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The Original Rhapsody in Blue: Straight from Tin Pan Alley

George Gershwin (1898-1937)

George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is performed by orchestras everywhere. But not everyone has heard the original jazz band version, composed for a 1924 experimental concert that blurred the boundaries between jazz and classical music. WRTI’s Susan Lewis has more.

Radio script: 

MUSIC:  George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue

"...what was really innate for Gershwin was this sense of melody, of rhythm, and of color, evoking an era." -Jon Kimura Parker

Susan Lewis:  In the 1924 premiere of Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin played the piano with a jazz band of 23 musicians; it was not the full, lush sound of a big orchestra.

Jon Kimura Parker: You can actually hear the tin pan in Tin Pan Alley.

SL:  Pianist Jon Kimura Parker

JKP:  I approach the piece a little differently when I play this version...I feel I can emphasize the beats a little more. Get a little more of that drum set sound into my part at the piano.  It’s a place where I can actually enjoy the fact that the piano, by definition, is a percussion instrument.

SL: Gershwin wrote the piece in just a few weeks for two pianos, and then consulted with FerdeGroffe, who arranged it for the jazz band.  Bandleader Paul Whiteman called the concert "An Experiment in Modern Music," and Gershwin’s piece was a hit.

JKP:   It’s so many things at once. It is a classical piece, in the sense it’s for piano and orchestra. It is not a classical piece in the sense of structure ... what was really innate for Gershwin was this sense of melody, of rhythm, and of color, evoking an era. That is so incredible in his music.

SL: After Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin continued to express his distinctive style in multiples genres, including orchestral works, a string of musicals for Broadway, and his groundbreaking opera, Porgy and Bess.

Listen to pianist Jon Kimura Parker talk with WRTI's Susan Lewis about what makes the original jazz band version of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue so distinctive.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.