Their first musical, A Dangerous Maid, enjoyed modest success in 1921; so did For Goodness Sake in 1922. Neither production featured any hits; that sort of triumph would wait another two years. By then, George had established himself as America’s first crossover musician, linking the raucous nightclub and the decorous concert hall in something he called Rhapsody in Blue. Conductor Paul Whiteman remembered the audience at Aeolian Hall on the epochal afternoon of February 12, 1924. In addition to Sergei Rachmaninoff, Victor Herbert, and Jascha Heifetz, it included “vaudevillians, concert managers come to have a look at the novelty, Tin Pan Alleyites, opera stars, flappers, all mixed up higgledy-piggledy.” That motley group reflected Gershwin’s rhapsody, played by the composer himself. From the first clarinet glissando to the fluent chords in the middle to the broad melodic finale, Rhapsody in Blue enthralled the audience. All of haute New York seemed caught in the skeins of George’s music. It suggested the rhythms of black jazz, the melancholy strains of Yiddish folk melodies, the kinetic force of Manhattan in the Speakeasy Era, as well as the art of the Old Masters.
The crowd went wild, and even though a few critics carped at the composer’s use of “colored jazz music,” most were intrigued. The New York Herald critic was typical: “Mr. Gershwin will be heard from often, and one music lover earnestly hopes that he will keep to the field in which he is a free and independent creator, and not permit himself to be led away into the academic groves and buried in the shadows of ancient trees.”
Read the rest of Stefan Kanfer’s article on George and Ira Gershwin here.