Friday, February 12, 2016

A Historic First Performance In Jazz, February 12, 1924

File:George Gershwin 1937.jpg
George Gershwin, 1937                                  Carl Van Vechten

Shortly after News Year's Day in 1930, the "King of Jazz," bandleader Paul Whiteman asked his friend, George Gershwin, to compose a "jazz concerto" for his concert series in New York. 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 on February 12, 1924 with Gershwin at the piano. The performance certainly enhanced Whiteman's reputation but more importantly it affirmed Gershwin's place as an innovative, leading American composer. The rest is history.

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. His appeal comes in part from the 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 to see the 1980's.

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.


Photographs and Illustrations:
Photograph, Van Vechten Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

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