For the United Arts Council of Greater Greensboro‘s 50th Anniversary Celebration in February I was invited to perform the original jazz band version of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with members of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra, leading from the piano. It was a welcome chance to get reacquainted with a piece I’ve known most of my life. We performed at the beautiful Empire Room in downtown Greensboro. Since the Rhapsody in Blue remains under license I cannot post our show recording on the website. Here however are my program notes for the occasion.
There was a period when Rhapsody in Blue was the only reason I practiced the piano. My first encounter with the piece - I was 10 – was at a Billy Joel concert: the Rhapsody was his pre-show music (the house lights went out at exactly 2 bars before figure 37). After that a sheet music version for solo piano consumed possibly weeks in total of my life hours during high school. I recall staying up late listening to a famous record of Leonard Bernstein playing and conducting, and later to George Gershwin’s piano rolls. As I became interested in jazz, which by then had seen over a half century of evolution since the Rhapsody in Blue, I was captivated by Gershwin’s sense of pianistic voice leading, combining the chromaticism of composers like Debussy and Ravel with vernacular rhythms and progressions from theatre, early jazz bands, tin pan alley, and popular songs of the 1920s.
Though Rhapsody in Blue has become a standard of the repertoire, it is not classical music in the strictest sense, nor do many jazz musicians I know consider it jazz. And though it draws on both classical and popular raw materials, it is not in any form typical of either. It is an episodic collection of medium length ideas, connected by sudden stops and starts, abrupt changes of rhythm and mood, and a combination of anxiety and restlessness that manages to express something much larger than any of its moments. The Rhapsody holds together so well, and yet so casually.
Whereas the familiar symphonic version smooths all of this over somewhat under the weight and homogeneity of full orchestra, the jazz band version, scored originally for the Paul Whiteman band by Ferde Grofe, does nothing if not accentuate the piece’s idiosyncrasies. Scored for brass, clarinets, saxes, rhythm section and violins, everyone ends up sticking out – there is no anonymity. Phrases everyone has heard rendered with highbrow sophistication by great symphony string sections are blurted out cartoon-like by three saxophones, while the banjo keeps time. The bass clarinet part that was once an inconspicuous auxiliary becomes a featured solo. The violins are not those of Carnegie Hall, but written in three parts like a vaudeville pit orchestra. It would seem to be some inept attempt at reducing a large work for a tight budget, if the historical fact were not just the opposite. Seldom can a piece of music transmute instrumentations with its essence so utterly intact. The Rhapsody in Blue is tamper-proof; it is indestructible; it works no matter what instruments you play it on. That is one of the many reasons it has found itself in rock ‘n roll songs, video games, commercials, and a sundry host of other unlikely places. The Rhapsody in Blue has had a career most classical or jazz compositions would envy.
Out of the “blue”, the Rhapsody coalesces in one of the greatest melodies ever written, one which refuses to ever quite resolve, digressing endlessly before finally finding an optimistic stride toward some uncertain destination. To people living in America in a decade that was roaring, rhapsodic, and at times surely blue, all of this must have hit a nail right on the head. There is something for everyone here. If you are not in the right mood for it, just wait a few bars. It never stays blue for long.