Gershwin

By CHARLES ANDREWS

Can I bestow a HIGHLY RECOMMENDED on a concert because of one short piece just before intermission? You bet I can, if it’s my music column and if it’s the magnificent Rhapsody in Blue, by a young, put-upon George Gershwin. He was kind of tricked into writing it.

Late at night on January 3rd, 1924, playing billiards, George, his brother Ira and lyricist Buddy DeSylva spotted an item in the New York Tribune. A concert of new American music was to be given by Paul Whiteman and his Palais Royal Band at Aeolian Hall on 12 February.

“George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto,” they read, dumbfounded. It was news to George. His musical comedy, Sweet Little Devil, was set to open in just three weeks. And now he had to write a concerto by February 12th as well?

Whiteman was the most popular bandleader of the 1920s, considered the “King of Jazz,” although this was no jazz band, but a large dance orchestra that used jazz musicians from time to time. Whiteman twisted Gershwin’s arm that all he had to do was supply a piano score. Ferde Grofé, Whiteman’s brilliant in-house arranger, would be able to orchestrate the work tailored to the band’s line-up.

While he was on the train to Boston for rehearsals of his musical, Gershwin sketched out a framework for the new piece, which he began writing on January 7. While he also made last-minute changes to Sweet Little Devil for its New York opening January 24th, the genius completed a two-piano score.

What Gershwin produced was not a “jazz concerto” but a rhapsodic work for “piano and jazz band,” incorporating elements of European symphonic music and American jazz with his inimitable melodic gift and keyboard facility.

The Rhapsody, with its composer as soloist, premièred to a packed house that included composers John Philip Sousa, Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff, famed violinist Fritz Kreisler, stride piano master Willie “the Lion” Smith and conductor Leopold Stokowski. Gershwin had not yet written down much of the piano part, and improvised it on stage. Dy-am. The rest is history.

The famed opening clarinet signature came into being during rehearsal when, “as a joke on Gershwin,” Whiteman’s virtuoso clarinetist played the opening measure with a noticeable glissando, adding what he considered a humorous touch. Loving it, Gershwin asked him to perform it that way at the concert and to add as much of a “wail” as possible.

Hearing it as a little kid, before I knew the difference between jazz and… anything, I knew that opening otherworldly elongated note ascending slowly, expansively, elegantly, mournfully, hopefully to heaven spoke to me. Who knows? Maybe that was what thrust me deep into music. That opening is played a lot of ways but for me the best is to stretch, caress, savor and squeeze everything out of it in a long, perfectly executed exhale.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED:

LA PHIL: WILLIAM GRANT STILL & the Harlem Renaissance (Symphony No. 1, “Afro-American,” Duke ELLINGTON’s “Come Sunday” from Black, Brown and Beige, and “Harlem,” and George Gershwin’s RHAPSODY IN BLUE, see above, for the love), Sat 8 p.m., Disney Hall, DTLA, $55-$194.

RECOMMENDED:

TONIGHT! — KACEY MUSGRAVES, Soccer Mommy (four Grammys for Album of the Year, Country Album and Song and Solo Performance, told ya), Thurs, Fri  9 p.m., The Theatre at Ace Hotel, $42.50-$70.

TONIGHT! — KALEIDOSCOPE CHAMBER ORCHESTRA (not much familiar with the material, it will probably challenge you, in a good way, but one is composed by m’man Billy Childs and I like his scribbling as much as his tickling, and the KCO is very good), Thurs 7:30 p.m., Hammer Museum, Westwood, free.

THE JOY WHEEL (I saw the table reading a while back, really deep and funny, now directed by JASON ALEXANDER, can’t wait, these Ruskin plays usually sell out), Fri, Sat 8 p.m., Sun 2 p.m., Ruskin Group Theatre, SM Airport, $25-$35.

DON BRADEN QUARTET (Jazz Bakery is not going to steer you wrong, or go just to hear the great Billy Childs on piano, who mentored Gerald Clayton, see two above, see below), Sat 8 p.m., Moss Theater, Santa Monica, $25-$35.

STEVE LEHMAN, GERALD CLAYTON, J. Richards (“discover” Sam First, a tres cool jazz club very near LAX, intimate, great layout, a true listening room, booking noted players from all over, like New York “dazzling saxophonist” Steve Lehman, but they often feature our home-grown LA keyboard wiz Clayton so keep their schedule on your radar), Sat 8 p.m., 9:30 p.m., Sam First, LAX, $20.

INGER LORRE, TEXACALA JONES, Fifi, The Harsh Carpets, The Bye Byes (wow, what an ‘80s-’90s LA punk all-star lineup, for a good cause, a Malibu Fire Relief Fundraiser, right here in SM, rare event, Mexican food too), Sat 6 p.m., Casa Escobar, SM, $20.

TONY GILKYSON, TRACY DAWN, LISA FINNIE, rockabilly legend JIMMY ANGEL, more (it’s the 9th anniversary of Jonny Whiteside’s monthly The Messaround with a Johnny Cash Birthday Smash theme and an impressive lineup, I would go just for Tony Gilkyson), Sun 6 p.m., Joe’s Great American Bar & Grill, free.

ROSANNE CASH (a gem in a royal music family, 15 Grammy nominations and three wins in 2015, best-selling author and children’s book writer and so much more, her songwriting is superb, her voice emotionally powerful and her music crosses genres easily, what a treasure), Sun 7 p.m., The Soraya, Northridge, $39-$90.

RICHARD THOMPSON (incomparable multi-instrumentalist, long UK pedigree, no telling what he’ll play but always an excellent show), Tues, Wed 8 p.m., The Teragram Ballroom, $35.  

SLY & ROBBIE, Bitty McLean (the “masters of groove and propulsion” have changed the sound of reggae a few times in their nearly half century partnership, legends among legends, so if you haven’t caught them yet, aren’t you curious?), Wed 9 p.m., The Echoplex, $20.

JUILLIARD STRING QUARTET (they’re only a year older than I am so just imagine if I had kept up those accordion lessons…), next Thurs 7:30 p.m., Musco Center for the Arts, Chapman University, $25-$45.

VICKI RAY (is she really “phenomenal and fearless,” this Grammy nominated contemporary piano master? — you can drive downtown LA and pay $20-$35 at Zipper Hall the following Tuesday to find out, or get a preview of that show for nada at our own Main Library), next Thurs, 7:30 p.m., Santa Monica Library Main Branch, DTSM, free.

BODACIOUS BIRTHDAY: TIM BUCKLEY (1947) — he was almost in the tragic gone-too-soon “27 Club” (Jimi, Janis, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Robert Johnson et al), only 28 when taken to Santa Monica Hospital, already blue and gone from a heroin overdose.

I loved Tim Buckley’s music and that voice, that haunted, wailing, growling, ethereal  voice. His music and style changed considerably through the years, beginning in folk but soon experimenting with jazz, psychedelia, funk, soul, avant-garde and an evolving “voice as instrument” sound. Sadly, it seemed as though his creative arc could have gone on for decades more.

His son Jeff Buckley, a gifted singer-songwriter, never knew his father but was determined to avoid an early rock and roll demise, but he drowned in a river in Memphis at age 30, waiting for his band to arrive from New York to finish tracks for an album. Accidental, no drugs involved. Isn’t life strange.

Charles Andrews has listened to a lot of music of all kinds, including more than 2,000 live shows. He has lived in Santa Monica for 33 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. Send love and/or rebuke to him at  therealmrmusic@gmail.com

 

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