(Before I get started here, I would like to mention two important sources for Rhapsody in Blue research. The first is the Cambridge Music Handbook by David Schiff, which offers a great, succinct introduction to the work and contemporary criticism to it. The second is the work of Dr. Ryan Raul Bañagale, whose 2011 dissertation from Harvard examines this piece in considerable detail. His book on this topic will be in print later this year from Oxford University Press. Many thanks to Ryan for sharing material from his book to aid me with this post and, more generally, for his vital contribution to musicological blogging as one of the founders of amusicology. Lastly, thanks to Dr. Andrew Berish for consulting with me about jazz on film; his book on this topic is available from University of Chicago Press).
The premiere of Rhapsody in Blue is heralded as a watershed moment in the history of American music--a topic of considerable debate at the time, since there was no clear vision at the time of what constituted distinctly American music. By fusing together more popular styles, such as early forms of jazz, Gershwin's piece was thought to incorporate an American vernacular music with the venerated symphony orchestra. Prior to Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin's fame had primarily come from his contributions in more popular forms, such as Broadway reviews and Tin Pan Alley songs. In other words, he was not seen as a composer of high art music, even though he had been trained in this style. Rhapsody in Blue, though, was thought to be a successful example of mixing together high and low art, categories that were significantly more stratified than they are now.
However, Gershwin did not complete this endeavor alone. His work was premiered by Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra on a program that was described as 'An Experiment in Modern Music.' Whiteman had led various dance bands, but retained a more symphonic style in his sound, in contrast with contemporary jazz ensembles, which had not yet entered the big band era. His music was popular and circulated widely on records in the early 1920s.
(YouTube's guess is that the instrument starting at 1:00 is a musical saw. Experimental sounds were a feature of much 1920s and 1930s jazz).
Whiteman, then, was retaining a sound that was closer to the symphony orchestra as integral to his music, so perhaps it is not surprising that he would seek to find a composer/collaborator who could work fluidly in both worlds. After all, a success in the classical sphere could only extend his influence beyond that of the dance-music hall. This blend between these two styles is apparent even in his choices of orchestration. While his orchestra mostly sounds like a standard symphonic one in 'Whispering,' you can also hear instruments that reflect new, jazz-influenced sensibilities, including the banjo (the banjo will come back).
The importance of Rhapsody in Blue for Whiteman's orchestra was not limited to this first performance (ed. note: be sure to check out Ryan Bañagale's forthcoming book, which details the many arranged versions of Rhapsody in Blue that were generally available for the market, as well as a comprehensive documentation of record sales). Whiteman also performed it in two different film versions: one for the 1930 revue King of Jazz and the second for a 1945 fictionalized biography of Gershwin's life entitled (of course) Rhapsody in Blue. The King of Jazz performance emphasizes the modernity of this 'experiment.' Prior to hearing the piece, a narrator explains that Gershwin has successfully fused together not only jazz and classical, but music stemming back to ancient origins, since jazz is a form of 'primitive' music. In fact, to become the 'king of jazz,' Whiteman had already battled against primitive forces, as depicted in the film through a cartoon scene that features him 'in darkest Africa' on a safari trip. However, he does not wind up killing the various animals that he sees, but instead puts all beings in the vicinity under his spell as he plays jazz violin. 'Beings' in this sense includes two human beings, in the form of two 'African' tribesmen. The music in this scene ranges widely, including military-inspired fanfares, a brief clip from Rhapsody in Blue (0:57), and even a moment (1:37) from the second movement of Dvořák's Twelfth String Quartet ('American'). When Whiteman breaks out his violin at 1:51, he is accompanied by banjo, a distinctive aural marker for a jazz section; it is worth noting that prior to this point, the orchestra has played very little that resembles jazz, making a better case for the orchestra as a traditional ensemble rather than what would be expected in a dance hall:
The lion's 'Mamie' (2:02) references Al Jolson, since this song was one of his enormous hits when he performed in blackface and was prominently featured in the 1927 film The Jazz Singer. The scene with the snake (2:22) can best be summarized by a phrase that esteemed anthropologist Dr. Heide Castañeda coined yesterday in describing another exotic moment that made no sense: 'Because the Other.'
That Whiteman conquered this 'primitive' Africa is a theme that returns in the preamble to Rhapsody in Blue, heavily emphasized in an extended drum solo that opens the number--and that is not typically performed when hearing this composition. The audience sees a silhouette of a figure dancing on a drum. There can be no question that this is a 'primitive' dance, seeming to descend from a tribal ritual with an elaborate headdress. The dancer is extremely darkly colored, particularly because of the dark blue set. This is the 1930s depiction of 'deepest, darkest Africa,' at its most primitive:
I will give you a moment to collect your thoughts, which I'm sure stem mostly in the 'WHAT ON EARTH WAS THAT????????' direction. In case you need a palate cleanser:
So: we had primitive with our dancer at the start. Then we had modern, and a very classy, feather-filled version of modern it was, complete with chandeliers and headdresses (non-tribal variety). If you are curious, the film was in color using an early duo-tone technique, so the 'blue' in the piano would have been seen by early audiences. I am still not quite sure what to make of the multiple pianists playing the giant blue piano, but for that matter, I am still not sure what to make of the giant blue piano--or, perhaps more importantly, the gargantuan electric fern tree to its right. I do like that the orchestra fits neatly inside. From the primitive, then, we transcended to the modern in a most formal appearance, one flanked with tuxedos, classy dames, and so very many feathers.
Whiteman would record Rhapsody in Blue again for film, this time as part of an eponymous (fictionalized) biography of George Gershwin:
My favorite part of this clip--apart from the dramatic pan-out--is at the end, where an audience member declares that the piece is 'fourteen minutes and five. A very important piece'--in other words, a legitimate composition instead of a dance number. Earlier in the film, we did see that Gershwin's music was popular, but that it commanded little respect in part because it was from a 'lower' genre. In fact, Gershwin was fired for playing his own music when he should have been promoting the works of others. However, its intrinsic value was recognized by Al Jolson--appearing blatantly in blackface--who was enchanted by the melody from the first time he heard it:
There is a lot to untangle here. 'Swanee' was, of course, one of Jolson's big hits when he was a stage performer and I am certain that one of the primary reasons that this scene would have been included in the film was as a token of nostalgia for older audience members, who would have grown up seeing Jolson perform this number. That he was in blackface might have been less shocking then, even though by 1945 the practice had abated in live film, but Jolson was already known for his performances in this role. The popularity of 'Swanee' is immediately evident from the applause offered by the audience, although Gershwin remains stoic in the face of his success, claiming that he will write 'something better than that.' The 'something better,' of course, is Rhapsody in Blue, which becomes the focal point in the film for Gershwin's ability to conquer classical audiences at long last.
Undoubtedly, you have picked up on the very bizarre race relations that are emerging in this film, particularly concerning the appropriation of jazz by a bunch of white guys (including one white guy who is wearing blackface. Because the Other). While this post is not the place to address the complexity of the blackface topic (don't worry, there will likely be a follow-up), the fact that the audiences are exclusively white for both performances is noteworthy--although not surprising, considering that this was still the age of segregation, through formal and informal means. Regardless, jazz, in this case, is being elevated. It can join the rank of prestigious music, so long as it is presented in a Rhapsody in Blue-type manner. Indeed, by doing so, Gershwin transcends the 'mere' dance music that he wrote before, winning over even the concert-goers with his very important fourteen-or-so minute composition.
Looking more closely at both performances, I would argue that Whiteman is, in fact, privileging the classical over jazz. In some respects, jazz elements are present, such as the extremely prominent banjo literally sitting front row, center. The seating for the Rhapsody in Blue film performance is quite similar to how a big band would sit, featuring the musicians on risers (although they lack fancy music stand monikers). Even more jazz-like is the focus on soloists, who not only rise when they play, but are also featured in the spotlight. However, one crucial classical feature remains, which is the conductor. Whiteman's baton is particularly prominent in this scene, demonstrating that he is in charge of the ensemble. The same can be said of the 1930 King of Jazz performance; in this case, the whole scene is based on his preeminence as the 'king of jazz' who fought off the savage 'beasts' in the African jungle. While Whiteman does not emerge until later in this scene, when the orchestra rises up from the piano (2:52), he is raised even further above the ensemble and his (possibly oversized?) baton can be seen.
Whiteman's leading of the ensemble as a classical conductor differs from what audiences would have seen from African-American band leaders at the time. For instance, in Black and Tan Fantasy (1929), Duke Ellington leads from the piano when we see him with his band. Even from the very beginning of the clip, Duke is not the 'king of jazz,' but is seen collaborating with Arthur Whetsol, his trumpet player:
Count Basie, too, performed at the piano and had those fancy monikered music stands that immediately scream 'jazz band' to me. This example is from the 1943 film Reveille with Beverly:
Whiteman, then, is presenting his ensemble as an orchestra, not a band, since he retains control as its conductor and leader. I would argue that this distinction is an important one. An orchestra, after all, is a marker of a prestigious cultural product, an association that I feel is still present today. It was the orchestra that allowed Gershwin to present his 'very important' piece, for instance. Why the orchestra? It has a long history of being the premiere ensemble, going all the way back to the nineteenth century in German writings. I find it noteworthy that Nas' collaboration was with an orchestra; you don't often hear so much about collaborations between hip hop artists and a prestigious string quartet, for example, or Renée Fleming providing the vocals for the latest 50 Cent track (Dear Renée and 50, Get. On. This.). No, it is the orchestra that conjures up an image of high art almost instantaneously, and I think that this is part of its cachet when it comes to collaborating with more popular forms of culture. In the Whiteman example, it elevated his ensemble beyond the dance hall. In Nas' case, I like to think that we have moved beyond these distinctions of high and low art, and where these types of arts can and/or should reside. However, it is difficult to ignore the fact that yet again, the (prestigious) symphony orchestra was called into play for a collaboration.