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ClassicsOnline Home » JOHNSON, J.P.: Yamekraw / RESER, H.: Suite / GERSHWIN, G.: Rhapsody in Blue (Jazz Nocturne - American Concertos of the Jazz Age) (Rosenberg)
In his famous novel The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald coined the phrase ‘the Jazz Age’ to describe the flamboyant era that emerged in America after World War I. George Gershwin’s immortal A Rhapsody in Blue is heard here in its complete original version for jazz band as orchestrated by Ferde Grofé, who also orchestrated the Concerto in Three Rhythms by Dana Suesse (dubbed the ‘Girl Gershwin’ by The New Yorker). The second theme from her Jazz Nocturne became a popular hit when Bing Crosby crooned it under the title My Silent Love. Master banjoist Harry F. Reser’s exuberant Suite demands an extraordinary technique from the soloist. ‘Fats’ Waller was the pianist for the première of African-American composer James Price Johnson’s blues-inflected Yamekraw.
American Concertos of the Jazz Age
Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody, orchestrated by William Grant Still
James P. Johnson, a highly influential African-American jazz pianist who also wrote popular songs and composed classical works, was the founder of the stride piano idiom, a crucial figure in the transition from ragtime to jazz. Growing up in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Johnson studied classical and ragtime piano techniques, and by his late teens he was performing in saloons, in dance halls, and at parties in a black community near Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan. While playing for dancers before 1920 he became noted for his rare ability to create embellishments, variations, and improvisations on popular songs, including the blues, which were relatively new at the time. He made piano rolls followed by recordings of his own songs. He also composed and orchestrated music for stage revues in collaboration with his leading student, Fats Waller.
As played by Johnson, stride piano, a development of ragtime, used two-beat left-hand rhythms to accompany right-hand melodies that featured uncommon interpretative variety. Representative pieces range from the heartily swinging, up-tempo Carolina Shout and Carolina Balmoral to the delicate, reflective and slower-paced Blueberry Rhyme and Snowy Morning Blues. Grace and elegance of musical line characterize his solos, and among his accompaniments, his work in singer Bessie Smith’s Backwater Blues is especially notable. The most popular songs that he wrote include The Charleston, Old Fashioned Love, and If I Could Be with You One Hour Tonight.
Johnson’s symphonic works, according to composer Gunther Schuller, use “basic Negro musical traditions that emulated roughly Liszt’s approach in his Hungarian rhapsodies”. Clearly inspired by the success of his friend George Gershwin’s 1924 composition, A Rhapsody in Blue, Johnson created his own composition of similar format and scale in 1927 as his first large-scale semi-classical composition. Johnson felt that as an African-American composer he was perhaps even better qualified to fuse jazz and classical forms than Gershwin had been. (Johnson and Gershwin had first met when both men were cutting piano rolls for the Aeolian company around 1917, and had both written songs for a show in England in the early 1920s.) The foreword to the first publication of Yamekraw describes the intent of the work as “A genuine Negro treatise on spiritual, syncopated and ‘blue’ melodies by James P. Johnson, expressing the religious fervor and happy moods of the natives of Yamekraw, a Negro settlement situated on the outskirts of Savannah, Georgia.”
Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody was first performed at a concert produced by the “Father of the Blues” W.C. Handy, at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1928. Unfortunately, Johnson was not released from his duties as conductor of the musical Keep Shufflin’ that evening, so his protégé Thomas “Fats” Waller played the piano solo part at the concert. The piece was quite successful—it was used as the soundtrack of a 1930 Vitaphone motion picture short subject also entitled Yamekraw, and as the overture to Orson Welles’ production of “Macbeth” later in the 1930s, and was recorded in abbreviated versions several times. This success inspired Johnson’s further efforts in the jazz-classical fusion area, such as his Harlem Symphony (1932), a symphonic version of W.C. Handy’s St Louis Blues (1937), and his concerto Jazz A’ Mine (1934). Furthermore, William Grant Still, who arranged the orchestral parts for that concert, was evidently inspired by the piece’s success to go on to create his own compositions for full orchestra, such as his Afro- American Symphony (1931). This disc marks the première recording of the complete, final orchestral version of the work. As one of the first successful large-scale musical works by an African-American composer, Yamekraw thus played an important rôle in the development of American music in the twentieth century.
Harry F. Reser (1896-1965): Suite for Banjo and Orchestra, orchestrated by Don Vappie
Harry Reser, one of the greatest banjoists of all time, possessed extraordinary technique, often creating the impression of playing on two banjos at the same time. The Pickers’ Digest described him as “Not just a master banjoist, but the banjo master.” He got his start playing in dance bands in his hometown of Piqua, Ohio but moved to New York City in 1921, where he quickly became a sought-after recording session musician. Reser’s numerous 1920s recordings proved that the banjo, thought of as strictly a rhythm instrument, was in fact a solo instrument. In the autumn of 1923, after being featured in a highly successful, long-running show with Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra at the London Hippodrome, Reser returned to the United States with his greatest commercial triumph yet ahead of him. In 1925, he was invited to become the director for the Clicquot Club Eskimo Orchestra on the NBC radio network. This weekly half-hour show, sponsored by Clicquot Club ginger ale, made Reser quite well known and was on the air until 1935. During the 1920s and 1930s, he also led many bands using an amazing number of pseudonyms (The Bostonians, The Californians, The Clevelanders, Cliquot Club Eskimos, Denza Dance Band, Jazz Pilots, Six Jumping Jacks, Tennessee Happy Boys, The Vagabonds, etc.). Reser continued to be quite active in music for the rest of his life, touring, leading television studio orchestras, playing in Broadway orchestras, recording and writing several popular banjo, guitar and ukulele instruction books. His 1927 Harry Reser’s New Instructional Course for Tenor Banjo mail-order course provided one lesson per week. When the students mailed the tests back, they received personalized advice in Reser’s own handwriting. As a composer, bandleader and performer, Harry Reser set the standard by which all aspiring banjoists would be judged. He was inducted into the National Four-String Banjo Hall of Fame in 1999.
George Gershwin (1898-1937): A Rhapsody in Blue, complete original version for jazz band, orchestrated by Ferde Grofé
In 1920 Paul Whiteman and Ferde Grofé organized the New York City dance emporium, “Palais Royal”. Combining danceable tunes with jazz elements, the Palais Royal concerts became a huge success. Three years later, Whiteman had the idea of transposing American jazz to the respectable confines of the concert hall, where it could get the recognition he felt it deserved. George Gershwin had just appeared on the concert stage at New York’s Aeolian Hall, accompanying singer Eva Gautier in a program that included American jazz songs. Paul Whiteman, who had conducted and was impressed with the Gershwin- DeSylva Blue Monday, asked George to write an original blues composition in which Gershwin himself could show off his extraordinary Tin Pan Alley pianistic virtuosity. Nothing further was discussed, and Gershwin soon forgot about the chat.
On New Year’s Day, 1924, George Gershwin was beating Buddy DeSylva in a game of billiards when his brother, Ira, interrupted bearing a clipping from the New York Herald. The article indicated that George Gershwin was completing a jazz concerto for the Experiment in Modern Music slated for Lincoln’s Birthday at Aeolian Hall. Gershwin lost the billiard game but began work on the concerto at once. His rhapsodic form took shape quickly—the synopsis and overall language of A Rhapsody in Blue (the title is courtesy of George’s brother, Ira) were inspired by the “steely, rattlety-bang rhythms” of the train he rode to Boston.
Gershwin feared he would not meet the 12th February deadline, and requested that Whiteman provide Grofé’s assistance in orchestrating the concerto. He suggested ideas to Grofé and was generally pleased with Grofé’s modifications—especially regarding rhythm, chordal spacing and part-leading. Grofé knew the special talents of the Whiteman musicians and was uniquely qualified to customize the score to maximize its impact.
Owing to the expected three-hour length of their upcoming concert (it eventually lasted almost four hours) and to the complexity and harmonic language of portions of Gershwin’s new concerto, Whiteman and Grofé encouraged the young composer to make his concerto more concise, and Gershwin reluctantly complied. Thirty bars were compressed into existing solo sections and sixteen bars were entirely deleted.
In 1978, Ira Gershwin, George’s older brother and lyricist, gave me a copy of the original A Rhapsody in Blue manuscript and parts. I conducted the first performance of the unabridged version, including all of the previously omitted measures, in March of that year with Janina Dumont O’Brien as the soloiSt This disc marks the unabridged concerto’s first recording.
— Richard Rosenberg
Nadine Dana Suesse (1909-1987): Jazz Nocturne, orchestrated by Carroll Huxley Concerto in Three Rhythms, orchestrated by Ferde Grofé
Dana Suesse spent her childhood in the spotlight of Kansas City, Missouri, giving piano recitals, appearing in vaudeville, broadcasting on radio and writing poetry for the newspapers. She moved to New York City in 1926, and within weeks of her arrival she had copyrighted piano solos and tried her hand at popular songs. Her instrumental, Syncopated Love Song, was first performed on radio in 1928.
By 1930 the entertainment industry was paying close attention to Dana Suesse. Lyricist Leo Robin created a lyric, Have You Forgotten? for the second strain of Syncopated Love Song, and the song was recorded on every label in America and Britain. Soon after, she was signed by Famous Music Publishers and composed two more international hits, Whistling In The Dark and Ho Hum!
Paul Whiteman, who owed much of his fame to bridging popular music and concert music, believed Suesse was another Gershwin, and made her the centerpiece of his Fourth Experiment in Modern Music at Carnegie Hall. Suesse attended her first Whiteman concert in 1927 and was undoubtedly influenced by his philosophy. In a 1937 interview, she remarked, “…there’s certainly no harm in writing [music] in such a form that large numbers of people can enjoy it.”
Between her first meeting with Whiteman (1931) and the “Experiment” concert (1932), Suesse’s fame continued to grow with the publication of another short instrumental, Jazz Nocturne. The Nocturne’s first theme, a restless, major/minor feeling, captured the spirit of the Jazz Era; the second theme was an obvious candidate for a popular ballad. Since Syncopated Love Song had been made into such a successful song with text, Suesse considered making a popular song out of Jazz Nocturne. Her boss, Larry Spier of Famous Music, Inc., wouldn’t hear of it. While Spier was on a vacation, the story goes, Edward Heyman created a lyric to the Nocturne’s second strain and submitted it to the publisher’s acting manager as My Silent Love. Suesse felt she had truly arrived when, in 1933, she went to the movies and heard heartthrob Bing Crosby singing My Silent Love as the opening song in the Mack Sennett short, Blue Of The Night.
Because of the success of My Silent Love, publicity for the Whiteman concert at Carnegie Hall took on a more intense quality. Whiteman asked Gershwin and Suesse to pose for a publicity photo to attract attention to the upcoming concerto concert. The three of them met in a rehearsal room three weeks before the concert and tried to look engrossed with orchestral scores; the photo was used in publications worldwide. It was not Suesse’s first meeting with Gershwin, and subsequently she would be a guest in his Riverside Drive apartment and on his radio broadcaSt
The Carnegie Hall concert on 4th November 1932 offered (among others) a fox trot arrangement of Ravel’s Bolero, Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody, Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm, Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite and Suesse’s Concerto In Three Rhythms.
Leonard Liebling of The Musical Courier called the concert “…an arranger’s holiday, and that fact speaks eloquently for the musical significance of the composers who were experimenting in serious art forms…Miss Suesse represents the best type of jazz writing. She rhythms expertly with themes that have character; harmonizes adroitly and colorfully; and tells her musical story convincingly…The composer played her work with sure technique and a refreshing measure of feeling and gusto. She had a rousing response from the audience.”
In reviewing a subsequent Suesse/Whiteman concert (16th December 1933), The New Yorker magazine printed the headline: “Girl Gershwin.”
— Peter Mintun
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JOHNSON, J.P.: Yamekraw / RESER, H.: Suite / GERSH...