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Gershwin’s desire to employ jazz in a more serious context than it had generally been subjected to was manifested early in his career. But in writing a one-act opera, Blue Monday, in the early 1920s, he set himself a task that was somewhat beyond him. Although Monday was a failure, the work did serve to set the composer’s sails on their serious course. Upon seeing the opera, band leader Paul Whiteman was enthused enough to commission Gershwin to write a concert piece in the jazz idiom for a program of American music he was planning to present, and Gershwin, although at first reluctant to accept what he thought was too difficult a challenge, was emboldened to take it on. As he later explained, “It was on a train...that I suddenly heard – and even saw on paper – the complete construction of the Rhapsody in Blue, from beginning to end. I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America – of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece, as distinguished from its actual substance.”
Rhapsody was introduced on February 12, 1924, with the composer as soloist in Ferde Grofé’s orchestration for jazz band. The piece made an indelible mark on the history of American music, on the fraternity of serious composers and performers – many of whom were present at the premiere – and on Gershwin himself, for its enthusiastic reception encouraged him to other and more serious projects.
Beginning with that incomparable, flamboyant clarinet solo, Rhapsody is irresistible still, with its syncopated rhythmic vibrancy, its abandoned, impudent flair that tells more about the roaring twenties than could a thousand words, and its genuine melodic beauty colored a deep, jazzy blue by the flatted sevenths and thirds that had their origins in the Negro slave songs.
— Orrin Howard