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George Gershwin in the 1920s (Library of Congress)

In 1920s America, Paul Whiteman was a bandleader and the self-proclaimed "King of Jazz" (a title which must have raised Louis Armstrong’s eyebrows, if not his hackles). On 3 January 1924 Whiteman announced that he planned an "Experiment in Modern Music" at Aeolian Hall in New York City. This concert would be a showcase for nearly every form of American music. It would include a new "jazz concerto" by George Gershwin.

The next day, Gershwin learned from the New York Times that he was composing a new "jazz concerto."

Odd way to receive a commission — from the newspaper — but Whiteman browbeat Gershwin into accepting it. The composer of Al Jolson’s hit song "Swanee" had 39 days to throw something together.

Between the time frame and his own keenly felt lack of experience, Gershwin wasn’t quite up to orchestrating the piece. So Whiteman collared his best arranger, Ferde Grofe, and persuaded him to do the deed. With Grofe’s help, on the 12th of February, a somewhat overly long "Experiment in Modern Music" suddenly snapped to life when Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue crackled through the audience.

Rhapsody in Blue was a smashing success. "Swanee" had made Gershwin’s name in America; now he suddenly had an international reputation.

So he wouldn’t have to rely on Grofe again, Gershwin began studying harmony and counterpoint in earnest. He traveled to Paris and called on Maurice Ravel, whom he knew had instructed other composers in orchestration. Ravel demurred: "Why would you want to risk being a second-rate Ravel when you are already a first-rate Gershwin?"

Stravinsky also turned him down, but in Hollywood, Gershwin finally got Arnold Schoenberg to work with him on orchestration (when they weren’t playing tennis). Schoenberg muttered that, considering his income against Gershwin’s, maybe Gershwin should be giving him music lessons.

Taxi Horns
Taxi Horns
(Cambridge University Musical Society)

In 1926 Gershwin was in London for the opening of his musical Lady Be Good, and he visited Paris again in a side trip. He spent much of his stay there wandering round the city on foot. He not only explored the usual tourist sites, he also visited an auto parts store on the Avenue de la Grande Armée. When he returned to America, he brought back a few authentic Parisian taxi horns — and a jaunty "walking theme," just the tempo of his own Paris-traipsing gait.

So Gershwin had the opening of An American in Paris — but that was as far as he could get. He needed another, longer visit to La Ville-Lumière to tie down the rest of his "rhapsodic ballet." He got it in March of 1928. Such European musical luminaries as Ravel, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Poulenc and Milhaud graciously welcomed Gershwin. He also bought more taxi horns.

Gershwin was back in New York on 20 June and had the piano sketches for An American in Paris wrapped up within 6 weeks.

This time, Gershwin proudly orchestrated the work himself. It took him an agonizing 2 1/2 months. When he finished An American in Paris on 18 November, Gershwin had less than four weeks until the premiere. Walter Damrosch conducted it with the New York Philharmonic on 13 December, 1928.

So just who is the American in Paris? Gershwin tried to be vague. In August of 1928, he told a writer for Musical America magazine, "My purpose is to portray the impression of an American visitor in Paris, as he strolls about the city and listens to various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere."

But that’s exactly what Gershwin did in Paris in 1926 and 1928: he strolled the city, listened to its sounds, absorbed its atmosphere. "Write what you know," that’s the author’s axiom, and in 1926 and 1928, it worked for Gershwin. It would be awfully difficult to argue that anyone but George Gershwin himself was the American in Paris.

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