A New Series of Posts on George Gershwin–Part One

In previous posts, we examined the connection between George Gershwin and Al Jolson—how they met in Atlantic City and how Jolson heard “Swanee” for the first time. After Jolson interpolated the song into Sinbad, George became an overnight success. Success or not, Gershwin had yet to come into his own.

Yes, the songs in the 1920 to early-1924 time period were melodic, and there was a gentle, underlying jazz rhythm to them; but the “punch” was lacking. Howard Pollack, in his 2006 biography of Gershwin, made the point in this way:

“As a whole, the score to Sweet Little Devil [opened January 21, 1924] remains especially worthy for its rhythmic vitality, in particular, its skillful alternation of syncopated and nonsyncopated ideas both within and between the various eight-measure phrases. Along with some blatant blue notes, this ‘new quality of joyous rhythm,’ as Lester Donahue remembered the music, arguably makes the score more recognizably Gershwinesque than the composer’s earlier ones. And yet Gershwin’s theatrical pieces through 1923 lacked some of the brilliance and verve of those written after the Rhapsody in Blue. Although Rhapsody clearly reflected Gershwin’s activities on Broadway, that work in turn helped set the stage for his mature musical comedies.”

Given the importance of the Rhapsody in Blue, I have decided to break this new series of posts about Gershwin into three segments. The first, today’s post, will dwell on the Rhapsody in Blue; the second post will highlight two brilliant tunes: “Do It Again,” another Gershwin/De Sylva song, this time interpolated by Irene Bordoni into The French Doll in 1922; and “Somebody Loves Me” from George White’s Scandals (1924), which opened on June 30, 1924. Finally, we will contrast these two songs with songs from the score of Lady, Be Good, which opened on Broadway on December 1, 1924.

Let’s start with an exploration of how the Rhapsody in Blue came into being.  Paul Whiteman had an archrival named Vincent Lopez. Lopez had scheduled a concert; so, Whiteman decided to schedule a concert in Aeolian Hall, advertised as “An Experiment in Modern Music.” Because the concert had been hastily scheduled by Whiteman in late 1923, it also had to be hastily assembled. Yet, on February 12, 1924, the concert was performed beautifully.

According to Pollack, “Gershwin prepared a two-piano fair copy of the Rhapsody, which [Ferde] Grofe subsequently scored, completing the orchestration—aside from some of the solo piano part, which did not need to be notated at this point—on February 4, 1924. Grofe assumed responsibility for the orchestration not only because of time constraints but because the Whiteman Orchestra consisted of, in Gershwin’s own words, ‘a unique combination’ of instruments, so much so that even seasoned orchestrators often deferred to Grofe.”

Also according to Pollack, Gershwin apparently started work on the Rhapsody on January 7, 1924. Pollack’s description of the Rhapsody in Blue is worth repeating:

“The Rhapsody evokes, within the tradition of the piano concerto as represented by Liszt, Tchaikovsky, and others, not only the blues but quite generally the sounds of New York: the hurdy-gurdies of the Lower East Side, the calliopes of Coney Island, the player pianos of Harlem, the chugging of trains leaving Grand Central Station, the noisy construction of midtown skyscrapers, and so forth.”

George Gershwin described it as “a sort of kaleidoscope of America—of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.”

In my view, this piece has no true form; it is as if the notes were written down spontaneously as ideas came, without a formal structure into which each note fit. Instead, we get the impression of a bursting forth of raw joy. It is almost as though its energy is being released without a pre-fixed destination.

The great writer, William Saroyan, is quoted by Pollack as likening the piece to “one of the most purely American musical achievements of all time…” Going further, Saroyan said:

“It is an American remembering and making plans for the future: dreaming. It is earnest, not sophisticated. There is a great loneliness and love in it. Those who were young when they first heard the Rhapsody in Blue are still deeply moved by it, and those who are now young believe the Rhapsody speaks both to and for them as no other music in the world does.”

Shortly, we are going to provide two clips: one is from the movie, Manhattan, and it includes an edited version of the Rhapsody. The second clip is a full performance by one of the greatest interpreters of Gershwin’s music, Oscar Levant.