George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was performed for the first time at a concert by Paul Whiteman and his Palais Royal Orchestra called An Experiment in Modern Music.
Whiteman had previously worked with Gershwin when he conducted the original performance of Blue Monday, a one-act ‘jazz opera’ composed by Gershwin with lyrics by Buddy DeSylva. Although it was a Broadway flop, Whiteman was impressed by Blue Monday and had a conversation with Gershwin in which they discussed the idea of composer writing a jazz concerto.
According to legend Gershwin forgot about the conversation until early January 1924 when his brother, Ira, read an article in the New York Tribune that said Whiteman would perform a jazz concerto by Gershwin at a concert on 12 February. His musical Sweet Little Devil was due to open in Boston at the end of the month, yet Whiteman was able to persuade Gershwin to write the piece after promising he only needed to submit a piano score. Whiteman’s arranger Ferde Grofé orchestrated the piece, while the band added their own touches such as clarinettist Ross Gorman who turned the opening solo into an extended glissando that has since become the accepted way to open the piece.
Gershwin himself played piano when the piece was premiered at Aeolian Hall in New York City. He hadn’t scored the piano part and so performed from memory, improvising some parts. The audience, which included composers such as John Philip Sousa and Sergei Rachmaninoff, responded enthusiastically to the piece but critics were divided. It has since gone on to become one of Gershwin’s most famous pieces and a vital part of American musical history that proved how jazz elements could be used in so-called ‘serious’ music.