“Stone City,” by Grant Wood, 1930. The same painter who did “American Gothic.”
On the evidence of attempts by many composers, it is not easy to meld classical music and jazz. Syncopation was rare in classical music before the Roaring Twenties. (The first example that comes to mind is the second theme of the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2, “Little Russian.”)
Even when it’s done well – like in Leonard Bernstein’s 1955 “Prelude, Fugue & Riffs,” or Russell Peck’s 1979 “Drastic Measures” – the composer seems to be writing straight-ahead jazz that just happens to be intended for the concert hall. Few have managed the feat of writing jazzy and bluesy classical music the way George Gershwin (1898-1937) did.
“Rhapsody in Blue,” written rapidly because Gershwin did not know he was committed to composing a piece for Paul Whiteman until he read it in a newspaper, was a lucky accident for all concerned. Gershwin was a gifted pianist, so he could write the solo part without concern about being able to play it, and some of it wasn’t written down at all, but was played from memory or even improvised on the spot. (At one point there are two cadenzas practically back to back, which I think may be unique in the classical repertory.)
Gershwin did not have orchestrator chops – on Broadway, as in Hollywood, it is customary for the composer and the orchestrator to be two different people – but luckily Paul Whiteman employed one of the best, Ferde Grofe (in 1924 he had already begun composing suites on American themes but had not yet done his best, the “Grand Canyon Suite.”) His skill was so great that “Rhapsody in Blue” works in both its original jazz band version and later arrangements Grofe made for larger symphony orchestras.
A final bit of luck produced the single most memorable moment in the piece. Gershwin had conceived the opening clarinet run as discrete notes. But in rehearsal, as a gag, Ross Gorman slurred the last few notes. Gershwin did more than laugh: he said, keep it that way; in fact, wail it as much as possible. The impact of Gershwin’s jazz-classical fusion, the essence of the entire piece, indeed of the entire period, is summed up in that run.
Part of the impact of the concert came from whose was in the audience: John Philip Sousa was there, and Sergei Rachmaninoff, and the conductor Walter Damrosch. In later years, having been at that concert must have been like having been at Woodstock.
Not everyone liked the work, and a review by stodgy classical music critic Lawrence Gilman was desperately disdainful. But the desperation in his diatribe suggests he knew he was typing against the tide.
The work had more good luck in who did like it. The New York Times critic praised it. And Damrosch was so impressed that the next day he commissioned a full-length piano concerto from Gershwin that would become Concerto in F.
The importance of Concerto in F was threefold. It showed Gershwin could pull off a working jazz-classical fusion more than once, that “Rhapsody” wasn’t a fluke. It showed other composers that jazzy orchestral music could be sustained through a full-length concerto following classical format conventions. Finally, because Gershwin did his own arrangement, it raised his standing among other composers.
Gershwin composed a “Second Rhapsody” that begins as if it will be a “Rhapsody in Blue” knockoff but winds up taking the listener to interesting new places. Because its opening is so similar it is performed less frequently, and is less respected than should be the case.
“An American in Paris” turned out to be another hit, despite having no piano part, and to this day is so popular that most major orchestras around the world keep some taxi horns in their storage rooms.
Gershwin fertilized the ground for others to make the leap from “popular music” to classical music.
Bix Beiderbecke (1903-1931), a cornettist with Paul Whiteman, composed the Impressionist piece “In a Mist” in 1927 and followed it with “Candlelights,” “Flashes,” and “In the Dark.”
Beiderbecke drank himself to death in his late twenties, a loss to classical music as well as jazz.
Dana Suesse (1909-1987), who wrote the song “You Ought to Be in Pictures,” came to be known as “the Girl Gershwin” for her own “Jazz Nocturne.” She worked as staff composer for the Billy Rose Orchestra.
Paul Whiteman commissioned her “Concerto in Three Rhythms.” Suesse moved to Paris for three years to study with Nadia Boulanger.
Duke Ellington (1899-1974), whose long residency in Harlem’s Cotton Club began in 1927, would be remembered as one of the greatest big band leaders of all time even if he hadn’t ventured into classical music, but with his arranger Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967) he composed suites that work perfectly well in concerts that also have mainstream classics.
Ellington had a smaller “big band” than most bandleaders and made up for it by reinventing what Baroque composers called “terrace dynamics,” creating different sounds by pitting unequal divisions of the band against each other. In the original 1937 recording of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” you can hear the lower and upper register of the clarinet treated as two different sections.
Ellington did jazzed-up arrangements of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” and Grieg’s incidental music to “Peer Gynt” and eventually wrote music of his own for the concert hall, but his greatest contribution to music, in my own view, is the body of charts he made for his own orchestra from his earlier days as a bandleader.
When “Rhapsody in Blue” premiered in 1924, there was plenty of other stuff going on in American popular music, like the song “I’m Alabamy Bound,” which Aaron Copland would quote in his Piano Concerto, and “Tea for Two,” the ultimate jazz standard.
Other songs of the day were, “Everybody Loves My Baby,” “Big Bad Bill is Sweet William Now,” “I Want to Be Happy,” “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” and, from the Gershwin brothers Ira and George, “Fascinating Rhythm,” “The Man I Love,” and, “Lady Be Good.”