Rhapsody in Blue is one of the most distinctive and recognizable American jazz/classical classical/jazz concertos ever. Uploaded by minitokyo.net.
If we take jazz to mean a free-form improvisation on a theme, then Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin (Great American Things, February 24, 2010) should be classified as a classical work. And it is definitely in the symphonic tradition. Yet this piece stretched the normal perception, and blended jazz rhythms and progressions to create a kind of music that surprised and excited Americans when it debuted in 1924, promoted as a “jazz concerto.”
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From its opening clarinet glissando through many changing sections, Rhapsody in Blue is totally American in its feel and motifs. (Perhaps that’s why United Airlines used parts of it in its advertising some years ago.) The website Classical.Net says this about Gershwin’s masterpiece:
With his first major piece, Gershwin invented a unique symphonic idiom, to this day still argued over. Gershwin, of course, was not the first to blend jazz and classical music. One could make cases for Debussy, Scott Joplin, or Milhaud as important pioneers and, even better, as creators of masterworks which used jazz. All of them, however, had exploited jazz’s “chamber” qualities. From the Rhapsody’s opening clarinet wail, Gershwin created not symphonic jazz, but the Gershwin idiom: an outdoor, urban, big-hearted, super-Romantic, and thoroughly assured poetry.
Hear it all here, performed by the New York Philharmonic:
Ira wrote the words, George wrote the music, and music buyers everywhere wrote the checks. Uploaded by georgejgoodstadt.com.
This may be the ultimate example of a Gershwin song. With music by George (Great American Things, Feb. 24, 2010) and lyrics by Ira, “Embraceable You” is sophisticated, complex, and yet eminently singable.
The brothers wrote the song in 1928 for an operetta that never got published, so they pulled it out and used it in the musical Girl Crazy in 1930. Ginger Rogers sang it in the play, and it helped make her a star. Girl Crazy went on to be filmed three times, most notably in 1943 with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.
(By the way, how’s this for some unheralded star power – in the original orchestra for the Broadway show were unknown musicians Glenn Miller, Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Jack Teagarden. Wow.)
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“Embraceable You” is one of the most frequently recorded Gershwin songs. The website jazzstandards.com ranks “Embraceable You” as the number 24 jazz standard of all time. Their highest recommendation goes to the Sarah Vaughn version, but I couldn’t find that in full on YouTube, so here’s Ella Fitzgerald with the Nelson Riddle orchestra. Hard to beat this combination…
Of all his dance partners, Astaire is still linked in the public mind most closely to Ginger Rogers. Uploaded by img.photobucket.com.
You’ll get a kick out of the studio’s evaluation of Fred Astaire’s initial screen test. It’s purported to have read: “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little.” Yeah, just a little. No less a talent than Gene Kelly said, “The history of dance on film begins with Astaire.”
Fred experienced great success on Broadway in such successes as the Gershwins’ Funny Face and Cole Porter’s Gay Divorce (renamed The Gay Divorcee for film). But the world of movies and Hollywood beckoned, and he went west and appeared in his first film in 1933. He first danced with Ginger Rogers in that year’s Flying Down to Rio, and he went on to partner with her in nine more pictures.
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It’s generally agreed that while Rogers wasn’t the most talented dancer of Fred’s partners, she just looked right with him. She seemed to be having the time of her life. Others he danced with, with varying degrees of success, include Eleanor Powell, Paulette Goddard, Rita Hayworth, Cyd Charisse, and Leslie Caron. One of his highest compliments was payed to Charisse. “When you dance with her,” he said, “you stay danced.”
At least two of his routines are film classics. And, though we remember Astaire most for his partner dances, these were both solos. The first is “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” from the film Blue Skies. Here, he wears his signature top hat and tails, and parodies his upcoming retirement in what was then known as “Fred Astaire’s last dance.” (He unretired two years later.) The other is his dancing on the ceiling number from Royal Wedding. Everyone loves it, so here it is for your enjoyment:
Copyright 2009-2011, Robin G. Chalkley. All material on these pages, and the listing of items as Great American Things, is copyrighted. The exceptions are the photographs and videos, which remain the property of their respective owners.
Header photo used courtesy of Flickr photographer too melo.