Gershwin, Jazz, and the Rhapsody

Topics: Jazz, Rhapsody in Blue, Paul Whiteman Pages: 10 (3490 words) Published: April 25, 2007
The Gershwin biographer Isaac Goldberg wrote in 1931 that with the Rhapsody in Blue, George Gershwin "fired the jazz shot heard round the world." This symphonic jazz concerto may be the most famous piece of American classical music. Undoubtedly the most famous classical work of its own time, it was a serious concert work that contained elements of popular music in the 1920s including the style of jazz. Gershwin's Rhapsody even remains a part of American popular culture today; its famous themes are heard from the big screen in Disney's Fantasia 2000 to the television screen in United Airlines commercials. While the popularity of the Rhapsody cannot be questioned, one can ask the question to what extent does Gershwin actually employ elements of jazz music in his so-called "symphonic jazz concerto?" After all, it would seem that the Rhapsody does not contain many of jazz's most important aspects, such as swing or improvisation. Why, then, was the Rhapsody labeled a "jazz concerto?" Though the Rhapsody lacked some aspects of jazz that would today be considered essential, in the context of jazz in the 1920s Gershwin successfully combined a number of jazz elements into a "serious" composition, including jazz instrumentation and orchestration, jazz rhythms, and the blues scale.

By modern definitions of jazz, it would seem that the Rhapsody does not contain many of its most important aspects, such as swing or improvisation, but jazz was defined very differently in the 1920s. When Gershwin wrote the Rhapsody, the word "jazz" was applied to more than one genre of music. Its definition was very broad; it "could mean all things to people in the 1920s." Charles Hamm divides jazz in the 1920s into three categories of music: jazz/blues music performed by black musicians for black audiences, jazz/blues music performed by black musicians for white audiences, and "so-called jazz" music performed by white musicians for white audiences. The widespread discussion of jazz during the 1920s focused mainly on this last category.

During the 1920s, the majority of American and European culture had little exposure to the "race records" of black jazz performers. These jazz and blues performers performed mainly for black audiences. It was not until the late 1920s and mostly during the 1930s that major record companies began to distribute this type of music on a national level and that it could be heard on network radio. This jazz is what jazz historians would consider the authentic roots of jazz including the music of legendary black performers such as Joe Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Jelly Roll Morton. Jazz historians believe this jazz to be more authentic because it more greatly influenced what jazz would become – a form of music that embraced improvisation and contained blue tonality. At the time the Rhapsody was written, this type of jazz had begun to develop in New Orleans but would not reach New York until later. For example, Joe Oliver's Creole Jazz Band which exemplified the New Orleans style performed in New Orleans in 1923 but not in New York until 1927. Similarly, Jelly Roll Morton did not appear in New York until 1926. Both of these first performances post-date the Rhapsody.

New York had a history of jazz music before the arrival of the authentic black jazz. Jazz in 1920's New York was mostly based on social dancing and musical theater. This type of jazz was what Hamm described as white jazz performed for white audiences. While most jazz writers did acknowledge the black roots of jazz, their conception of jazz was mostly shaped by the elements of white jazz such as the dance band music of groups like the Paul Whiteman band. For example, writer Henry O. Osgood wrote entire chapters in a book on jazz about Irving Berlin, Paul Whiteman, and George Gershwin but only a footnote about jazz performed by black musicians. Isaac Goldberg identified jazz as more of a combination of African-American and Jewish elements, writing that...
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