Jazz Band to Delight Audiences with Original ‘Rhapsody in Blue’

Jazz Band to Delight Audiences with Original ‘Rhapsody in Blue’
Music Professor David Kopplin directs the Cal Poly Pomona Jazz Band.
The Jazz Band will perform the original version of “Rhapsody in Blue” during its March 10 concert.

“Rhapsody in Blue” is arguably the most recognizable piece by American composer George Gershwin, with countless performances and recordings. It's part of the standard repertoire for pop orchestras and is often heard in movies and television, notably in Disney's “Fantasia 2000” and in commercials for United Airlines.


Despite its ubiquitousness, most people have never heard the original jazz band version that Gershwin debuted in 1924 with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Instead, they're more familiar with the slower, more romantic arrangement.


Audiences will have the opportunity to hear the original version of “Rhapsody in Blue” when the Cal Poly Pomona Jazz Band, directed by Associate Music Professor David Kopplin, performs in concert on Tuesday, March 10. To hear a sound clip of the piece, click here.


“We're trying to recreate the original jazz band sound,” Kopplin says. Instead of the usual “big, schmaltzy, string-heavy orchestral version,” Kopplin says audiences should expect a faster rendition that relies more on wind and brass instruments rather than strings. “It's more like dance band music instead of United Airlines music.”


Performing the original “Rhapsody” is seldom — to never — done, Kopplin says. During the summer, he found a copy of the unpublished, hand-written orchestral score, complete with revisions and scratch-outs. In fact, the music was so hastily prepared that some of the music for individual instruments doesn't exactly align with the conductor's score.


“Probably some of the parts were even written on the night of the concert. There wasn't a lot of time when the orchestration was made and when the parts actually went to the players,” Kopplin says.


After the debut performance, an arrangement for full orchestra was later written by Ferde Grofé, a member of the Paul Whiteman orchestra.


Rachael Worby, music director of the Pasadena POPS, says: “Gershwin's original score of 'Rhapsody in Blue' for solo piano and jazz band was one of the most remarkable fusions of jazz and classical music ever conceived. At its world premiere in 1924, Gershwin himself played the thorny piano part. The version with which most people are familiar is from an orchestration which was composed in the early 1940s.


“It is a rare treat to hear the piece in its original incarnation, one which is sure to astonish the audience.”


Pianist Kateri Lirio, a third-year music student, first played “Rhapsody” for solo piano when she was 14 years old. Performing the piece with the university Jazz Band is a new experience for her. “Playing the original version is really interesting, and it's a challenge,” she says.


In addition to differences in tempo and style, audiences will notice a few other changes. The banjo, which is often lost in the full orchestra, will have a more prominent role in the performance. “We're putting it front and center because audiences in 1924 were used to hearing the banjo in a jazz or dance band,” Kopplin says. The faster tempo also means the piece is about 16 minutes long, rather than 18 to 20 minutes that is the standard for contemporary performances.


The concert is on Tuesday, March 10, at 8 p.m. in the Music Recital Hall. The Cal Poly Pomona Jazz Combo, directed by Zac Matthews, also will perform. Tickets are $7 and can be purchased at the door, online at https://csupomona.tix.com/ or at the Music Publicity Office in Building 24, Room 142. Parking is $5. For more information, visit www.class.cpp.edu/mu or call (909) 869-3554.