’s musicians all wore classic concert attire. Many musical luminaries were present for the concert, including Sergei Rachmaninoff and John Philip Sousa, along with several noted music critics. Whiteman’s arranger, Ferde Groffe, best known for his Grand Canyon Suite, orchestrated Gershwin’s piano score. Gershwin himself Played the piano at the concert, which turned out to be a necessity, as he had not written any piano part! The orchestra members were warned to keep a sharp eye on Gershwin as he would have to nod to let them know where they were to come back in to the music as he played. The written score was produced later, and therefore we cannot be certain exactly what that very first performance was like, but we know that it was received with wild enthusiasm by the audience though many of the critics in attendance offered rather negative assessments of the piece.

This premiere was no great political or military turning point; it did not free the oppressed nor did it bring down a tyrant. But it did contribute to the changing of a culture, and decisively so. Before Whiteman’s “Experiment in Modern Music,” Jazz was looked upon as an inferior music and not fit for “the better sort of people.” There was a nasty undercurrent of racism in this judgment as well: Jazz was often called “African Music” or even plainly vulgar, derogatory epithets. And it is true that not one African-American was present at Aeolian Hall that chilly February afternoon to hear musical history being made. But this concert launched Jazz into the realm of respectability, and by the end of the 1920s many Black Jazz greats were making an impact upon popular culture with concerts and recordings, playing in venues that would have been irrevocably barred to them a few years before. Jazz and its talented practitioners were here to stay.

George Gershwin made two recordings of Rhapsody In Blue with Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra, and in 1925 he cut a master piano roll which QRS player piano company later issued in its own roll format. QRS, which claims to be the oldest “software” company in continuous existence, (since 1900) still produces paper piano rolls for old player systems, but moving into the digital age, they converted many of their classic roll recordings into CDs which can be played on their “Pianomation” electronic system. Thus it is that now and again, I can enjoy the experience of listening in my own home to “the very keystrokes” that George Gershwin himself recorded some 94 years ago when I put on the CD of his solo piano rendition of his masterpiece. Then I can close my eyes and take delight in talent and vision and just plain good music!

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Music, the greatest good that mortals know,
And all of Heaven we have below.

— Joseph Addison

Further Reading:

Downes’ review in full may be found in The George Gershwin Reader.

See also: The Roaring Twenties.

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