'Rhapsody in Blue,' Gershwin's musical melting pot, at 100 On Feb. 12, 1924, a sassy fusion of jazz and classical music debuted in New York, sparking a mutual exchange of ideas still debated today.

'Rhapsody in Blue': After a century, Gershwin's musical melting pot still resonates

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One hundred years ago, American pop music was jazz. On February 12, 1924, a concert took place in New York that was designed to wed jazz to classical by presenting little charmers like this one.


INSKEEP: Now, that particular tune was forgotten. But there was one memorable piece in the concert that changed everything. George Gershwin's "Rhapsody In Blue" was a musical melting pot. NPR's Tom Huizenga reports.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: That concert was an attempt to make jazz palatable to the classical music crowd. The composers were white. The tunes were pretty tame. The audience was star-studded, including Sergei Rachmaninoff, Jascha Heifetz and John Philip Sousa. Can you imagine what they must have thought when Paul Whiteman's orchestra launched into this?


HUIZENGA: That crazy sliding clarinet, in a recording made just four months after the February 12 premiere, introduces a piece teeming with possibilities for American music and Gershwin himself.

JOSEPH HOROWITZ: Gershwin is well aware of what he's doing, and he really doesn't give a damn about what people think. He wanted to bridge musical worlds that were separate.

HUIZENGA: Joseph Horowitz is the author of "Classical Music In America: A History Of Its Rise And Fall." Gershwin's bridge between popular and classical music was a success not only in the "Rhapsody," but in later works like "An American In Paris," "The Cuban Overture" and his opera "Porgy And Bess." The problem, says Horowitz, is that Gershwin was shunned.

HOROWITZ: Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson and Leonard Bernstein - they all write about Gershwin as if he's a dilettante, can't be taken completely seriously.

HUIZENGA: And it's because of jazz - considered lowbrow. It's as if they were saying Gershwin poisoned the well by introducing jazz into classical music.


HUIZENGA: The attitude toward Gershwin had potent implications for classical music in America. In the 1920s, white composers might have drawn from the wealth of homegrown Black music, but they didn't - except Gershwin. And then there's the question of appropriation. Was Gershwin stealing from Black music? And later, what about Black musicians borrowing chord progressions from Gershwin?

TERENCE BLANCHARD: It's a topic that we don't talk about a lot.

HUIZENGA: That's trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard, who himself straddles the fence between jazz and classical. In 2021, he became the first Black composer to have a work staged at New York's Metropolitan Opera.

BLANCHARD: When you say appropriating, it's like somebody who's taking music without giving credit to the originators. And I don't think Gershwin was that way. Were they taking the DNA from that? Of course. But I don't think it was done with ill intent.

HUIZENGA: Part of that DNA came from Gershwin hanging out in Harlem, soaking up the stride piano style.


LARA DOWNES: I think that a lot of the writing in "Rhapsody In Blue" definitely is not stuff that Gershwin learned in his piano lessons, you know, as a young boy.

HUIZENGA: Concert pianist Lara Downes has played the "Rhapsody" many times. Full disclosure, she and I worked together on NPR's Amplify. Sitting at her own piano, Downes says Gershwin picked up a lot from the stride piano giants, some of whom were his friends

DOWNES: James P. Johnson and Willie "the Lion" Smith. And it's this very athletic kind of playing. Like, if you listen to this little section, you'll see what I mean.


HUIZENGA: But Downes hears more than just jazz in Gershwin's "Rhapsody." She hears politics.

DOWNES: Just three months after Rhapsody in Blue was performed, the Johnson-Reed Act was passed - incredibly xenophobic, anti-immigrant legislation that completely stopped immigration from Asia, but basically everywhere where people weren't really, really white.

HUIZENGA: Gershwin was a second-generation Russian immigrant. He thought of his "Rhapsody" as a musical kaleidoscope of America. You can hear sounds of Tin Pan Alley, where as a teenager he worked as a song promoter. There are whiffs of Yiddish theater, Spanish music, the calliopes of the Lower East Side, and a romantic theme that sounds like Tchaikovsky.


DOWNES: I don't hear "Rhapsody In Blue" anymore as just a piece of entertainment. I think it's a little bit of an act of rebellion, or at the very least, it's a statement about what America should be and what that sounds like.


HUIZENGA: Downes and Puerto Rican composer and saxophonist Edmar Colon are taking Gershwin's 100-year-old melting pot idea into the present. They've collaborated on "Rhapsody In Blue Reimagined," an expanded version of Gershwin's original that makes room for other cultures, especially Afro Cuban and Chinese music. But they aren't the only ones remolded Gershwin's malleable "Rhapsody." To mark the anniversary, banjo guru Bela Fleck has just released "Rhapsody In Blue(grass)."


HUIZENGA: Translating the rhapsody into bluegrass sounds like just another fluent musical language for Gershwin, and a testament to the sturdiness of his singable melodies.

BLANCHARD: When you listen to "Rhapsody In Blue," man, it has essence of bluegrass. It has essence of jazz in it. It seemed to be steeped in the fabric of American culture.

HUIZENGA: For Terence Blanchard, it was like Gershwin was saying, here, this music is by and for everyone.

BLANCHARD: I think "Rhapsody In Blue" is one of those pieces that really opened the door for a lot of people.

HUIZENGA: A lot of composers who have, over the decades, tried to blend classical and popular music. Who knows what American classical music would sound like today if Gershwin hadn't died of a brain tumor at age 38. But that doesn't take any power away from his music for Lara Downes.

DOWNES: When we hear "Rhapsody In Blue," we are somehow connecting with Gershwin and his enthusiasm and his open heart, and his wanting to show us the best of what our country can be, whether we know it or not.

HUIZENGA: That expansive vision is showcased in Downes' new version, and others, which propels the music into the future for, perhaps, another hundred years.

Tom Huizenga, NPR News.


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