Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin…Composition #26/50: Keepin’ It Classy

Mr. Chuck Berry

Over the past few years I have spent much time writing about music and the stories behind the most famous songs and genres throughout history. Much of that writing has focussed on Rock n’ Roll. One of the most factual pieces of information to arise out of all of this research and storytelling is that Rock n’ Roll drew much of its inspiration from the Blues and from Gospel. In other words, there was a whole host of musicians and bands who gained fame by taking the best aspects of the Blues and Gospel and integrating that into a new form of Pop music. The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones and others of their ilk all readily admit to initially being inspired to become musicians by the likes of Chuck Berry, Big Mama Thornton, Little Richard, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and so on. One of the things about Rock n’ Roll, no matter who was doing the playing, was that it frightened those who sought to preserve the status quo in society at the time. Rock was called “the Devil’s music”. Many conservative organizations sought to ban it in one form or another. Laying just beneath the surface of this outrage was the odious notion that the real problem with Rock n’ Roll was that it was “Black” music. It was dangerous. It was sexual. It wasn’t proper. While Elvis and The Beatles were celebrated as being musical innovators, the likes of Marvin Gaye and Ben E. King and Curtis Mayfield had to ply their trade on the Chitlin’ Circuit because that was the safest avenue for singers of colour to perform and to express themselves. There were no cheesy movies made about the Reverend Al Green or Sam Cooke. It is simplest to say that the personal and professional experiences of Black musicians differed from those of their White counterparts. For Black musicians, Gospel and the Blues were part of their cultural heritage in a profoundly important manner that just didn’t apply to most White singers.

Many Speakeasies that sprang up in the 1920s showcased Jazz and served alcohol to a multi-racial clientele.

The notion that history repeats itself applies to music as well. Rock n’ Roll was not the first instance when a culturally significant form of musical expression for Black people was co-opted, sanitized and homogenized by Whites who, in turn, were celebrated and honoured for their efforts. The exact same thing happened a half century earlier with the musical genre called Jazz. While Rock n’ Roll was built upon a foundation of Gospel and the Blues, Jazz also incorporated the Blues but in a form that was spiced up with equal measures of Creole, Latin and Caribbean rhythms. Many point to New Orleans, Louisiana, as being the birthplace of Jazz and that, unlike much of the rest of the world’s music, Jazz was a uniquely American construct. Unencumbered by history and by rules handed down from centuries of European experience (as was the case with Classical music), Jazz was more free form and liberated. It was also primarily the purvey of Black musicians. As such, there was an initial air of mystery about Jazz for White audiences. What really brought White audiences and the world of Jazz together was the introduction in the 1920s of Prohibition. The legalized attempt to ban alcohol consumption only served to drive the market for booze underground and into the hands of organized crime figures such as Al Capone. Under the auspices of Prohibition, illegal nightclubs sprang up like weeds. These nightclubs would sell alcohol on the sly. Thus, clubs known as speakeasies began to appear and with them, Jazz musicians found a home. Because Jazz was considered to be Black music, there was a sexiness and an allure about it that drew White people to these speakeasy nightclubs. The 1920s became known as The Roaring Twenties in part because of the growth of Jazz and Swing music.

This is where knowing your history is important. Many of you are aware that it was just as Chuck Berry and Little Richard and James Brown were threatening to break through and become popular acts of their own accord that Rock n’ Roll suddenly went “White” with the appearance of Elvis and The Beatles. It was not some bit of divine intervention or some fluke of timing that saw these White entertainers appear from out of nowhere on their way to superstardom. The powers that be behind the scenes…the Col. Parkers of the world…knew that it was a White world and that they could only take Black music so far in terms of its acceptance by White audiences. These folks knew that if they could take the best of Black music and repackage it in a manner that would more easily appeal to White audiences, then they would really have something. The same thing was true for Jazz.

Composer George Gershwin.

Jazz was born from the cultural heritage of Black people. It rose to prominence as a musical genre during the age of prohibition and thus, it seemed illicit in a way to those not totally familiar with it. But, the growing appeal of Jazz music was undeniable. So, too, was the appeal it had to those who sought to control it and market it and profit from it. Just like it was later with Rock n’ Roll, the moment when Jazz crossed over into the mainstream of White culture in America occurred when a man named George Gershwin was challenged to create a Jazz-inspired crossover composition that would unite the world of Classical music (which was uniformly White) with the world of Jazz (which was almost entirely Black). That composition was called “Rhapsody in Blue”. This composition changed the nature of Jazz music in America in the same way that Elvis singing “Hound Dog” by Big Mama Thornton changed Rock music in the 1950s. What was proudly Black now became commercially White. And everything was different then.

George Gershwin was only twenty-five years old when he composed “Rhapsody in Blue”. He was inspired to create the music for it after having ridden on a train. The pounding circular rhythm of the train’s movements caused Gershwin to develop the core components of the composition. Up until this moment, Gershwin had been known for providing the soundtrack to plays in much the same way that Mozart created the music for operas such as “The Marriage of Figaro”. As such, Gershwin was a rising star in the New York music scene. Because he was so young and successful, the powers that be felt that he would be the perfect person to launch as the face of modern Jazz. Trained in classical music as he was, Gershwin was very familiar with creating works for orchestras. He would write music for specific instruments and then weave the individual parts together to form a tapestry of sound that was pleasing to the ear. The challenge he faced with “Rhapsody in Blue” was to take the classical music format and insert elements of Jazz music into it while, at the same time, using traditional classical instruments in a Jazz style. Gershwin accomplished this by opening his piece with an elongated clarinet solo, that when first played, was unlike anything audiences had heard before. The opening of “Rhapsody in Blue” has become one of the most famous musical openings of all time. To those in attendance the first time “Rhapsody in Blue” was played, it was obvious that music was original and innovative and had staked new musical ground. Gershwin’s debut performance was met with rapturous applause. From that moment onward, “Rhapsody in Blue” was Jazz in America. To authentic New Orleans Jazz players, “Rhapsody in Blue” struck them as relatively bland and vanilla-like. But they also knew that White men had arrived in the world of Jazz and that the jig would never be the same again. They were right about that. As you listen to “Rhapsody in Blue” below, I hope that you appreciate it for the lovely piece of music that it is. The clarinet movement off of the top was an inspired choice to lead off the composition and act as an invitation into the mysterious world of Jazz for modern audiences. This was no speakeasy composition, but rather, it was a mass-marketing tool that drew as its inspiration the strength and beauty of America. A White America for White Americans. Gershwin was to Jazz as Elvis was to Rock n’ Roll. Somewhere down in New Orleans, beyond the tourist-trap allure of Bourbon Street, there is a Black Jazz player who is channeling an entire history worth of experience into their performance in the same manner that Billie Holiday once sang of “Strange Fruit”.

I will end this post as I began by simply stating the fact that the cultural and historical experiences that Black musicians infuse into their music are profoundly and deeply different than those experienced by Whites. They just are. For as lovely and historically significant a piece of music that “Rhapsody in Blue” is, it isn’t real Jazz. It is something else. Real Jazz comes from somewhere else. Somewhere deeper. I hope that you like it anyway. Many do. Just as many adored Elvis, too.

The link to the video for the composition “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin can be found here.

The link to the official website for George Gershwin can be found here.

The link to the official website for Classical music radio station extraordinaire…Classical 103.1…broadcasting from my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario can be found here.

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