Friday, November 1, 2013

Rhapsody in Blue

   Jazz was born out of the music of the South and the streets of New Orleans. But New York is where ideas from all over can combine into something magical. Paul Whiteman was a bandleader who was the first to create written arrangements of jazz pieces. For 1924 he produced a concert called "The Experiment in Modern Music" at Aeolian Hall. Today the building on 42nd Street across from Bryant Park that was home to the hall houses the State University of New York School of Optometry.

   One of the composers for the concert was young George Gershwin. George was from a Russian Jewish family in East New York, Brooklyn. He grew up around the Yiddish Theater District and worked as a songwriter in Tin Pan Alley. He had never written a classical composition before but the piece Gershwin wrote, in a mere 5 weeks, was Rhapsody in Blue. From the first incredible note on the clarinet, through Gershwin's improvised piano solos, the audience was rapt. Rhapsody was the song that brought jazz into the world of serious, respectable, music. And while that sentence makes it sound stuffy and boring compared to the freewheeling and hot-footed jazz of Harlem, Rhapsody is one of the most euphoric pieces of music ever made. It's impossible to listen to the final crescendo and not feel your heart swell.
   The music seems to evoke something special about the Big Apple. The hustle and bustle of commuters streaming along the sidewalks, the quiet moments of seclusion, and those times when it almost feels like the city loves you back. And clearly Woody Allen thought so too. His use of the song in the opening of the film Manhattan is not only a cinematic masterpiece, but it's the best thing to watch as your plane descends into New York.


   My favorite version of the song isn't the classic New York Philharmonic performance with Leonard Bernstein. But what would be better than hearing Gershwin play it himself. There is a wonderful recording of Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the Columbia University Jazz Band. What makes it so special is that the 1925 recording of George Gershwin doing the piano solos. Gershwin's tempo is lively and it makes this version a better toe-tapping version than the more melodramatic Philharmonic recording. Check it out, and book your flight to Manhattan.


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