George Gershwin's composition "Rhapsody in Blue" is considered a musical masterpiece, and a commentary on race in America in the 1920s. Today, Anthony Brown and his Asian American Orchestra have updated Gershwin's ethnic commentary in their latest CD, "Rhapsodies". Writer Fred Setterberg and producer Lonny Shavelson bring us this story from the San Francisco studio where Brown recorded the new interpretation.
In 1924, George Gershwin premiered Rhapsody in Blue in New York City. Now regarded as an American standard, Gershwin intended Rhapsody to serve as a progressive statement about American race relations. New York City was then in the midst of a huge cultural transformation, with immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe mixing with African Americans from the rural south. Gershwin drew upon the musical languages he knew best - the European classical repertoire, Jewish folk melodies, the popular songs of Tin Pan Alley, and most critically, African American jazz and blues. The result was a musical masterpiece, as varied and hybrid as the American people themselves.
Now, 80 years later, America's ethnic mix is even more diverse than it was in 1924. So Anthony Brown, jazz musician and bandleader, has recomposed Gershwin's Rhapsody to evoke the sounds of a new America. "I felt that here at the dawn of the 21st-century, that this original portrait of Manhattan during the roaring twenties, could be used to mirror the demographic realities of our country today - with a particular focus on the cultural milieu here in the San Francisco area," he explains. "I felt that the best way to recompose the piece would be to include instruments or cultural voices that would represent the full palate of America."
Brown's arrangement features eight fewer musicians than the original orchestra, playing almost twice as many instruments. He's filled his band with musicians adept not only on the brass and woodwinds of a conventional Western orchestra, but also the Chinese violin and reed trumpet, Japanese flutes and drums, percussion from Cuba, Africa, China and Japan, and steel drums from Trinidad.
The make-up of the orchestra reflects his growing up years in San Francisco. "Most of my childhood friends were a variety of nationalities," he recalls. "My father is African American of Choctaw descent, and my mother is originally a native of Tokyo." Brown's mother was a jitterbugger who used to stand outside the American service clubs to hear jazz. One night Brown's father, the assistant manager, invited her in. "I like to think that jazz made me possible," he jokes. "I am truly a child of jazz."
Brown's composition features an essential of jazz that was missing from Gershwin's original work: improvisations, by a variety of soloists. But what really makes the American Rhapsodies so startling, and so satisfying, is the way Brown has drawn together the sounds of Latin America, the Caribbean, and most of all, Asia, into this quintessentially American composition.