US100 music tutorial: an introduction to blue notes

Published September 2017

US100 track 12 explores the impact and legacy of legendary jazz figure and Washington, D.C. native, Duke Ellington, as well as the influence of early 20th century bandleader Paul Whiteman, whose ‘orchestral jazz’ innovations, borrowing heavily from classical influences, set the blueprint for the Duke to perfect.

Whiteman guaranteed his legacy in 1924 when he commissioned George Gershwin to compose Rhapsody In Blue, first premiered at a February concert in New York City entitled ‘An Experiment in Modern Music’. Struggling by ear to identify any link between this piece and jazz music, Jarek sat at the piano with freelance musician, composer and teacher Greg Harradine for further insight.

JZ: Greg, I’m going to need your help with this. But first, as a composer tell me what George Gershwin means to you?
GH: Well Gershwin is a towering musical figure. There’s so much to say about his style as it’s such a melting pot of influences. He was able to combine influences from popular songs of the time coming out of Tin Pan Alley with the impressionism of the classical French composers, as well as more progressive contemporary composers.

He was also one of the best proponents of mixing classical music with the world of jazz. He’s not unique in this regard – there are other composers such as Maurice Ravel who have tried to cross the divide. Gershwin was one of a small band and certainly one of the most successful.

JZ: So he was a crossover artist?
GH: I think in a sense that’s a modern term because music has always defied genre – some of the earliest pieces of so-called classical music were inspired by and directly referenced folk songs for example. But what Gershwin did was to meld two quite different worlds and create a very successful popular composition that people loved, whether they were classical musicians or whether they were or your average person on the street. I think Rhapsody In Blue sold over a million copies incredibly quickly, and it remains one of the most famous pieces of American music. Interestingly it was originally written for a piano and small jazz band rather than an orchestra.

Paul Whiteman stands over George Gershwin on the piano

JZ: That was one of Paul Whiteman’s innovations, followed by Duke Ellington: applying the jazz sound to large orchestras rather than smaller ensembles, ushering in the big band swing era. From the musician’s point of view, what difference does that make?
GH: When you have jazz played by a small band the players are able to improvise very freely and to a much larger extent; you might have someone holding down the chord progression while the trumpet player takes a solo for example. But as soon as you’ve got 20, 30, 40 musicians playing at the same time, most of them need to know exactly what they’re playing in advance. A couple of people might still take a solo but they’re the minority. It’s much more structured.

JZ: So let’s talk Rhapsody In Blue.
GH: An incredibly popular composition in which Gershwin deliberately set out to encapsulate the sound of modern America as it was at the time. Did you know he claimed to have wrote it while on a train journey? He recounted that he was listening to the sound of the train, and the composition just sprang into his mind, fully formed – he could even picture the sheet music. When he did write it down, he barely had to change a thing.

JZ: Thank you for providing a lovely thematic link: Duke Ellington wrote Take The “A” Train, while George Gershwin wrote Rhapsody In Blue while on ‘a’ train. Now give me the musical link – when I hear the latter I only hear classical, and it sounds like nothing like the former. Is it jazz?
GH: There is a lot in it, musically speaking, that is hugely jazz influenced. Specifically the harmonic and melodic choices that Gershwin makes – the language of his music if you like – are rife with ‘blue notes’.

Blue notes are a hallmark of jazz and blues music, and are more rarely found in classical music, traditionally speaking at least. Blues and jazz harmony is a world apart from classical harmony, and while Rhapsody in Blue is definitely classically influenced, its musical language is, in large part, one of jazz.

You also hear it right in the opening bars, in the introductory clarinet glissando. At the end of the scale of notes the clarinet player bends the last few, in a singular slide between the notes to hit the top one. That’s the first time in the composition you hear that jazz influence, right in those opening bars. Interestingly Gershwin didn’t write this in – the clarinetist in a rehearsal threw it in as a joke, but Gershwin loved it and kept it in there.

JZ: Could you explain a little more about these ‘blue notes’?
GH: In music different scales are often used and blue notes are where you take a note in that scale and make it slightly lower than usual, often using them to move from one note to another. The standard major scale for example would have no blues notes, but once you introduce them to the scale it produces a slightly jazzy or bluesy sound which sounds very different indeed – almost cheeky in a way. 

JZ: And with that everything is slightly clearer. What’s a rhapsody by the way?
GH: A rhapsody is a composition which is meant to be quite lyrical, quite emotional, and tends to be one movement. And it’s meant to be quite vivid, quite highly strung if you like – an outpouring of emotion through music. Lots of classical music is very highly structured – movement one does this, movement two does this – but a rhapsody is more free flowing.

JZ: You’re a star.
GH: Pleasure.

The full interview is available for download.