Section from chapter 1924: Jazz in the Concert Hall   [ return to introduction ]

Return to Home Page
By Mervyn Cooke • 325 illustrations,
82 in full color • 256 pages • 8-1/2 x 8-1/2"
Cloth • ISBN 0-7892-0399-5 • U.S. $45.00
Add to Shopping Cart
The poster announcing the "New Typically American Compositions," which were performed in Whiteman's "Experiment in Modern Music" on 12 February 1924. [ view larger image ]
An Experiment in Modern Music

The ragtime craze had inspired several European composers to experiment with styles that attempted to fuse elements from popular and classical music, but it was not until the mid-1920s that American composers began to emulate their example by exploring a creative synthesis between the new "hot" jazz and art music. The concept of jazz for the concert hall was promoted by the bandleader Paul Whiteman, whose polished orchestrations later formed the basis for the big-band arrangements of the swing era.

In 1923 Whiteman asked George Gershwin (• p. 89) to compose something for a concert promoting American music to be held at the Aeolian Hall, New York, on Lincoln's birthday (12 February 1924). Having virtually forgotten about the request, it was only when Gershwin read in the New York Tribune that Rachmaninov would be at the concert and that George Gershwin was "reported to be at work on a jazz concerto" that he was spurred into action with only five weeks remaining before the event. He later commented that the resulting Rhapsody in Blue was conceived "as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America--of our vast melting pot, of our incomparable national pep, our blues, our metropolitan madness." Legend has it that the score was still unfinished on the day of the concert and that Gershwin improvised large sections of the solo piano part.

Some critics found Rhapsody in Blue crude, but reluctantly admitted its claim to originality. The work's phenomenal success stimulated widespread interest in the new genre of symphonic jazz, and Gershwin went on to produce finer specimens such as An American in Paris (1928) and the opera Porgy and Bess (1935). He clearly saw symphonic jazz as the strongly nationalistic musical style for which American classical composers had long been searching.

When Aaron Copland returned from his studies in Paris, he immediately followed up Gershwin's lead with a succession of jazz-inspired works, including Music for the Theater (1925) and a Piano Concerto (1927). In an article entitled "Jazz Structure and Influence" published in 1927, Copland predicted that jazz might become "the substance not only of the American composer's foxtrots and Charlestons, but of his lullabies and nocturnes." Copland later moved away from an overtly jazzy style (although he composed a Clarinet Concerto for Benny Goodman (• p. 84) in 1950), but his brash and exciting early works directly influenced his protégé Leonard Bernstein, who brought the symphonic jazz trend to a new peak of sophistication with his Symphony No. 2 (1949) and Prelude, Fugue and Riffs (1955).