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New Every Time: Marcus Roberts assesses 'Rhapsody in Blue' at 100

Pianist Marcus Roberts discusses Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue' with Nate Chinen, in the WRTI performance studio on Jan. 17, 2023.

On this day a century ago — Feb. 12, 1924 — George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue had its auspicious premiere at Aeolian Hall in New York. Few works of its era have traveled farther since, or inspired more impassioned debate.

Marcus Roberts has performed Gershwin’s Rhapsody all over the world — including with The Philadelphia Orchestra last month. While he was in town, he paid a visit to our studio to weigh in on its cultural import and musical virtues. For as many great works as Gershwin composed, Roberts tells WRTI, “Rhapsody in Blue is the one piece that a lot of people just seem to know. And I think that people will be wanting to play it 100 years from now.”

Certainly there’s still keen interest in playing it today. A few months ago in New York, I saw a brilliant performance of Gershwin’s original arrangement for four hands by pianists Hélène Grimaud and A Bu. For the Rhapsody’s centennial, Béla Fleck just dropped an album in which he performs the piano part on banjo, with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra; he also offers a playful reinvention, “Rhapsody in Blue (grass).” And earlier this month, the classical pianist and NPR host Lara Downes released Rhapsody in Blue Reimagined, featuring the San Francisco Conservatory Orchestra and a new orchestration by Puerto Rican composer Edmar Colón.

As in Colón’s revision, Roberts’ improvisatory flair with the Rhapsody — in solo piano interludes and with a deft assist from Marty Jaffe on bass and Jason Marsalis on drums — foregrounds the Afro-diasporic rhythms that helped inspire Gershwin’s conception of the piece. “At the same time,” Roberts adds, “he had a great love for Maurice Ravel’s work, and for classical music in general. So he was really one of the first ones to literally decide: ‘Let's see if we can bring these two worlds together.’”

In his brilliant concerts with The Philadelphia Orchestra, led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Roberts was both daring and discerning — taking an earthy detour into boogie-woogie in one moment, and flirting with 12-tone techniques the next. “I felt like I could bring an authenticity where both styles could be truly manifest in our performance,” he says, and that marriage speaks to the possibilities still inherent in Gershwin’s piece, when it’s in the right hands.

“With jazz music, none of this music is about you by yourself,” Roberts attests. “It's really about you with other people. And if we look at American democracy — if we look at the cultural framework of our country through the Constitution — that's ultimately what the struggle has been: Are we going to be a set of individuals? Or are we going to have a shared collective belief system that will transform us from just being selfish individuals into being a group of collective people who care about each other, and who want freedom and justice for all people — even people who don't look like you, even people who don't believe what you believe? That you're willing to make that room for that. And I think a piece like Rhapsody in Blue encapsulates all of that.”

The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert will broadcast Rhapsody in Blue, featuring the Marcus Roberts Trio, on May 5 at 1 p.m. on WRTI 90.1, and on May 6 at 7 p.m. on WRTI HD-2.

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