By Gary Barton
On the night of April 17, 1933, composer, arranger and bandleader Ferde Grofé was about to go on the air live with his own radio show. Events were already underway that would make a movement of his Grand Canyon Suite one of the most familiar pieces in American broadcast history. The sponsor of the show, the Philip Morris Tobacco Company, had hired Johnny Roventini, a 48-inch-tall bellboy who worked in the New Yorker Hotel, to do a special opening. The president of the company and the president of its advertising agency had heard him paging someone using a tone that was a clear and resonant B flat, and as an experiment gave him a message to be delivered to a Mr. Philip Morris. Johnny's voice was heard repeating, "Call for Philip Morris," and an idea was hatched to that would make this name a household word. In rehearsal, it was discovered that Johnny's voice blended perfectly with the E flat tonal center of "On The Trail" from Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite. As the show went on the air, Johnny's voice was heard, followed by a short segment from this piece. The combination was a tremendous hit, and from then on Johnny and the opening of the "On the Trail" were the public personifications of Philip Morris cigarettes.
Ferdinand Rudolph von Grofé was born in New York City March 27, 1892. His father was a violinist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. His mother, also musically inclined, studied at the Leipzig Conservatory; her instrument was the cello. Ferde had his first piano and viola lessons from his mom and accompanied her when she went to Europe to study. However, after Mr. von Grofé's death in 1903, the two returned to New York.
At the age of 14, Grofé rebelled and ran away from home. He played piano in mining camps, bordellos and just about anywhere else that popular music was played and also worked as a bookbinder, truck-driver, usher, newsboy, elevator operator, lithographer, typesetter and steelworker. He did, however, continue with his musical studies in his spare time.
In 1909, Grofé went to California. He was good enough to successfully audition for and play in the violin section of the Los Angeles Symphony. He regularly played dance band gigs as well, ending up with Art Hickman in 1915. Ferde Grofé "heard America singing," and what it was singing was ragtime and jazz. In 1919, he left the Los Angeles Symphony job and started his own jazz band.
At about the same time, another young member of a symphony orchestra set off on his own. His name was Paul Whiteman. Whiteman was a successful musician, conductor, arranger and businessman. Deciding that the stress of trying to juggle all of these occupations at the same time was too much, he began looking for someone to ease his burden by taking over the job of writing the arrangements for his band. He had heard Grofé's work and liked it. During the winter of 1920, Grofé replaced pianist Charles Caldwell and took over arranging duties for Whiteman. In many cases, what Grofé put down on paper were the best ideas of earlier non-public collective improvisations. His orchestrations were so natural that once the band knew the charts they could play the music exactly written without consulting their sheet music. Thus, it seemed to audiences that they were hearing some very spontaneous "head arrangements" when in fact this was not the case.
Whiteman was at first reluctant to go into the recording studio, and was adamant that each musician memorize all his parts. The orchestra's first test recordings were made August 9, 1920 at the Victor studios in Camden, New Jersey. The earliest Whiteman Orchestra recordings, with Grofé's arrangements (except for one tune) and Grofé on piano, were released at the end of 1920 and were enormously successful.
Meanwhile, Whiteman wanted to "make a lady" of his kind of music and create something about which serious classical concertgoers could be enthusiastic. He therefore commissioned George Gershwin to write a large-scale piece (as compared to what would fit on a 78-rpm record) that would feature Gershwin himself as pianist. In January 1924, Gershwin finally delivered the music. Whiteman was shocked when he looked at the manuscript, for the piece had been written for only two pianos! Working with feverish intensity and focus, Ferde Grofé orchestrated the work for the 23-piece ensemble in time for the premiere on February 12, 1924, in New York's Aeolian Hall. The piece was called Rhapsody in Blue.
Emboldened by this success, Grofé began thinking of writing his own works in a similar vein. In 1924, he wrote Broadway by Night. Mississippi Suite appeared in 1925, Three Shades of Blue in 1927 and Metropolis in 1928.
In 1931, Grofé attended Whiteman's wedding, for which he had been asked to compose a large-scale composition. He thought of what he had seen and heard during a vacation in Arizona and began to formulate musical equivalents. The resulting suite was entitled Five Pictures of the Grand Canyon. After its premiere, Grofé changed the name to Grand Canyon Suite. Curiously, Grofé's version for full symphony orchestra premiered before his arrangement for Whiteman's band at a concert to support musicians who were without work.
During the following years, Grofé was appointed to the faculty at The Juilliard School and composed much more music. The Tabloid Suite (four pictures of a modern newspaper) included actual typewriters in the percussion section. Symphony in Steel had its premiere here in Cincinnati in 1935; The Hollywood Suite appeared that same year. Trylon and Perisphere was written for the 1939 New York World's Fair and the Aviation Suite came out in 1946. The Death Valley Suite, written in 1949, was followed by the Hudson River Suite in 1955 and the Niagara Falls Suite in 1961. Grofé also wrote music for several Hollywood films, including Rocketship X-M, which included a part for the theremin, an eerie-sounding electronic instrument that the Beach Boys would later use in their hit, "Good Vibrations."
Grofé died of multiple heart attacks in April of 1972.
The Essential Grofe
Here are some recordings that belong in every Grofé lover's library.
The Modern Music of Ferde Grofé features the Beau Hunks (Basta 9083). This 35-piece ensemble recreates the sound of early Grofé pieces using older Neumann U-46 condenser microphones overhead so that a balance is achieved not in the control room but rather by the musicians themselves. The scholarship and love that has gone into this undertaking by an all-Dutch group of musicians, aided by the Music Collection of The Library of Congress, Ferde Grofé, Jr., and the Paul Whiteman Collection at Williams College, is impressive. In many cases, it was discovered that cuts had been made in some scores so that the piece would fit onto one side of a 78rpm record. This recording produces the music for the first time as Grofé intended. It includes Broadway at Night, Mississippi Suite, Three Shades of Blue, Metropolis: A Blue Fantasy, and "Cloudburst" from The Grand Canyon Suite.
Paul Whiteman Conducts George Gershwin: Live Performances 1934-1948 (Music & Arts 1042) includes two performances of Rhapsody in Blue. One was recorded April 10, 1938 with Roy Bargy as piano soloist, the other on May 6, 1945, with Earl Wild at the keyboard.
George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, featuring the composer playing via a 1925 piano roll and the Columbia Jazz Band conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (recorded in 1976), is a very satisfying amalgam of old and new. (Sony 93018.)
Naxos 559017 features Death Valley Suite, Hudson River Suite and Pictures (6) of Hollywood. The price is right and the performances quite precise. William T. Stromberg conducts the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 559007 includes Grand Canyon Suite, Mississippi Suite and Niagara Falls Suite performed by the same ensemble.
Telarc 80086 features a most satisfying performance of Grand Canyon Suite with startling dynamics and REAL thunder by the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, Erich Kunzel conducting.
EMI 66387 includes Grand Canyon Suite, Mississippi Suite and Death Valley Suite with the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra conducted by Felix Slatkin and "Cloudburst" from Grand Canyon with Grofé himself leading the Capitol Symphony Orchestra. These are museum piece performances.
The New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein presents Grand Canyon Suite in a terrific recording if you've got an SACD setup (Sony 89033 SACD). This disc contains as well Grofé's full symphony orchestra version of Rhapsody in Blue with Bernstein as soloist and George Gershwin's An American in Paris.
I'd like to express my indebtedness to Herman Openneer, who works for the Dutch Jazz Archives and wrote the notes for the Beaux Hunks CD, for putting together such a wealth of information in the liner notes that accompany that disc. Without his scholarship, this review would not have been possible.