"The King of Jazz," Paul Whiteman, a strong-willed innovator and perfectionist became the most popular band leader in the U.S. during the Roaring Twenties. He encouraged many talented artists and composers through his interest in fusing jazz with other musical styles. Furthermore, he appreciated experimental music and sponsored several concerts featuring new compositions and artists. For one of these concerts he asked his friend and collaborator, George Gershwin, to compose a "jazz concerto." Although faced with a short performance deadline, Gershwin reluctantly agreed. In two weeks, he completed the new piece and entitled it Rhapsody in Blue. After two weeks of orchestration and eight days of rehearsal, Whiteman premiered the piece at the Aeolian Hall in New York in February 12, 1924 with Gershwin at the piano. The performance certainly enhanced Whiteman's reputation but more importantly it affirmed Gershwin place as a leading American composer.
There is no recording of the premiere but the bandleader and composer did appear in a memorable performance of Rhapsody in Blue in the 1930 film, King of Jazz. The film itself is an important piece of cinema history.
Gershwin was born in New York in 1898. He went on to become perhaps the most beloved American composer of the last century through his many compositions for the musical stage, the concert hall, and what has become known as the Great American Songbook. Gershwin's appeal comes in part from his colorful and lively incorporation of jazz motifs in all his music. He died in 1937 with what could only be called a wonderful career ahead of him. I often imagine what he could have brought to us had he lived.
As for Rhapsody in Blue it seems as fresh today as it did in 1924 ranking among the most popular of concert titles in orchestra repertoires around the world.
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