Rhapsody in Blue, George Gershwin “fired the Jazz shot heard round the world. ” This symphonic jazz concerto may be the most famous piece of American classical music. Undoubtedly the most famous classical work of Its own time, It was a serious concert work that contained elements of popular music In the sass Including the style of jazz.
Gershwin’s Rhapsody even remains a part of American popular culture today; Its famous themes are heard from the big screen in Disney Fantasia 2000 to the elevation screen in united Airlines commercials. While the popularity of the Rhapsody cannot be questioned, one can ask the question to what extent does Gershwin actually employ elements of Jazz music in his so-called “symphonic Jazz concerto? ” After all, it would seem that the Rhapsody does not contain many of Jazz’s most important aspects, such as swing or improvisation.
Why, then, was the Rhapsody labeled a “Jazz concerto? ” Though the Rhapsody lacked some aspects of jazz that would today be considered essential, in the context of Jazz in the sass Gershwin successfully combined a number of Jazz elements Into a “serious” composition, Including Jazz Instrumentation and orchestration, Jazz rhythms, and the blues scale. By modern definitions of Jazz, It would seem that the Rhapsody does not contain many of its most important aspects, such as swing or improvisation, but jazz was defined very differently in the sass.
When Gershwin wrote the Rhapsody, the word “Jazz” was applied to more than one genre of music. Its definition was very broad; it “could mean all things to people in the sass. ” Charles Ham divides Jazz in the sass into three categories of music: Jazz/blues music performed by black musicians for black audiences, Jazz/blues music performed by black musicians for white audiences, and “so-called jazz” music performed by white musicians for white audiences. The widespread discussion of Jazz during the sass focused mainly on this last category.
During the sass, the majority of American and European culture had little exposure to the “race records” of black Jazz performers. These Jazz and blues performers performed mainly for black audiences. It was not until the late sass and costly during the sass that major record companies began to distribute this type of music on a national level and that it could be heard on network radio. This jazz is what Jazz historians would consider the authentic roots of jazz including the music of legendary black performers such as Joe Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Jelly Roll Morton.
Jazz historians believe this jazz to be more authentic because it more greatly influenced what Jazz would become 0 a form of music that embraced improvisation and contained blue tonality. At the time the Rhapsody was written, this type of Jazz ad begun to develop In New Orleans but would not reach New York until later. For example, Joe Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band which exemplified the New Orleans style performed In New Orleans In 1923 but not In New York until 1927. Similarly, Jelly Roll Morton did not appear In New York until 1926. Both of these first performances post- date the Rhapsody.
Jazz in sass’s New York was mostly based on social dancing and musical theater. This type of Jazz was what Ham described as white Jazz performed for white audiences. While most Jazz writers did acknowledge the black roots of Jazz, their inception of Jazz was mostly shaped by the elements of white Jazz such as the dance band music of groups like the Paul Whitman band. For example, writer Henry O. Osgood wrote entire chapters in a book on Jazz about Irving Berlin, Paul Whitman, and George Gershwin but only a footnote about Jazz performed by black musicians.
Isaac Goldberg identified Jazz as more of a combination of African-American and Jewish elements, writing that Jazz’s “fundamental rhythm and its characteristic melody derive from the Negro; its centralization belongs largely to the popular- song industry of the white. This popular song industry was Tin Pan Alley, and its songs were sometimes included in the definition of Jazz in the sass. Irving Berlin was regarded by Alexander Wolcott in a 1925 biography as a “pioneer” in Jazz because of his “Jazzed” popular songs on Tin Pan Alley.
Few Jazz historians today would classify any of these songs as Jazz because they lack many of the timbres, rhythmic, and improvisatory characteristics of Jazz. The characteristics of sass’s white Jazz varied. Rhythm seemed to be foremost among them. Don Knowles noted that the basic principle of Jazz was the rhythmic exaggeration of Negro syncopation which found its way into popular song and progressed to being used in symphonic Jazz. Jazz “alterations” of rhythm ranged from playing ahead of the beat, to exaggerated syncopation, to the imposition of a 1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2 rhythm on 4/4 time.
Jazz instrumentation was also a notable characteristic of sass’s Jazz. Jazz arranging began with Paul Whitman and continued in the many white Jazz bands of Ben Selves, Ben Pollack, Vincent Lopez, and Jimmy Durance. The Jazz orchestration of the Rhapsody for Paul Whitewash’s band identified t as Jazz to its audience in 1924, containing alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones, trumpets, clarinets, bass clarinets, etc. , playing in a Jazz style. Because of the array of types of music to which the word “Jazz” was applied during the sass, Gershwin’s own conception of Jazz was also understandably broad.
While he understood that jazz had African-American origins, he also felt that Jazz was American rather than African-American. “Jazz is not Negro but American. It is the spontaneous expression of the nervous energy of modern American life. ” Gershwin’s conception of Jazz at the mime he wrote the Rhapsody was definitely similar to the definitions of sass Jazz critics. He wrote in 1926, “The blatant Jazz often years ago, crude, vulgar, and unadorned, is passing. The only Jazz he can be talking about is the white New York jazz because the aforementioned New Orleans style of black Jazz was not heard in New York for another decade. Gershwin also once wrote “Jazz is a word which has been used for at least five or six different types of music. It is a conglomeration of many things … Ragtime, the blues, classicism and spirituals . An entire composition written in Jazz could not live. Charles Ham suggests that Gershwin is implying that he did understand the differences between white Jazz and authentic black Jazz.
He actually listened to different types of black Jazz from “stride” pianists in downtown New York to the bands of Elongating and Cab Galloway, and in fact knew black musicians such as Will Powdery, Lucky Roberts and Duke Elongating. Gershwin popular “Jazzed” songs or the dance numbers of Jazz bands such as the Paul Whitman band. “The Rhapsody in Blue represents what I have been striving for since my earliest composition. I wanted to show that Jazz is an idiom not to be limited o a mere song and chorus that consumed three minutes in presentation. I succeeded in showing that Jazz is not merely a dance, it comprises bigger themes and purposes. Because Gershwin had a good idea of what Jazz was during the sass and could mix his talent for writing popular melodies with his understanding of classical music, he had the perfect combination of tools to compose a symphonic Jazz concerto. What he succeeded in doing in the Rhapsody in Blue was, as he said, to compose a piece that contained the bigger themes and purposes of Jazz music. While Gershwin did not use wing or improvisation in the Rhapsody, he did use elements of white Jazz such as jazz instrumentation, orchestration and Jazz rhythms, and even elements of authentic black Jazz such as the blues scale and blue tonality.
Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was premiered by the Paul Whitman Band at the Aeolian Hall in New York on February 12, 1924 in a concert called An Experiment in Modern Music. Paul Whitman, director of one of the most popular dance bands in America, had at one point asked Gershwin to write a “serious” piece of music for his experimental “all-Jazz” concert that would incorporate elements of Jazz and popular USIA. Gershwin spent only three weeks composing the piece for two pianos with Whitewash’s arranger Feared Grog alongside him orchestrating for piano and Jazz band.
Grogg’s Jazz orchestration and instrumentation definitively illustrate Gershwin’s use of white Jazz in the Rhapsody. Paul Whitewash’s Jazz band clearly falls under the category of Jazz performed by white musicians for white audiences. Whitewash’s band was the prototype of what Jazz was in New York during the sass, elements of black Jazz such as its distinctive rhythms and syncopation combined to form music for social dancing. The band of the “King of Jazz” was essentially more of a “pops-and-dance” band rather than a Jazz band.
Still, the band also had a repertoire of Jazz numbers whose performances were comparable to that of the Big Band Jazz of groups such as the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, differing only in their cleanliness and complexity. This was thanks to Grogg’s arrangements for the band’s unique Jazz instrumentation, a system of “playing off other instruments in the orchestra against the saxophones in a contrapuntal fashion. ” Whitman labeled this type of orchestration “symphonic Jazz” and it would conveniently be applied to merging “Jazz symphonies” of the sass, foremost among them Gershwin’s Rhapsody.
The Rhapsody also used the unique instrumentation of Whitewash’s “symphonic Jazz” 0 a Jazz orchestra that consisted of twenty-three players including eight violins, three saxophones, two trumpets, trombones, French horns, doubleheaders, and pianos, a banjo, a drum, and other instruments that were doubled on such as bass clarinet and baritone saxophone. Gershwin also incorporated Jazz rhythms in the Rhapsody in Blue. Syncopated and intricate rhythms were often thought to be the key element of the cleaned-up white Jazz of the sass.
According to USIA critic Virgil Thomson, “Jazz in brief is a compound of (a) the fox-trot rhythm, a rhythm. ” While the fox-trot was essentially dance music and not Jazz music, leader of the Clef Club Orchestra James Reese Europe stressed that the fox-trot rhythms had their origin in African dance. Gershwin would probably have agreed with this. For instance, upon hearing Jazz music outside the Baron Wilkins Club one time in Harlem where Jim Rupee’s band was performing, Gershwin became fascinated by the Jazz rhythms that he heard and later told a friend that his interest in Negro rags, blues and spirituals began at this time.
Gershwin associated rhythms such as the fox-trot with African-American music. The characteristic change from 2/4 time to 4/4 or 2/2 time in music signified the use of the fox-trot rhythm. Such was the case in the Rhapsody, where the fox-trot rhythm was employed in various parts of the work. In the E-major theme of the work, the signature “Love” theme, Whitman interpreted the fox-trot transitions in 2/2 time. Another Jazz rhythm found in the Rhapsody in Blue is the 3+3+2 rhythm.
This is the aforementioned rhythm that Don Knowles described as “of Afro-American origin” and a defining characteristic of Jazz. American composer Aaron Copeland took this a step further, writing in 1927 that “polymath is the real contribution of Jazz. ” According to Copeland, this polymath was “the conflict of four quarters split into eight straightforwardness thus: 1-2-3; 1-2-3-4-5, or even more precisely: 1-2-3: 1-2-3: 1-2. ” This description applied more to ragtime pieces than to the Jazz of Soprano’s time though, such as Louis Armstrong’s music.
The 3+3+2 rhythm is found in the “Train” theme of the Rhapsody. The tune of the “Train” theme did not employ the rhythm, but rather the counter-melody that .NET against the melody which had a “three-note tag cell. ” While rhythm may not have been such a defining characteristic of authentic black Jazz as it was for the popular Jazz/dance bands of sass New York, these rhythms did have their roots in African-American music. Gershwin’s use of an array of these intricate rhythms in the Rhapsody was therefore an example of his use of Jazz in a serious piece of music.
His strategy of combining these Jazz rhythms into a concert work was done using “stylistic dualism. ” The rough fox trot rhythms played by the Jazz band were entreated with the Romantic cadenzas of the piano solo which made the work an “expressive self-portrait. ” A recent definition of Jazz is “a music created mainly by black Americans in the early 20th century through an amalgamation of elements drawn from European-American and tribal African music. This definition includes one main aspect of Jazz that most all recent Jazz historians would agree upon 0 its African-American origin and development. In addition to the elements of white Jazz that Gershwin used in the Rhapsody, he also incorporated elements of authentic black Jazz into the Jazz concerto. A central element of authentic black Jazz is “blue tonality” which attempts to capture the unique timbre of African-American folk song whose scale actually contained more than twelve notes. The “blue note” lies between the major and the minor third of the scale.
Gershwin was able to successfully employ “blue tonality” throughout the Rhapsody in Blue by basing the tunes of the work’s five themes (Retooling, Train, Stride, Shuffle, and Love) on the blues scale with lowered sevenths and major and minor thirds. The “Retooling” theme is simply a sixteen-bar ABA tune in C major with “blues scale inflections. After the bridge Gershwin uses internal modulation, using A flat as subdivision and closing the phrase in E flat there were, in fact, elements of authentic black Jazz in the Rhapsody.
The opening clarinet glissando of the Rhapsody made the very first sound of the piece say “Jazz” to the audience. It was actually Ross German, the lead woodwind player in Whitewash’s ensemble who was responsible for this effect, not Gershwin or Grog, as the part was originally written as a clarinet trill followed by a tied rising seventeen-note scale. German humorously made the last half of the scale a glissando during one rehearsal ND Gershwin liked the sound and insisted upon using this Jazz glissando as the opening statement of the piece.
In the sass, a glissando such as this was considered one of the defining features of Jazz. Written by critic J. W. Henderson in 1924, “Paramount effects on wind instruments are the real Jazz. ” It would make sense that the glissando sound is inherently “Jazzy” because it essentially “bends” pitches so that the notes between the normal notes of a scale can be heard. In this aspect, the use of glissando very much recalls the attempt of “blue tonality” to future the sounds of African-American folk song. The initial reception of the Rhapsody was mixed but positive overall as many critics found Gershwin’s music “progressive. Because most critics of the time knew jazz through the dance club music of New York in the sass, the Rhapsody was generally perceived to have been successful in combining elements of Jazz into a serious composition. They felt that Gershwin’s incorporation of Jazz rhythms, instrumentation, and “blue” notes introduced Jazz elements into classical music. According to critic Deems Taylor, “It was an experiment in treating the Jazz instrumental and thematic idiom seriously, and it was by no means an unsuccessful it was genuine Jazz music, not only in its scoring but in its idiom. One Later Jazz writers were very critical of the Rhapsody and often disparaged Gershwin’s attempt to move beyond “the limitations of Jazz. ” Two decades after the premiere, critic Dave Dexter remarked that the Rhapsody was completely incompatible with original New Orleans Jazz and that it was “to be regretted in the colorful history of Jazz music, for it gave rise to a misunderstanding which still exists. ” Attacks on the Rhapsody by Jazz writers continued in later years.
And Hooded commented a decade later that “it is no longer possible, as it was fifteen or twenty years ago, for an alert, reasonably well-informed person to confuse authentic Jazz with cheap dance music or pretentious pieces like Rhapsody in Blue. ” William Grossman and Jack Farrell go as far as labeling Gershwin’s Rhapsody as “one of the most ludicrous of the popular attempts during the sass to merge Jazz and serious music. ” It should be noted, however, that not all of the more recent critiques of the Rhapsody by Jazz historians have been negative. Forty years after its premiere,
Samuel Charters noted that the Rhapsody was possibly the only successful composition in a “Jazz” idiom. “Gershwin successfully worked within the melodic framework of the symphonic rhapsody while still keeping the idiomatic characteristics of the popular blues song” unlike the attempts of Jazz orchestra leaders such as Duke Elongating whose “Jazz suites” have been “little more than a suite of dance melodies interspersed with unrelated orchestral bridges. ” While Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue contains more elements of white Jazz of the sass New Orleans, it was still a great success in its attempt to introduce Jazz into the encore hall.