The great age of Jazz

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The famous Hollywood director Martin Scorcese once remarked that he would quite happily be dead now if he could have lived through the great Jazz Age. Quite a dramatic statement one might think, so let us consider what made the roaring twenties and all that went with it quite so intoxicating for those who were present.

When we think for example of those early film reels of New York City, the frenetic pace, the rapid progress, the cultural melting pot and all that went into it, we get an obvious sense that this was a pretty exciting time to be alive. America had entered a new and unstoppable age of technological progress and innovation – confidence was high (at least up until the infamous Wall Street Crash of 1929) and whilst not everybody was having the best time of it, this was a period of time which stood out and carved a real niche for itself in history.

The imagery that comes to mind might include early automobiles, newly constructed skyscrapers, prohibition, gangsters in the mould of Al Capone, flappers, vaudeville, the Great Gatsby, Art-Deco, baseball, carefree hedonism and youthful exuberance. While these icons barely scratch the surface, what of the burgeoning musical scene?

The USA witnessed the birthplace of jazz in all its’ forms and fusions. A natural opportunity existed for someone to come along and meld together the stuffy, formal world of classical music and the more improvisational, freewheeling sounds of jazz. Step forward George Gershwin.

The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, his story was truly one of rags to riches, albeit with a tragic ending which saw his early death at the age of 37 from a brain tumour.

Coming to music relatively late on (he only began seriously playing the piano in his early teens) he made up for lost time with impressive speed and swiftly worked his way to prominence from being a song-plugger in Tin Pan Alley to attracting the attention of notable figures in Manhattan’s musical circles. The story goes that Gershwin had agreed to compose a piece of music ready to be performed at a forthcoming concert which was entitled along the lines of “an experiment in modern music.”

Allegedly, it was over a game of billiards with his brother that an article in the newspaper announced that Gershwin was at work on a new piece for the aforementioned concert – the task having apparently slipped his mind, there was no time to lose and with 5 weeks left until the concert, he set to work.

The famous opening clarinet glissando has been linked metaphorically with the craning of one’s neck to look all the way up to the rooftops of city skyscrapers, perhaps this is a romantic notion, however, less questionable is the instant call for attention – this technically challenging rapid ‘slide’ up the scale was not part of the original score and was only inserted by accident after one of the session players caught Gershwin’s eye by playing around during a break in rehearsal – it was, therefore, a quirk of fate that one of the work’s most notable and recognisable clarion calls should have originated in this way; then again, jazz is all about experimentation and new ideas, so in the end, this motif fits like a glove.

Hitting a high Bb note, the opening theme is recited (0.08) against a series of decidedly jazzing sounding descending chords. Gershwin was really trailblazing here – this fusion of jazz and classical sounds would have been fairly new and innovative to those present in the Aeolian Hall that night in February 1924.

The theme reaches its’ natural conclusion and at 0.36, a counter melody in Eb major appears to offer some kind of balance to the opening material. What Gershwin might have lacked in formal musical training, he more than compensated for with melodic gift. The Rhapsody in Blue is jam packed with great tunes, one after another.

Utilising terrific rhythmical creativity and more than a liberal splattering of blue notes, this is a composition which captures that wide-eyed, all-American optimism of the 1920’s. Gershwin himself commented that whilst on a train journey to Boston, he gained inspiration from the “clackety-clack” of the train on the tracks – such simple devices effectively formed the genesis of works such as this, where the listener undoubtedly places a foot in each camp (the classical concert hall and the smoky underground jazz club.) In his own words:- “I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.”

Despite his strong grounding in jazz music and the popular songs of the day, Gershwin always carried the intent of being regarded as a serious composer and it was this constant sense of dissatisfaction with his progress which caused him to seek out the help of various heralded musical professors and fellow contemporaries such as Maurice Ravel to help him continue improving his craft. Indeed, there is an amusing anecdote that tells of the occasion where Gershwin asked to study with Ravel. When Ravel heard how much Gershwin earned, Ravel replied with words to the effect of, “You should give me lessons.”

As if to illustrate his desire to incorporate the more formal and traditional aspects of a classical composition into his work, we hear (almost unexpectedly) a romantic ‘slow movement’ type theme in E major which rises and falls and is counter-balanced by a repeating 3-note figure before being answered in harmonious fashion (with unusual scoring for saxophones adding a splash of colour at 11.15.)

The theme pauses for reflection before bursting forth once again, this time with increased passion at 11.38. The piano takes over the repeating 3-note figure this time. At 12.21 the romantic theme is replaced with a new and uncertain phase which serves as a bridge to a solo piano section, starting at 12.29 and leading to a restatement of the romantic theme, this time with pianistic figurations.

Always the innovator, Gershwin at 13.29 commences a new cross-handed trick which appears more like something out of the jazz club than Carnegie Hall! These pianistic fireworks eventually lead to a thundering C# octave and a whisk up the keyboard.

We are now entering the final furlong and it sounds like something out of a Tom & Jerry cartoon – a sharply accented piercing chord appears at 14.51, almost comical in its’ appearance. The entire orchestra drives forward scampering toward a Broadway-style cadence (15.17.)

With a swashbuckling swagger, Gershwin moves to sum up matters with the big Eb theme, taken up by the piano in octaves and with the full backing of the orchestra. This theme having said its last, there is one last big statement to make – the opening Bb melody delivered in glorious, barnstorming fashion (15.54.) This is a true American fanfare, all sparkling stars and stripes thundering in all its’ confidence and glitz; the piano is given the final sign off – planting a flag in the ground with ascending, decisive Bb major chords.

This was George Gershwin’s breakthrough work which established him as a true great; it also represents a fitting and epochal musical portrait of that thrilling era in history. Kudos Mr Gershwin!