I joined Google+ in late 2012, something of an internet virgin. Prior to that, I hadn’t been active on social media to any significant degree. I immediately began sharing music, because it’s important to me, as it is for many people.
After maybe a year or so, I got frustrated at the near-total lack of engagement on my music shares. I don’t think I was purely seeking external validation. My frustration was more existential: why waste the effort if no one’s interested? So I stopped.
Which was stupid. We’re all at least as fickle as we experience everyone else to be. We like what we like and don’t what we don’t and aren’t keen to let anyone suckle our attention — just as we are owed no suckling ourselves.
I resumed sharing, and have continued since, for no other reason than that I enjoy it.
Today, the first day of a new year, I want to share a pair of tracks — or rather, a song and a short video about a song. Think of them as the entry and exit points for a uniquely American art: the fuse and its 35-year explosion.
“Rhapsody in Blue” (1924), which I believe marks the beginning of the so-called American Century, was built on a con.
After the success of an experimental classical-jazz concert held at Aeolian Hall, New York in 1923, famed band leader Paul Whiteman decided to attempt something more ambitious. He asked George Gershwin to contribute a concerto-like piece for an all-jazz concert he would give in the Aeolian in February 1924. Gershwin declined on the grounds that, as there would certainly be need for revisions to the score, he would not have enough time to compose the new piece.
Late on the evening of January 3, while George Gershwin and Buddy De Sylva were playing billiards, his brother Ira Gershwin was reading the January 4 edition of the New York Tribune. An article entitled “What Is American Music?” about the Whiteman concert caught his attention, in which the final paragraph claimed that “George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto, Irving Berlin is writing a syncopated tone poem, and Victor Herbert is working on an American suite.”
In a phone call to Whiteman next morning, Gershwin was told that Whiteman’s rival Vincent Lopez was planning to steal the idea of his experimental concert and there was no time to lose. Gershwin was finally persuaded to compose the piece.
Since there were only five weeks left, Gershwin hastily set about composing. On a train journey to Boston, the ideas of Rhapsody in Blue came to his mind. He told his first biographer Isaac Goldberg in 1931:
It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer – I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise. … And there I suddenly heard, and even saw on paper – the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end. No new themes came to me, but I worked on the thematic material already in my mind and tried to conceive the composition as a whole. I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece, as distinguished from its actual substance.
The title “Rhapsody in Blue” was suggested by Ira Gershwin after his visit to a gallery exhibition of James McNeill Whistler paintings, which bear titles such as Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket and Arrangement in Grey and Black (better known as Whistler’s Mother).
Gershwin finished his composition in a matter of weeks and passed it to Whiteman’s arranger Ferde Grofé, who orchestrated the piece, finishing it on February 4, only eight days before the afternoon premiere at Aeolian Hall. Many important and influential musicians of the time were present, including Sergei Rachmaninoff, Igor Stravinsky, and John Philip Sousa.
The purpose of the experiment, as told by Whiteman in a pre-concert lecture, was to “at least provide a stepping stone which will make it very simple for the masses to understand, and therefore, enjoy symphony and opera”. The program was long, including 26 separate musical movements, divided into 2 parts and 11 sections, bearing titles such as “True form of jazz” and “Contrast: legitimate scoring vs. jazzing”. Gershwin’s latest composition was the second to last piece (before Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1). Many of the numbers sounded similar and the ventilation system in the concert hall was broken. People in the audience were losing their patience — until the clarinet glissando that opened Rhapsody in Blue was heard.
Listen (if only to the intro).
Gershwin decided to keep his options open as to when Whiteman would bring in the orchestra and he did not write down one of the pages for solo piano, with only the words “Wait for nod” scrawled by Grofé on the band score. Gershwin improvised some of what he was playing, and he did not write out the piano part until after the performance, so it is unknown exactly how the original Rhapsody sounded.
The opening clarinet glissando came into being during rehearsal when; “… as a joke on Gershwin, Ross Gorman (Whiteman’s virtuoso clarinettist) played the opening measure with a noticeable glissando, adding what he considered a humorous touch to the passage. Reacting favourably to Gorman’s whimsy, Gershwin asked him to perform the opening measure that way at the concert and to add as much of a ‘wail’ as possible.” [Adapted from Wikipedia]
That clarinet wail is as close to a jazz call as classical music can get. Jazz wasn’t exactly new by this time. The first use of the word came some 20 years before (but no one is certain of its birth or parentage). We hear the word and think “highbrow,” but at the time, it was closer to hip-hop circa 1985 — a popular form of “street music” that made the upper classes nervous for all its associated behaviors: drinking and dancing and women with bare ankles!
I suspect Whiteman was actually aiming for the exact opposite of his stated goal. He was not trying to give the masses an introduction to classical music. He trying to give the luminaries of the age and introduction to jazz — something like a Smithsonian “urban music festival” performed at the Kennedy Center. To that aim, Gershwin, without really intending it, created the perfect marriage of jazz and classical.
In an article in Atlantic Monthly in 1955, Leonard Bernstein, who nevertheless admitted that he loved the piece, was ambivalently critical of the Rhapsody:
The Rhapsody is not a composition at all. It’s a string of separate paragraphs stuck together. The themes are terrific, inspired, God-given. I don’t think there has been such an inspired melodist on this earth since Tchaikovsky. But if you want to speak of a composer, that’s another matter. Your Rhapsody in Blue is not a real composition in the sense that whatever happens in it must seem inevitable. You can cut parts of it without affecting the whole. You can remove any of these stuck-together sections and the piece still goes on as bravely as before. It can be a five-minute piece or a twelve-minute piece. And in fact, all these things are being done to it every day. And it’s still the Rhapsody in Blue.
Born of a jazz mother and classical father, named after an American painter, “Rhapsody in Blue” is a musical assembly piece, every bit as interchangeable as the interchangeable parts upon which American industrial and military might was built. One expects that if Gershwin and Whiteman were not under pressure of competition — that most American of conditions — if they hadn’t “rushed to market,” the final piece would’ve been seamless, hefty, and polished flat.
After 35 years of unbridled popularity, “Giant Steps” (1959) is where jazz left the mainstream. Depending on your tastes, the song either has one foot in or one foot out the door. In either case, after “Giant Steps,” jazz departs the popular consciousness, never to return.
Artists before Coltrane explored experimental improvisational techniques, of course, but those attempts were just that: tentative, abortive, exploratory. Coltrane wasn’t scouting the periphery to impress his pals. He intended to leave and never return. In the 1960s, he began playing avante-garde jazz, followed later by his own brand of spiritualist music based on Hindu and Buddhist teachings, both of which perplexed audiences and critics alike.
But “Giant Steps” is a masterpiece, every bit the giant step it claims to be. Luckily, the good folks at Vox created a wonderful short video that explains why.
And as we depart, here is the full track. Jazz didn’t “die” with this song. Jazz is very much alive today. But this was where it stopped growing, if you will. After “Giant Steps,” jazz has its midlife crisis. It tries hard to recapture its youth (check out Miles Davis’s strange concerts in the 1970s), fails, and settles into a comfortable and respectable old age.
cover image: “Adjustment Bureau” by Franz Falckenhaus