I came across this opinion piece by John McWhorter.
He’s a linguist with a specialty in creole languages, sociolects, and Black English. He is currently an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University, where he also teaches American studies and music history. And he is one of my favorite contemporary American essayists. I thought this might be of interest.
“Not all jazz has to jam” New York Times, February 8, 2024
By John McWhorter
A couple of weeks ago in The Times, a seasoned musician and composer proposed that George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” was “corny and Caucasian,” a “cheesecake” that has “clogged the arteries of American music.” And this in the centennial year of the rhapsody, which was first played on Feb. 12, 1924, at Aeolian Hall in Manhattan! Anyone making such a charge should expect a bit of pushback. Herewith some.
The rhapsody was programmed as the culmination of a concert titled “An Experiment in Modern Music,” which proposed that jazz, then new to the American mainstream, was serious music worthy of a venue as tony as Aeolian Hall, with the celebrity bandleader Paul Whiteman on the podium and Gershwin himself on piano. Gershwin intended the rhapsody to fuse the respective powers of classical music and jazz. People liked it a lot, and they still do.
But the pianist and composer Ethan Iverson wishes they didn’t. In the article I cited above, “The Worst Masterpiece: ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ at 100,” Iverson offers an intriguing take: that “Rhapsody in Blue,” while having its charms, is just too square to merit being played as often as it is. He believes the rhapsody isn’t truly jazzy enough, and specifically that it only lightly dwells in African-based rhythm. In other words, the rhapsody fails because it doesn’t jam.
But to Gershwin, the rhapsody was precisely what it needed to be. He specifically sought to avoid straitjacketing it with the unchanging peppiness of a dance beat as if that was all jazz was or could be. He revealed his purpose in a subsequent letter: “Jazz, they said, had to be in strict time. It had to cling to dance rhythms. I resolved, if possible, to kill that misconception with one sturdy blow.” So while the rhapsody certainly has its foot-tapping sections, it also sails, rests, jolts and soars.
Iverson is correct in noting the complexities of African and Latin rhythms; any idea that curious music listeners should focus only on melody and harmony is by now antique and narrow. But to wish the rhapsody were more rhythmically funky, or that its place in our hearts had been taken instead by a funkier piece written later, implies that said funkiness is an artistic advance akin to perspective in painting. The idea seems to be that any jazz-related music lacking that funk is primordial and obsolete, a tiny-footed fish crawling glumly out of the water, as opposed to a fully evolved gazelle.
Indeed, overall Iverson wants the concert stage to be a jamming place, with a rich suffusion of Black and brown rhythms. “To this day,” he writes in his Times article, “the training of American conservatory musicians prioritizes pure tone production and mechanical facility over a basic dance beat.” Yes, but what Iverson sees as an ideal actually begs a question: Is it necessarily true that the American concert hall falls short by not embracing and executing the dance beat?
The larger culture long ago gave up the idea — to the extent that it ever really had it — that classical music is “real” while the rest of music is lesser work. Now that jazz broadly receives its due, why must ensembles with the word “philharmonic” in their names learn to get down? A goal of the Aeolian Hall concert was to show jazz’s legitimacy by bringing it into the concert hall to make it a lady, so to speak. This seems so quaint now — we moderns can and do accept jazz as art.
But Iverson thinks Duke Ellington gets short shrift in being relatively neglected by the classical music establishment. And he is dead on that “Any mature Ellington LP beats out any recording of ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’ There’s just no comparison in terms of depth of feeling.” I certainly put on “ … And His Mother Called Him Bill” and the “Anatomy of a Murder” soundtrack more often than the rhapsody: Ellington’s tight, savvy tang says more to me. But as long as Ellington is so richly celebrated, performed and downloaded elsewhere, it’s unclear why a truly enlightened symphony culture ought to decenter the rhapsody and opt instead for Ellington’s “Far East Suite.”
Of course, it is important to acknowledge that the rhapsody was, by our modern standards, cultural appropriation. Although he did it with sincere artistic intent, Gershwin adopted Black musical forms and as a result gained the fame and fortune that racism at the time made impossible for actual Black American composers. William Grant Still’s “Afro-American Symphony” of 1930, for example, is arguably more artistically sophisticated than the rhapsody in its composition, and it manages this while also being rather easily relatable in terms of melody and harmony. Yet while it was hardly unperformed in its time, it received nothing approaching the attention it would have if Gershwin had written it.
But there are two additional points worth noting. One is that Still’s project was different from Gershwin’s: He sought less a 50/50 blending of classical music and jazz than a classical music infused with African-derived elements. In various forms, he accomplished this brilliantly. But the result, while easier on an untrained ear than, say, the dense, grandiloquent crawl of an Anton Bruckner, is less instantly accessible than the sprightly tunefests of the rhapsody. Still’s work requires more listenings than Gershwin’s — the way Henry James rewards rereading more than Dickens does. Even if Still had got his fair due, it’s unlikely United Airlines would have chosen his work as its theme music.
Moreover, it isn’t clear that an actual rhapsody-style experiment by a Black composer would have been much different. James P. Johnson was a master stride pianist and pop composer who had the same ambition to bring classical and Black music together, as he did in his 1927 “Yamekraw” symphony, which was orchestrated by Still. It’s a fine piece, but not much groovier than the rhapsody. Yet I find it hard to imagine Iverson dismissing a work by Johnson as a trivial token of another time. Is skin color, and even place in the intersectional hierarchy, really to determine how we rank pieces of art?
To be sure, the rhapsody lacks both the heft of Mahler in a classical direction and the funk of Mingus in a jazz one. But Iverson’s charge that it is “cheesecake” — as in too immediately likable to be serious work — is a risky form of judgment. Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, for instance, is heavenly engaging on first hearing, which is largely the basis of Virgil Thomson’s 1942 verdict that “It seems to have been written for the slow-witted, the not very musical and the distracted.” It’s a verdict that has not aged well at all. (Neither has his dismissal of the orchestrations of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” as “gefilte fish.”)
One way to get a sense of the rhapsody’s sui generis power is to sit through most of what else was played at the Aeolian Hall concert 100 years ago, including tunes regarded as a kind of jazz at the time, like the Irving Berlin ditty “Orange Blossoms in California” and a kitschy “Suite of Serenades” by Victor Herbert of “Babes in Toyland” fame. Amid these works, the rhapsody is a gorgeous, raffish blue blast of glory, a testament to the magnificent miscegenation of American culture.
So should we mothball “Rhapsody in Blue” because it was written by a white man and it doesn’t exactly bust a move? I understand where Iverson is coming from. But I suspect that ultimately, his withering judgment of the rhapsody will seem as local to our particular era as Thomson’s midcentury dismissal of Shostakovich does today.