Advertised as an educational event, the “Experiment in Modern Music” drew a capacity crowd to New York City’s Aeolian Hall on the afternoon of February 12, 1924. Noted critics were in attendance as were such luminaries as John Phillip Sousa and Sergei Rachmaninoff.
Organized by the conductor of the Palais Royal Orchestra, Paul Whiteman, the concert was intended to introduce the new form of music called jazz and show audiences that it was a musical form to be reckoned with. True to its billing as educational, most of the concert had consisted of mind-numbing rather than toe-tapping music, two dozen little lessons that began to dissolve into one another as the audience grew antsier and antsier. At last (second to last, actually) a young Broadway composer sat down at the piano to perform a brand new piece written for the occasion.
His composition had been hastily created. Just over a month earlier, while in a Manhattan pool hall, he had read in a newspaper that he was scheduled to perform a jazz concerto at the Whiteman soiree. Painted into the proverbial corner, he set to work. The framework of his concerto came to him on a train journey: “It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer – I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise . . . And there I suddenly heard, and even saw on paper – the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end.”
The piece opened with an “outrageous cadenza of the clarinet,” now instantly recognizable, and “Rhapsody in Blue” metamorphosed into a showstopper of American music history. George Gershwin himself would, as a New York Times critic lacking restraint put it, “go far beyond those of his ilk.”
Forty years later, on February 12, 1964, New York City would again be home to musical history. This time the venue was Carnegie Hall and the occasion a major skirmish in the British invasion as the Beatles held their first concert in the U.S. And not everyone thought they would go far beyond those of their ilk: “Visually they are a nightmare, tight, dandified Edwardian-Beatnik suits and great pudding bowls of hair. Musically they are a near disaster, guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony and melody.” — Newsweek
For those of you in the cheap seats I’d like ya to clap your hands to this one; the rest of you can just rattle your jewelry!” — John Lennon