Friday, February 12, 2016

A Historic First Performance In Jazz, February 12, 1924

File:George Gershwin 1937.jpg
George Gershwin, 1937                                  Carl Van Vechten

Shortly after News Year's Day in 1930, the "King of Jazz," bandleader Paul Whiteman asked his friend, George Gershwin, to compose a "jazz concerto" for his concert series in New York. Although faced with a short performance deadline, Gershwin reluctantly agreed. In two weeks, he completed the new piece and entitled it Rhapsody in Blue. After two weeks of orchestration and eight days of rehearsal, Whiteman premiered the piece at the Aeolian Hall in New York on February 12, 1924 with Gershwin at the piano. The performance certainly enhanced Whiteman's reputation but more importantly it affirmed Gershwin's place as an innovative, leading American composer. The rest is history.

There is no recording of the premiere but the bandleader and composer did appear in a memorable performance of Rhapsody in Blue in the 1930 film,King of Jazz. The film itself is an important piece of cinema history.

Gershwin was born in New York in 1898. He went on to become perhaps the most beloved American composer of the last century through his many compositions for the musical stage, the concert hall, and what has become known as the Great American Songbook. His appeal comes in part from the colorful and lively incorporation of jazz motifs in all his music. He died in 1937 with what could only be called a wonderful career ahead of him. I often imagine what he could have brought to us had he lived to see the 1980's.

As for Rhapsody in Blue it seems as fresh today as it did in 1924 ranking among the most popular of concert titles in orchestra repertoires around the world.


Photographs and Illustrations:
Photograph, Van Vechten Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Abraham Lincoln: February 12, 1809

Today marks the 207th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. Do take some time today to reflect on the life, time, and legacy of Abraham Lincoln. So much of what he was in his time, we are as a nation today. 

If you want to settle into an evening with Lincoln, your choice of titles will number in the thousands and in a variety of media. I am inclined to recommend Carl Sandburg's Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years. It is available as a one-volume abridgement or you may choose to tackle the original six-volume version. Not always accurate, not always "organized" as a traditional biography, Sandburg's work is really the story of Lincoln as American experience. It's romantic, rich, warm, organic, meandering, sometimes stormy, sometimes calm. I think the approach works well because the Lincoln story is, in so many respects, the American story. Also keep in mind that, although well-known as a poet, Sandburg soon was revered in the U.S. as a poet/writer for the people, once the first volumes appeared . With that in mind, I believe Old Abe would have been proud to select a writer of popular history and culture as his official biographer.

Abraham Lincoln Photo Portrait, early 1865                                       Alexander Gardner

As you can see from the photo below, Lincoln and I go way back. That picture was taken during the spring of 1952 during my first visit to Washington. It began a long association with Old Abe and his time that peaked during the last fifteen years of my career. What an honor it was to know him well and work to preserve his story for future generations visiting our national parks.


Photos and Illustrations:
Lincoln photograph, Gardner collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Lincoln Memorial, author's archive, 1952

Sunday, February 7, 2016

SS United States: New Plans For America's Flagship

Good news for history buffs and the historic preservation movement . . .

I first wrote about the dire situation facing the SS United States in 2010 and followed the post in 2014 with an update on the enthusiastic efforts to save this significant piece of national history. And this is why the SS United States is worth preserving:  

For seventeen years, the SS United States carried passengers across the Atlantic Ocean as the Queen of the American Merchant Marine. This great liner still holds the westbound Atlantic crossing record - at an average speed of almost 40 mph - set on her maiden voyage in 1952. Now merely an empty shell, she has been weathering away since the late '70's and moored at her last destination, Philadelphia, since 1996. With her interior furnishings gone, some may say that she is a vessel we can afford to lose. But instead of decoration, the SS United States was noted for her innovation, performance, and adaptability as a military as well as civilian vessel. She is, therefore, a most suitable example of American industrial and engineering history.

Earlier this week Crystal Cruises and the SS United States Conservancy announced they had reached agreement on a planned purchase, revitalization, and return of the famed ship as a luxury liner. You can read more about the project here.


Photos and Illustrations:, SS United States at sea, travel poster

Text:, SS United States

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

February 2 Is A Day Full Of Promise

Gen. Beauregard Lee emerged from his home outside Atlanta this morning to see cloudy skies and predict an early spring. That other groundhog up north came away with the same interpretation. I would be quite pleased to see winter wither across the South for the next three weeks. And speaking of interpretations, February 2 seems to have an inordinately large number of associations as do many of those ancient days in our calendar. 

American Groundhog                                        John James Audubon (1785-1851)

What a difference a day makes:

Groundhog Day; and,

World Wetlands Day; and,

Candlemas, or the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple; and,

Feast of the Purification of the Virgin; and,

Imbolc, the first cross-quarter day of the year; and closely associated with,

St. Brigid's Day: and,

a scattering of additional national holidays and lesser feast days.

For us Candlemas has such a special meaning with its focus on Mary and Jesus. The day also reminds us that we have stretched this joyous Christmas holiday to its limit. As much as we love the season it does come to an end in the church calendar. And so today the last of the Christmas decorations have come down from the walls, doorways and mantel to be stored for next season. We'll build a fire in the den fireplace tonight but it will seem naked without its trimmings of red, green, gold and glass. But there will be light and warmth, both spiritual and physical, as this joyous Christmastide - the liturgical seasons of Christmas and Epiphany - ends.

Presentation of Jesus at the Temple          Hans Holbein, German, 1500

And so on this day we find ourselves with a completely unreliable winter weather forecast, all of our Christmas decorations neatly packed for next season, an enhanced understanding of the meaning of the number "40" in Judeo-Christian history, an introduction to the nexus of culture and cosmology, some knowledge of early Irish history, and an appreciation of the most biologically diverse ecosystem on the planet. After a late dinner tonight I intend to ponder all of this, drink in hand, in a silent conversation with the faces in the fire. We'll remark on this cross-quarter day where temperatures soared well into the 70's that winter's cold indeed gave way to the promise of spring. Better that than relying on predictions from a titled marmot living in a Colonial Revival mini-mansion.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Frederick Delius: Poet In Sound, A Soul Outburst

Today is the birthday of Frederick Delius (1862-1934) a personal favorite among the classical composers. It's difficult to categorize Delius's music. In 1929 The New York Times wrote this about him:

Delius belongs to no school, follows no tradition and is like no other composer in the form, content, or style of his music.

Almost a century later the quote remains intact. 

His impressionistic music aligns him with the English school but he has a significant place in American music history having been the first classical composer to use musical themes of black Americans in the South. Those themes appear in several of his composition more than forty years before George Gershwin and Porgy and Bess. All of his work is rich, melodic, and complex. It is demanding music for the conductor, performer and listener alike, and music that demands an acquired appreciation. Today, his popularity continues to grow but I believe he remains a relatively obscure figure in 20th century music outside of Great Britain.

From his days as a orange plantation manager at Solano Grove on the St. Johns River south of Jacksonville, Florida: 

His musical setting of the words of Walt Whitman:

The occasion of the 150th birthday of the composer in 2012 gave rise to several special programs, concerts, and documentaries. The best of the lot in my opinion is filmmaker John Bridcut's BBC documentary, Delius: Composer, Lover, Enigma. Granted it is ninety minutes long but it is first-rate work in every respect and a far better way to explore Delius than to read about him. I hope you will take the time to watch even if you have to do it in two or three segments. If you enjoy the classics and American music history you will not be disappointed.


Photos and Illustration:
painting of Delius by his wife, Jelka Rosen, painted in Grez-sur-Loing, France, 1912. Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne, Australia

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Stephane Grappelli: "The Best Ambassador For The Violin We've Ever Had"

Today marks the birthday of one of my favorite jazz artists, the violinist, Stephane Grappelli. He was born is Paris in 1908, grew up poor and made a marginal living playing the violin in the streets and accompanying silent films on the piano. In 1934 he met a gypsy guitarist named Django Reinhard and with him formed a quintette - Hot Club de France - that would make history in the world of jazz and popular music. Grappelli made his American debut in 1969, long after the Hot Club dissolved, and enjoyed a second career playing to admiring fans around the world until months before his death in 1997.

The artist in rehearsal                                                    Photo: Murdo MacLeod

Like his friend, Jdango, Grappelli was a self taught musician who developed a unique playing style. He outlived Reinhardt by nearly fifty years going on to perform solo and with many of the jazz greats of the twentieth century. 

In addition to his marvelous talent Grappelli possessed a jovial, upbeat, personality and style that endeared him to audiences young and old, large and small. One would think that a jazz virtuoso would be well known in the country that birthed the genre but he was little known in the United States even after thirty years of success in Europe.  How thankful we should be that he was "rediscovered" here and lived to entertain us for nearly thirty more 

The title quote comes from a December 19, 2007  Guardian article by Nigel Kennedy. 


Photos and Illustrations:

Kennedy quote,

Monday, January 25, 2016

Rabbie Burns's 257th

Today Scottish organizations and communities around the world are celebrating Burns Day, the 257th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns (1759-1796), the Bard of Scotland. Today's International Business Times UK edition say this about him:

Burns is one of Scotland's most important literary figures, best known for his famous – and often humorous – songs and poetry. He is regarded as Scotland's National Bard. His most recognised works include Auld Lang Syne, which is often sung at Hogmanay on New Year's Eve, and Scots Wha Hae, which has become an unofficial Scottish national anthem.
Burns, commonly known as Rabbie, was born to a poor family in Alloway, Ayr, on 25 January 1759 and began his working life on the family farm. His father hired a local teacher to tutor Burns, who showed signs of having a natural talent for writing from a young age.
As Burns grew older, his passion for Scotland and his contemporary vision played important roles in inspiring the founders of socialism and liberalism. His first work, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect – later known as the Kilmarnock Edition – was published in 1786.
He also wrote in English and is regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic movement. Burns' poetry drew on references to classical, biblical and English literature, as well as the Scottish Makar tradition – a term from Scottish literature for a poet or bard.
Burns died in Dumfries at the age of 37. Inspired by Scottish history and culture, as well as Scotland's countryside, Burns remains one of the most celebrated figures in the country's history – as demonstrated by the annual Burns Night celebrations.

Here are interpretation of two of Burns's best known poems by the late, great Scottish folk singer and educator, Jean Repath:

There's nought but care on ev'ry han',
In every hour that passes, O
What signifies the life o' man,
An' 'twere na for the lasses, O.

Green grow the rashes, O
Green grow the rashes, O
The sweetest hours that e'er I spend,
Are spent among the lasses, O

The warl'y race may riches chase,
An' riches still may fly them, O
An' tho' at last they catch them fast,
Their hearts can ne'er enjoy them, O.

Green grow the rashes, O
Green grow the rashes, O
The sweetest hours that e'er I spend,
Are spent among the lasses, O

But gie me a cannie hour at e'en,
My arms about my dearie, O,
An' warl'y cares an' war'ly men
May a' gae tapsalteerie, O!

Green grow the rashes, O
Green grow the rashes, O
The sweetest hours that e'er I spend,
Are spent among the lasses, O

For you sae douce, ye sneer at this
Ye're nought but senseless asses, O
The wisest man the warl' e'er saw,
He dearly lov'd the lasses, O.

Green grow the rashes, O
Green grow the rashes, O
The sweetest hours that e'er I spend,
Are spent among the lasses, O

Auld Nature swears, the lovely dears
Her noblest work she classes, O
Her prentice han' she try'd on man,
An' then she made the lasses, O.

Green grow the rashes, O
Green grow the rashes, O
The sweetest hours that e'er I spend,
Are spent among the lasses, O


Cauld is the e'enin blast,
O' Boreus o'er the pool,
An' dawin' it is dreary,
When birks are bare at Yule.

Cauld blaws the e'enin blast,
When bitter bites the frost,
And, in the mirk and dreary drift,
The hills and glens are lost.

Ne'er sae murky blew the night,
That drifted o'er the hill,
But bonie Peg-a-Ramsay
Gat grist in her mill.

For everything you ever wanted to know about Robert Burns and Burns Night go here. If you are fortunate enough to attend a Burns Supper tonight we trust you will enjoy the haggis and the extra dam or two of fine whisky to wash it down.


Photos and Illustrations:
Alexander Reid, miniature portrait, ca, 1795, National Portrait Gallery Scotland

poems are public domain