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by | Apr 22, 2024


Gershwin, composing at the piano (1927), from Steichen: A Life in Photography, Doubleday & Co. (1963). Steichen nailed the precise and dynamic style of his glamorous subject.

AGAIN THE RHAPSODY

George Gershwin’s masterpiece has inspired many an interpretation

1. Gershwin: 1924

One day in January, a hundred years ago, George Gershwin was hanging out at the Ambassador Billiard Hall at Broadway and 52nd. Tall, buff and dapper, he liked to play—pool, golf, boxing, tennis—and piano of course, improvising into the wee hours at Manhattan socialite parties. Just 25, he was already a celebrity, composer of Al Jolson’s million-selling hit, Swanee, and recently returned from a dazzling season in London.

While George shot pool with lyricist Buddy DeSylva, his elder brother Ira sat out, reading the morning’s New York Tribune, then drew their attention to an item announcing a concert the next month at tony Aeolian Hall, “An Experiment in Modern Music” by Paul Whiteman and his Palais Royale Orchestra, premiering new works by American composers, including George Gershwin’s “Jazz Concerto”.

This was news to George. He had kicked around the idea for such a piece with Whiteman, but didn‘t realize it was quite so far along. He phoned to protest but was talked into it, with the promise of assistance from Whiteman’s arranger, Ferde Grofé. And in due course George composed, not quite a concerto, but a rhapsody, hashing it out with Ferde on second piano, and performed it with Whiteman’s orchestra on February 21st—sensationally. The title was suggested by Ira, a fan of James MacNeill Whistler’s painting Nocturne in Black and Gold. Hence Rhapsody in Blue

 

Paul Whiteman in The King of Jazz (1930).  Photo: pre-code.com

2. Whiteman: 1924, 1927, 1930 & 1945

Paul Whiteman was a big man with big ideas, the first radio superstar, and the top-selling recording artist of the 1920s. Despite fame and fortune, he wanted more respect for the music he loved to play with the dance band he fronted. He was not alone in such aspiration. American musicians and composers of every genre were held in low esteem at home—popular, no doubt, but with top critical props going to Europeans and classical music. He had the idea that emergent popular music (“jazz”) could be taken upscale, to the concert hall even, with suitable arrangements and orchestration. Serious music! Duke Ellington and George Gershwin were of a like mind. 

Styled “The King of Jazz,” Whiteman was a resourceful showman who put together his “Experiment in Modern Music” (publicized with breakfast rehearsals to ensnare influencers) in order to make his case and see what would fly. It featured new instrumental compositions from Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Victor Herbert, while showing off his band and soloists. Gershwin’s Rhapsody took off.

The King of Jazz (1930) blew the budget on massive, surreal production numbers.

Whiteman’s association with the Rhapsody continued as he recorded it acoustically, with Gershwin soloing, for Victor Records in 1924, and then made its first electrical recording, in 1927, again with Gershwin. It was later the big number in his surreal 1930 two-strip Technicolor musical revue, The King of Jazz, with his orchestra playing inside a giant green piano in a Hollywood studio the size of an airship hangar. (The piano being an aquamarine “blue”, true blue not a colour that the two-strip process could accommodate.)

Later, in the black-and-white Warner Bothers 1945 Gershwin biopic Rhapsody in Blue, Whiteman played himself and led a Warner Brothers version of his band of 20 years earlier, performing almost the entire Rhapsody.

 

First long-playing hi-fi record of the Rhapsody in Blue, 1948. Generic album cover design format by Alex Steinweiss. Typefaces: American square gothics, and Bodoni.

3. Levant: 1925, 1945 & 1945

Though a classically trained piano prodigy, Oscar Levant sought a career in pop and jazz. Idolizing Gershwin, he became his assistant in 1925 at the age of 19: aide, rehearsal pianist and second pianist for developing new arrangements—and close friend in George’s posse. A composer, song writer and virtuoso in his own right, he was well known for his performances of the Rhapsody. 

In his insanely amusing, profoundly educational best-seller A Smattering of Ignorance (Doubleday, Duran, New York, 1939), the essay “My Life: or the Story of George Gershwin” is prime Oscar wit, as the self-deprecating acolyte of the great man describes how he fell victim to the Rhapsody after recording it for the Brunswick label early in 1925:

I thought there might be … a word of praise from the composer and called him up “just to get his reaction,” but mostly for approbation. I didn’t get much.

Contrary to the common impression that composers do not think highly of their own ability as performers, Gershwin was quite firm in his preference for his own version on Victor. At this distance I can acknowledge that it is much superior.

It was after this that I began to make frequent unprofitable appearances on the radio, an industry which had a questionable future at the time and has since completely justified my uncannily prophetic knack². There was a thought in my mind that I might build up a following as a pianist in this way, but since I was never asked to play anything but the “Rhapsody” I merely increased its vogue and added to my reputation as a mono-pianist. 

After my fourth appearance as a soloist in the “Rhapsody” my mother wrote me a brief note, subtly suggesting that there were other works for piano and orchestra. She also expressed a hope that she might sometime hear me play on an important program like the Atwater-Kent or Roxy hour³. 

Shortly after this I was able to fulfill her desire, appearing as a soloist with Rapee on the Roxy Broadcast. When I called her up after the broadcast she remarked not too cryptically, 

“Again the ‘Rhapsody!’ ”

Levant, gutted when George died in 1937, would continue in the role of chief interpreter of his instrumental compositions. In 1945 he played himself in the Warner Brother’s biopic Rhapsody in Blue and it was his performance of the Rhapsody to which actor Robert Alda, as Gershwin, finger-synced. That year, he also recorded it with the esteemed Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy, this being issued first on 78 rpm shellac discs, then again as one of the first 33 rpm long playing records in 1948, with generic sleeve; later, in 1955 with custom artwork, and even in 1983, long after his death in 1972, by which time other genre-hopping luminaries Leonard Bernstein (1959, 1976, 1982) and André Previn (1971, 1985) had also waxed it.

 

Joe Caroff’s logo is a special kind of wordmark, fusing text and picture—he had performed the same magic before, for secret agent 007. Text font: Herb Lubalin’s Avant Garde Gothic Extra Light, neo-geo with echoes of deco.

4. Allen, 1979

If a certain man were a nostalgist and proud New Yorker, had played jazz clarinet from an early age, and decided to film a romcom drama not just set in New York, but about New York, and this movie, despite being wide screen and contemporary, would be shot in black and white—then its soundtrack music (no vocals, mind you) could only be Gershwin, with the title sequence beginning with the Rhapsody’s famous glissando, against a montage of the city, and the actor-director embarking on an extended voice-over monologue, “He adored New York….” This film would be Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979).

 

Illustrator Al Hirschfeld was a contemporary of Gershwin and a fixture of the Great White Way since the 1920s, via his theatrical caricatures for The New York Times. He had drawn Gershwin over 20 times, but never quite like this. To round out the period vibe, the typeface is that exemplar of art deco style, Kabel Light, designed by Rudolf Koch in 1927.

5. Tilson Thomas, 1976

As well as his 1925 record of the Rhapsody with Whiteman and band, that year Gershwin also encoded it onto piano roll, playing both solo and a reduced accompaniment.

In the 1950s several enterprising antiquarians put old player piano music onto hi-fi albums—with ghostly effect, the likes of Claude Debussy and Jelly Roll Morton springing back to life in high fidelity, shockingly, as the general acquaintance with early 20th century performances involved noisy, lo-fi 78s. It was a revelation, especially as the reputation of player piano music had fallen from fashion in the 1930s, to the depths of honky-tonk kitsch.

In the early 1970s, record producer Tom Sheperd had the idea to take Gershwin’s Duo-Art piano roll of the Rhapsody, silence the accompaniment parts by taping over the pertinent holes, and combine the remaining solo with a new orchestral recording—but with the original scoring for Whiteman’s band, not Grofé’s second, 1942 arrangement for full symphony orchestra, which had become the norm. The result, in stereo, with Michael Tilson-Thomas conducting the Columbia Jazz Band and George Gershwin playing the piano, is just about as close as a recording can get to what that first performance sounded like, 100 years ago. 

 

1  This anecdote is taken from Edward Jablonski’s Gershwin, a Biography, Doubleday, 1987.

2  When he wrote this, he was nonetheless enjoying spectacular popularity as a panellist on the hit radio quiz show Information Please.

3  Atwater-Kent was the largest radio manufacturer in the USA. The Roxy Hour was a weekly variety show with an audience of millions, hosted by early radio star and visionary impresario Roxy Rothafell.