1924 Seventy-five Years Ago

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Music lovers and trend chasers thronged New York City’s Aeolian Hall on February 12 to hear Paul Whiteman and his twenty-two-piece Palais Royal Orchestra present “An Experiment in Modern Music.” The unconventional concert was scheduled to include works by Irving Berlin, Victor Herbert. Jerome Kern, and others, as well as a performance by the pianist Zez Confrey, writer of “Kitten on the Keys.” To top it off, a brand-new composition was promised from an upand-coming young songwriter named George Gershwin.

The idea of the concert, Whiteman’s manager had explained, was “to point out …the tremendous strides which have been made in popular music from the day of the discordant jazz, which sprang into existence about ten years ago from nowhere in particular, to the really melodious music of today which —for no good reason—is still being called jazz.” By bringing jazz and popular music into a formal concert hall (a daring notion at the time), Whiteman hoped to show that those genres were worthy of serious consideration, especially when played by his tightly rehearsed, clean-cut (and incidentally all-white) orchestra.

The program listed twenty-three numbers, which over a long afternoon turned out to contain more misses than hits. By the time of the next-tolast piece—Gershwin’s premiere, titled Rhapsody in Blue—many in the stifling auditorium had begun to nod off. Russ Gorman of Whiteman’s band woke them up in a hurry with the famous opening clarinet glissando (something most clarinetists of the day would not think of attempting) that has since become as familiar as the start of Beethoven’s Fifth. He slithered into a sinuous jazz melody, and by the time the piece ended, about eighteen minutes later, Gershwin (who played the piano part himself) had arrived as a major composer. Overnight critical reaction was mixed, but by the end of 1924 Whiteman’s band had played the piece eighty-four times. Eager fans snapped up one million copies of the Whiteman/Gershwin recording, and despite the difficulty of the piano part, even sheet music sold briskly. By the time of his death, in 1937, Gershwin had made more than a quarter-million dollars from the piece.

For all its momentous impact, Gershwin had dashed off Rhapsody in Blue in just a few weeks. He first got wind of the Aeolian Hall concert on the evening of January 3 while shooting pool with a friend. His brother and lyricist, Ira, saw an item in the next day’s paper announcing the event for February 12 and saying that Gershwin would write a “jazz concerto” for it. Whiteman had previously told Gershwin of his plans for such a concert, and Gershwin had begun mentally sketching out possible contributions in his spare moments, but he had no idea it would happen so soon. On January 7 he started writing out a score, and around January 25 he turned the last of it over to Ferde Grofé, Whiteman’s orchestrator, to be arranged for the Palais Royal band. Gershwin was so rushed that he left several blank spots in his piano score to be filled in with improvisation at the performance.

Whiteman’s “Experiment” had been designed to show that jazz could sound respectable. Instead it ended up showing that respectable music could sound jazzy. As usual when “serious” and popular art meet, borrowings by the former from the latter turned out much better than those in the opposite direction. While most jazz musicians shrugged off Whiteman’s invitation to join polite society, Rhapsody in Blue (in its expanded 1942 arrangement) has become a favorite way for classical orchestras to liven up their programs and placate subscribers discouraged by too much Mahler. Although most of Whiteman’s “symphonic jazz” sounds irretrievably quaint today, Rhapsody in Blue stands as the first big step in the long and still incomplete process of breaking down America’s musical barriers between highbrow and lowbrow, popular and “serious,” and even black and white.