Friday, September 27, 2019

National Recording Registry Project: 'Rhapsody in Blue'

It is difficult to strip away all the preconceptions about a piece mankind is so familiar with that it could probably hum the whole thing its sleep. I refer, of course, to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Or should I say Gershwin and Ferde Grofe’s Rhapsody in Blue. Or, really, of Gershwin and Grofe and Paul Whiteman’s Rhapsody in Blue. It’s complicated.

Rhapsody in Blue (abridged)
Composed by George Gershwin; arranged by Ferde Grofe
Recorded June 10, 1924
Paul Whiteman Concert Orchestra; George Gershwin, piano

The first thing is to get the facts about the piece, laid out admirably here by Jim Farrington for the National Recording Registry. Evidently Gershwin had promised Whiteman a symphonic jazz composition for a big concert, then forgot. When reminded, he blazed into action. He wrote the piano score in three weeks. There was a problem. George had never scored for an orchestra before. The only “serious” scoring he had done had been his Lullabye for string quartet, in 1919. In stepped Whiteman orchestrator Ferde Grofe.
Now, some context. “Symphonic jazz” already existed. James Reese Europe and his orchestra, who played proto-jazz, performed at Carnegie Hall in 1912. Up-and-coming composer/arrangers such as Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman, and Duke Ellington were already hard at work creating jazz for large ensembles.

However, Paul Whiteman, the “King of Jazz,” dominated the scene. Whiteman came from Denver, where his father Wilberforce was the long-time superintendent of music for the public schools. Whiteman’s classical training stood him in good stead, and he arranged thousands of tunes, creating tasteful and restrained renditions suitable for polite dancing. This “sweet” approach was immensely popular. Whiteman was determined to make jazz legit.

Gershwin (l) and Whiteman
As Gershwin completed the score, he passed sections to Ferde Grofe, who could quickly make arrangements designed to maximize Whiteman’s musical resources. (Grofe would be known as a composer for his light-classical tone poems, such as Grand Canyon Suite).

Can we hear it with fresh ears? It’s certainly a different experience if you listen to the original recording. First, there was the limitation of the medium — they had to cram the piece onto two sides of one 78 rpm record. So, they cut a third of it and played the rest as briskly as possible (remember, they were still recording acoustically, so you must imagine the players all crammed around the sound horn).

It’s certainly exuberant. Gershwin’s playing is bravura, and the band’s performance leans into the syncopation with a manic intensity. You can really hear Whiteman’s influence in the unique globular, throbbing tones of his saxophones — their lugubriousness really works against the piece.

But it insists on itself, its melodies are unforgettable, its pace is compulsive. It’s been recorded thousands of times, rescored for all manner of ensembles and occasions. It literally animates Eric Goldberg’s Fantasia 2000 sequence. For me personally, it will always be that day I walked uptown in New York City in 1979 and heard it underneath the beginning of Woody Allen’s Manhattan.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: the National Defense Test.

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