No, ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ Is Not ‘the Worst’

A couple of weeks ago in The Times, a seasoned musician and composer proposed that George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” was “corny and Caucasian,” a “cheesecake” that has “clogged the arteries of American music.” And this in the centennial year of the rhapsody, which was first played on Feb. 12, 1924, at Aeolian Hall in Manhattan! Anyone making such a charge should expect a bit of pushback. Herewith some.

The rhapsody was programmed as the culmination of a concert titled “An Experiment in Modern Music,” which proposed that jazz, then new to the American mainstream, was serious music worthy of a venue as tony as Aeolian Hall, with the celebrity bandleader Paul Whiteman on the podium and Gershwin himself on piano. Gershwin intended the rhapsody to fuse the respective powers of classical music and jazz. People liked it a lot, and they still do.

But the pianist and composer Ethan Iverson wishes they didn’t. In the article I cited above, “The Worst Masterpiece: ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ at 100,” Iverson offers an intriguing take: that “Rhapsody in Blue,” while having its charms, is just too square to merit being played as often as it is. He believes the rhapsody isn’t truly jazzy enough, and specifically that it only lightly dwells in African-based rhythm. In other words, the rhapsody fails because it doesn’t jam.

But to Gershwin, the rhapsody was precisely what it needed to be. He specifically sought to avoid straitjacketing it with the unchanging peppiness of a dance beat as if that was all jazz was or could be. He revealed his purpose in a subsequent letter: “Jazz, they said, had to be in strict time. It had to cling to dance rhythms. I resolved, if possible, to kill that misconception with one sturdy blow.” So while the rhapsody certainly has its foot-tapping sections, it also sails, rests, jolts and soars.

Iverson is correct in noting the complexities of African and Latin rhythms; any idea that curious music listeners should focus only on melody and harmony is by now antique and narrow. But to wish the rhapsody were more rhythmically funky, or that its place in our hearts had been taken instead by a funkier piece written later, implies that said funkiness is an artistic advance akin to perspective in painting. The idea seems to be that any jazz-related music lacking that funk is primordial and obsolete, a tiny-footed fish crawling glumly out of the water, as opposed to a fully evolved gazelle.

Indeed, overall Iverson wants the concert stage to be a jamming place, with a rich suffusion of Black and brown rhythms. “To this day,” he writes in his Times article, “the training of American conservatory musicians prioritizes pure tone production and mechanical facility over a basic dance beat.” Yes, but what Iverson sees as an ideal actually begs a question: Is it necessarily true that the American concert hall falls short by not embracing and executing the dance beat?

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