Tuesday, July 12, 2011

“Jazzy” Gee Gershwin & his Funky Rhapsody

We will talk about Jazz. Oh yes, we will. But not today
Today we discuss George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, that beloved piece played by symphonies all over the world because;
A: It’s very good .
B: People enjoy hearing it played.  
It’s a wonderful instrumental piece where all the communication is carried on by the orchestra. It’s a  pity you probably have never heard it. I know, I know,  you always meant to but-
 What’s that? You say you have heard it? Well, actually you haven’t.  Almost every version that has been played in last 57 years has been based on the 1942 full symphonic orchestral version that Frede Grofe completed. That, in turn, was based on the 1926 version created  for a “pit” orchestra, The original 1924 version, the version that Gershwin himself played was written for a 24 piece Jazz band.

George at work. Probably. He could be posing.

Let’s hop in the wayback machine and set the dial to the roaring 20’s. You know; prohibition, gangsters and the rise of Jazz as the most popular form of music in America. There were many jazz bands big and small and the one thing they all had in common was the complete disdain of anyone over 30 and the musical establishment (a Princeton professor of the day claimed  “...it is not music at all. It’s merely an irritation of the nerves of hearing, a sensual teasing of the strings of physical passion. “ (sound familiar rap/hip-hop fans?). That’s right; it wasn’t my generation or yours who were first told to turn down that infernal racket. It was your grandparents or possibly your great-grandparents who started listening to noise.
The most popular band of the day was Paul Whiteman’s Jazz band. (You can dwell on the irony of how the most popular jazz band was composed of all whites and led by someone named Whiteman another time) He decided to offer a Jazz concert called An Experiment in Modern Music to be held at Aeolian Hall in New York City on February 12, 1924 . His idea was to present a concert for more highbrow listeners. (John Phillips Sousa and Rachmaninoff attended) He wanted Gershwin to write a concerto and Gershwin agreed and then immediately forgot all about it. When he read an announcement in the Boston paper about the concert and about the premiere of his new concerto it came back to him. With 5 weeks to go he took a train to New York and began to hurriedly compose.

Paul Whitewman and his Jazz Band. Gershwin is at the piano

Frede Grofe, Whiteman’s orchestrator, would literally take the completed pages from Gershwin’s hands and begin to write out the parts. They almost made it. When it came time to perform the piece, Gershwin had written “wait for nod” on the piano part because he hadn’t yet written it down. So no one really knows what the first performance of Rhapsody in Blue sounded like. But it was a hit, a palatable hit!

Only 9 miniutes?!?!? I want my cash back iTunes. Never mind.
There were two recordings made that featured Gershwin actually playing the Piano part. One was an acoustic recording made in 1924. (An acoustic recording was simply taking the big horn, turning it toward the orchestra and writing directly onto the record.) It’s incredibly rough and muddy. In 1928, after the invention of electric microphone, another version was recorded and it sounds much better. However, both recordings suffered from one fatal flaw. Only 9 minutes of the 14 minute piece could be recorded due to the limitations of the media (sad face). The only way to hear the full thing was live. 

By 1942 everyone was playing the full symphonic version which was based on the 1926 pit Orchestra version.  (A “Pit” Orchestra is composed of many of the same pieces as a symphonic orchestra but with a lot less instruments so that they could fit the thing into the pit of a theater.)  The jazz version essentially vanished.  The original arrangements still exist, and with an act of congress, literally, you can see them. They reside in the Library of Congress Archives.

Ghostly Gershwin and Michael Tilson Thomas recovering a lost moment in music.

Leap forward now to 1976. Michael Tilson Thomas, composer, pianist and conductor, contacts The National Symphony Orchestra who had a facsimile (they got connections) of the original jazz parts. They had performed a version of it expanded by a copyist. But Mr. Thomas had something they didn’t. A Piano roll recorded by George Gershwin himself in 1925 on a Duo-Art Player Piano. After carefully, restoring the roll and a vintage player piano they recorded Gershwin playing the Piano part for Rhapsody in Blue. They returned to the original arrangement for a 24 piece jazz band and recorded the piece, sans piano. Then they married the two up in a studio and what you have is as close to the original version of Rhapsody in Blue as you can get considering that a half a century had passed and that Gershwin had died in 1937.

So which version is better? That is a question without real meaning. They are both very listenable and enjoyable but so totally different. In fact, the jazz version is nearly two minutes shorter due to its much livelier pace.
The point of all this is that why things are the way they are in music is related to when they are in music. History is as much determining factor as anything else when it comes to the creation of music. So don’t just ask who recorded or wrote a piece, also ask when the deed was done.

Till Next Time, Keep Listening!
Need some Rhapsody in Blue? Here's some links:

*FREE* Rhapsody In Blue 1924 acoustic recording Part 1 *FREE*

*FREE* Rhapsody In Blue 1924 acoustic recording Part 2 *FREE*

(I'll make you a deal, you buy this one and if you don't love it. I 'll buy it back from you. Yes, it's that good!

George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue; An American in Paris; Broadway Overtures CD )

Rhapsody in Blue (Michael Tislson Thomas & Gershwin Piano roll) Single

Rhapsody In Blue (Original 1927 Recording)

Rhapsody in Blue (1998 Digital Remaster)

Rhapsody in Blue (Instrumental)

Rhapsody in Blue (2004 Remastered)

 (Honestly there are literally 100's of these so there are lots of choices.)

That's right! I sold out to corporate America! Pay me your monies! Now!


  1. This was wonderful, and took me back to when I first heard this milestone of a composition. Reading this inspired me to add Gershwin to the list of essential things that I want my son to know about as he grows up.

    My 5-year-old and I are estranged and I try and be present to him by writing about all that I would have wanted to tell him about as a father. Music, obviously, is a major subject.

    Thanks to this post, I remembered to not forget to tell him about Rhapsody in Blue and Summertime. http://goo.gl/2QZqZ

  2. Thank you so much for the nice comment. It really is a brilliant piece. I must have listened to it a couple of dozen times for this article and it never got old. A true classic.