Neatly timed to coincide with Lincoln's birthday, Paul Whiteman predicted that his band's Feb. 12, 1924, concert in New York's austere Aeolian Hall would be a watershed event in American music. The self-proclaimed "King of Jazz" was crossing boundaries, raising jazz's social respectability, and he wanted to make sure everyone knew.
They did. A jury comprised of classical music's giants - pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff and violinists Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Kreisler - was on hand to judge the nearly two dozen works to be performed.
Whiteman was thinking big all right, but his "experiment in modern music" would have bombed if not for George Gershwin. His remarkable ink-barely-dry "Rhapsody in Blue" not only saved the day, but signalled the birth of "symphonic jazz."
Pianist Willis Delony performs "Rhapsody in Blue" with the Toledo Symphony at 8 p.m. tomorrow at the Stranahan Theater.
"The music is a perfect example of the 1920s version of the American musical melting pot," said Delony, 48, who spoke earlier this week from Baton Rouge, where he teaches at Louisiana State University.
"There is jazz and blues, Broadway flair, and the classical influence of Liszt and Chopin. Add to that melodic inflections reminiscent of the Jewish musicals. And it's all thrown together in a natural way; nothing is forced," he said.
All this from an untrained 25-year-old Tin Pan Alley composer who had made his initial name with the 1919 blackface song "Swanee." Who would have thought?
Even today the worlds of jazz and classical music rarely cross. Too often, each side is more busy protecting its turf than building bridges. That's too bad, because each has something to tell the other.
"I am a better jazz player because of the technical training I received in classical music. My classical playing is better because jazz has taught me to think on my feet," said Delony.
At LSU, Delony teaches jazz and classical piano as well as music history. He also conducts, composes, and, of course, improvises.
Pianist Willis Delony, soprano Kimberly Haynes, and baritone Ivan Griffin join conductor Chelsea Tipton II and the Toledo Symphony in "An Evening of Gershwin" at 8 p.m. tomorrow at the Stranahan Theater. Remaining tickets are $20 and $33. Information: 419-246-8000.
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