In 1923, Paul Whiteman approached George Gershwin with a request that he write a concerto-like piece for a jazz concert seeking to ‘elevate’ jazz to the level of symphonic music. Not
having as much time as he wanted before the concert, Gershwin initially turned down the commission. In spite of this, the New York Tribune reported in an article titled “What is American Music?” that Gershwin was writing a jazz concerto for the concert. Seeing
that his contribution was already expected, Gershwin gave in and agreed to Whiteman’s request, but with some concessions; namely, that he would write a rhapsody, rather than a full-scale concerto, and that he would not orchestrate the work, leaving that part of the task to Ferde Grofé, Whiteman’s staff arranger. In three weeks, Gershwin wrote the Rhapsody in a two-piano score, and handed it to Grofé who arranged it for piano and jazz orchestra. The piece was an
outstanding success with audiences, and is perhaps the composer’s most beloved work.
The Rhapsody starts with a famous solo for clarinet, opening the piece languidly before the piano enters to bring more vitality and energy to the music. Throughout the piece, the piano functions not as the one soloist, but rather as the most prominent among many soloists, with other instruments emerging from the orchestra to supply solos of their own, in keeping with the work’s jazz-band nature. The bustling and diverse piece was described by its composer as “a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America—of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.”