By 1923, the bandleader Paul Whiteman wanted to do something different with jazz. He wanted to turn the American dance band into something a bit more prestigious, or as Paul Osgood, the author of 1926's So This is Jazz put it, make "an honest woman out of jazz." Whiteman said in 1927, "I never questioned her honesty. I simply thought she needed a new dress."
Whiteman invited George Gershwin to perform in his Experiment in Modern Music show with his Palais Royal Orchestra, slated for February 12, 1924. George's brother Ira Gershwin recalled reading an article in the New York Herald on January 4 about the upcoming jazz concerto, which said that George would be performing. This was news to Ira. George reports that he had started to consider the idea of writing something that pushed "the limitations of jazz" the previous December. When working out the theme, he heard it as "a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America." "American Rhapsody" became "Rhapsody in Blue" at Ira's suggestion.
Whiteman's show began in the afternoon and carried into the evening. The packed house had already enjoyed a full program of some of the America's finest jazz. A critic for Theatre Magazine wrote, "Mr. Whiteman's jazz concert was often vulgar, but it was never dull." However, it was Gershwin's piece that was the star of the show.
The two-and-a-half-octave clarinet glissando is instantly recognizable today, but was not like much that the crowd had ever heard before. "Rhapsody in Blue" commanded three curtain calls, despite the fact that Gershwin had been so rushed to complete the score, he improvised his own piano solo. His manuscript of the music contained blank pages in place of his piano parts.
In addition to Gershwin, 18 musicians played a total of 23 instruments at the concert. The piece was arranged by Ferde Grofé.
Is this jazz? Critics have been divided on that. Some have suggested that it is a series of songs strung together that can easily be broken up. Maybe that was, to a degree, the point. Gershwin wanted to write something that exemplified America as a melting pot, not to mention to prove his own worth as a serious composer. He did both. Respected writer William Saroyan said of the piece, it is "an American in New York City; at the same time it is an American in any city... It is also an American in a small town, on a farm, at work in a factory, in a mine or a mill, a forest or a field." New York critic Olin Downes said of Gershwin after the show, "This is no mere dance-tune set for piano and other instruments. This composition shows extraordinary talent, just as it also shows a young composer with aims that go far beyond those of his ilk."
By the end of the year, Whiteman and his orchestra had performed "Rhapsody in Blue" more than 80 times and their recording had sold over a million copies. The success of the song was not lost on Gershwin. Legend has it that when he was speaking with composer John Ireland, Gershwin asked him how often Ireland's rhapsody, "Mai-Dun," was played per year. When Ireland replied, "Three," Gershwin said, "Three. Ah, Mine gets played two or three times per day!"
The original 1924 performance of this song was recorded, and it was released on June 10, 1924. Running a total of 8:59, it took up both sides of a 78-rpm record, and much of the middle section was omitted.
In 1927, Ferde Grofé re-orchestrated the song, and Gershwin again recorded it with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. With a slower tempo and much better sound quality, this became the most popular version of the song.
Many listeners will recognize this song as the signature music of United Airlines, which used it in commercials and on board their planes starting in 1987. Unlike older classical compositions, the song was not in the public domain (it entered in 2020, 95 years after it was published), so United paid a fee of $300,000 per year to license the piece. For United, the recognizable and elegant song helped brand the airline as trustworthy while soothing passengers in potentially stressful circumstances. It was a major change from their "fly the friendly skies" campaign which they used pre-"Rhapsody," and remains one of the most iconic uses of music in corporate branding. United was the first company to use the song in commercials.
Some of the media uses of this song include the TV shows The Simpsons (in the 2010 episode "Elementary School Musical" and again in 2012 in "The D'oh-cial Network") and Glee, and the movies Poetic Justice and Fantasia/2000. Many older movies featured the song as well, including St. Louis Blues (1929), King of Jazz (1930), and The Great Ziegfeld (1936).
Gershwin conceived his famous piano concerto while on a train to Boston. He said at the beginning of 1924: "I had already done some work on the rhapsody. It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang that is often so stimulating for a composer."
Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson says that this is the first song he ever heard, and that he was enthralled by it. "I loved the part where the violins came in," he told Rolling Stone. "I just got this overwhelmingly beautiful vibe from the music."