Gershwin Plays Gershwin: Hear the Original Recording of Rhapsody in Blue, with the Composer Himself at the Piano (1924)

There are a great many com­po­si­tions I can nev­er hear again the way I did the first time around. Aaron Copland’s Amer­i­can sym­phonies, for example—sentimental child­hood favorites that once evoked mem­o­ries of land­scapes I knew well—have since become insep­a­ra­ble from adver­tise­ments for the meat indus­try and oth­er dis­agree­able things. Many oth­er icon­ic pieces of music from major com­posers have become woven into the fab­ric of mar­ket­ing that blan­kets our lives, in part because many of those pieces don’t require expen­sive per­mis­sions for their use. Anoth­er unfor­get­table exam­ple: George Gershwin’s Rhap­sody in Blue, the jazz con­cer­to from 1924 that I can­not hear with­out think­ing of “spa­cious seat­ing options and thought­ful inflight ameni­ties,” care­ful­ly orches­trat­ed for my com­fort and con­ve­nience.

But if there is some way to recov­er the puri­ty of hear­ing Gershwin’s piece for the first time, no bet­ter one exists than the abridged record­ings we have here, which rep­re­sent some of what the very first audi­ences of Rhap­sody in Blue heard in 1924, includ­ing Gersh­win him­self play­ing the piano.

They also rep­re­sent exact­ly what the first lis­ten­ers of Gershwin’s piece on record heard—the rather thin sound we’ve come to asso­ciate with ear­ly audio tech­nol­o­gy, which did not fea­ture any elec­tron­ics until 1925. Up until then, small clas­si­cal ensem­bles, opera singers, and jazz and rag­time bands would stand around a horn, with engi­neers plac­ing them for­ward or back depend­ing on their empha­sis. (Some jazz record­ings with mul­ti­ple soloists were made on rotat­ing plat­forms for this pur­pose). As the musi­cians played, a vibrat­ing diaphragm moved the sty­lus, mechan­i­cal­ly etch­ing the per­for­mance onto the record. At the top of the post, you can hear a mod­ern remas­ter that removes most of the noise of the orig­i­nal, which is in two parts above and below.

In addi­tion to Gersh­win, the record­ing also fea­tures the orig­i­nal clar­inetist, Ross Gor­man, who played that famous open­ing glis­san­do at the debut of Rhap­sody in Blue on Feb­ru­ary 12, 1924, at New York’s Aeo­lian Hall. Gersh­win’s piece was the cap­stone of an event billed as an “Exper­i­ment in Mod­ern Music,” orga­nized by Paul White­man, who con­duct­ed the orches­tra onstage and record. The pur­pose of the event, writes, was to “demon­strate that the rel­a­tive­ly new form of music called jazz deserved to be regard­ed as a seri­ous and sophis­ti­cat­ed art form.” It sounds con­de­scend­ing, to say the least, but it brought us Gershwin’s won­der­ful com­po­si­tion and helped him “tran­scend the cat­e­go­ry of pop­u­lar music” and become a well-regard­ed com­pos­er. New York Times crit­ic Olin Downes wrote of Rhap­sody in Blue, with its “out­ra­geous caden­za of the clar­inet,” that the “com­po­si­tion shows extra­or­di­nary tal­ent, just as it also shows a young com­pos­er with aims that go far beyond those of his ilk.”

Cer­tain­ly those of Gershwin’s “ilk” made their own extra­or­di­nary con­tri­bu­tions to mod­ern Amer­i­can music, as did Gersh­win him­self in Broad­way show after show. But Gershwin’s inter­est in bring­ing jazz to the clas­si­cal world has been shared by oth­er famous jazz com­posers, from Duke Elling­ton to Charles Min­gus. The results may not “tran­scend” more straight-ahead jazz in some hier­ar­chi­cal sense, but they inno­vate in the way that the very best “exper­i­ments in mod­ern music” do, by bold­ly putting two or more forms in con­ver­sa­tion with each oth­er. In Gershwin’s piece, we hear jazz and clas­si­cal fig­ures argue and come to terms, jostling against each oth­er as they come together—the laugh­ing clar­inet, pompous brass, roman­tic piano—producing the kind of gen­teel ten­sion that… dammit, I guess is pret­ty well rep­re­sent­ed by reclin­ing in an air­plane seat, 30,000 feet above the ground.…

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ella Fitzger­ald Sings ‘Sum­mer­time’ by George Gersh­win, Berlin 1968

Such Sweet Thun­der: Duke Elling­ton & Bil­ly Strayhorn’s Musi­cal Trib­ute to Shake­speare (1957)

Charles Min­gus Explains in His Gram­my-Win­ning Essay “What is a Jazz Com­pos­er?”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (9)
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  • Pryor says:

    Inter­est­ing, and what a treat. I can’t say I enjoy the more ricky-ticky parts of the arrange­ment (or the laugh­ing clar­inet) — per­haps an influ­ence from White­man? Any­way, thanks!

  • Sean says:

    I, too, unfor­tu­nate­ly asso­ciate Rodeo most­ly with that old beef ad. But did you ever see how Spike Lee used it as the back­ground to a play­ground bas­ket­ball game in He Got Game? That is a great scene, and the music selec­tion works per­fect­ly.

  • Donna Freeman says:

    What an expe­ri­ence to hear the orig­i­nal record­ing with George Gersh­win at the piano. This is my favorite piece of music whether it’s played by an orches­tra or solo. This was such a treat to hear. Thank you.

  • Dan Urbach says:

    I rec­om­mend the Gersh­win Piano Rolls album. It is lit­er­al­ly what it sounds like, and it is delight­ful. Here’s a link to Wikip about it:

  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    This is the quin­tes­sen­tial mod­el for this piece, and the one which I base my own inter­pre­ta­tions from. One gets the feel­ing for the style from when it was writ­ten. The dances like the Frey­lach, the Kazot­sky, and the light jazz band style which brings out the pace of the piece with­out sound­ing heavy. Such a mas­ter­piece!

  • Donna Whitley says:


  • Chris Green says:

    Gersh­win made piano rolls: “Gersh­win record­ed these piano rolls between 1916 and 1927. Sev­er­al rolls use over­dub­bing, so that Gersh­win is in effect play­ing a four-hand­ed piece solo.”

    There are ver­sions of Rhap­sody on the rolls, and Non­such Records has 2 albums (MP3/ CD) of Gersh­win’s piano rolls per­for­mances:

  • Bengt S says:

    Love lis­ten­ing to the orig­i­nal with Gersh­win him­self play­ing. But I pre­fer the won­der­ful arrange­ment and play­ing by Ilana Vered…

  • George Hennessy says:

    Yes I also pre­fer the Ilana Vered inter­pre­ta­tion over all oth­ers and I love the Radio Swis­sPhil­har­mo­nia orches­tra that she plays it with it tru­ly catures the twen­ties mood and the deep mean­ing of the work bet­ter than any oth­er I’ve heard.

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