Gershwin’s premiere, on this day in 1924, of his “Rhapsody in Blue” is considered the “stepping-out” of jazz, the moment of its acceptance by classical music and mainstream white society. Reviewing the performance for The Nation was Henrietta Straus, the magazine’s “musical critic,” in “Jazz and ’The Rhapsody in Blue’” (May 5, 1924).
Mr. Paul Whiteman and his Palais Royal Orchestra gave a concert recently in Aeolian Hall to show the development of jazz…. It was, according to their leader, “a purely educational experiment.” But he might have added that as an educational experiment it was a revolutioanry and successful beyond the wildest dreams of educators…. There was nothing unfamiliar in the spectacle of an American boy playing with extraordinary ease an original composition of terrific rhythmical difficulty and of individual power and beauty, and winning immediate recognition for his achievement. But to the musician trained in other schools there was something very new and exciting and moving in this utter abandonment of all emotional reserve. And there was also, perhaps, a secret and overwhelming realization that he had been caught napping, that a distinctive and well-developed art having obvious kinship with the world-thought of today had grown up, unheeded, under his very ears while he had been straining his auditory nerves to catch the echoes of sound three thousand miles away….
It was, on the whole, a curious orgy of unrestrained laughter and tears, in which East and West met and merged with strange, half-caste results…. In “Rhapsody in Blue,” which takes its title from the Negro phase of jazz, one heard a dialogue between American slang and expressions as elemental as the soil. This work was indeed an extraordinary concoction gathered together during the month preceding its performance. It began with a braying, impudent, laughing cadenza on clarinet and ended with its initial motive, a broad and passionate theme worthy of Tchaikovsky…. The form was haphazard, and the playing often ineffectual, but its substance marked a new era. With it all one cannot but wonder whether this now Slavic, now Oriental element in jazz is not due to the fact that many of those who write, orchestrate, and play it are of Russian-Jewish extraction; whether, in fact, jazz, with its elements of the Russian, the Negro, and the native American is not that first distinctive musical phase of the melting-pot for which we have been waiting so long and which seems to have such endless possibilities. Certainly, Mr. Whiteman and Mr. Gershwin have, in the meantime, added a new chapter to our musical history.
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