Rhapsody in Blue is to jazz what Sgt. Pepper’s Lonley Hearts Club Band is to rock and roll.
It premiered in an afternoon concert on February 12, 1924, held by Paul Whiteman and his band at Aeolian Hall in New York City before a packed house. . The version performed that afternoon was for a 24-piece jazz band, not for full orchestra.
Billed as an “Experiment In Modern Music” the concert’s purpose was to demonstrate that the relatively new form of music called jazz deserved to be regarded as a serious and sophisticated art form. A young man named George Gershwin, then known only as a composer of Broadway songs, seated himself at the piano to accompany the orchestra in the performance of a brand new piece of his own composition.
New York Times critic Olin Downes wrote:
It starts with an outrageous cadenza of the clarinet. It has subsidiary phrases, logically growing out of it…often metamorphosed by devices of rhythm and instrumentation. This is no mere dance-tune set for piano and other instruments. This composition shows extraordinary talent, just as it also shows a young composer with aims that go far beyond those of his ilk.
For all its mastery and subsequent acclaim, Rhapsody in Blue was put together very hastily. Just five weeks prior to the concert, Gershwin had not yet committed to writing a piece for it. His brother Ira read a report in the New York Tribune stating that George was “at work on a jazz concerto” for the program. Thus, in some desperation, Gershwin pieced Rhapsody In Blue together as best he could in the time available. On the day of the concert his own piano part had yet to written; it was improvised by Gershwin during the world premiere.
Rhapsody is important because it helped change people’s perception of jazz from “low dance (and race) music, and it opened the door for a whole generation of “serious” composers, like Copland and Brech, to draw on jazz elements in their own important works.