Grand Canyon Suite, by Ferde Grofé

Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite remains one of the most popular of American orchestral pieces. He first wrote it for Paul Whiteman’s jazz band and devoted his entire career to popular music. Classical music critics long scorned popular music. Throughout the 20th century, most standard classical music reference works ignored popular music figures as much as possible. The 1980 edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, for example, has no article on Grofé, although it devotes ample space to some of his contemporaries who never composed anything as successful as the Grand Canyon Suite. The few available … Continue reading

What a Wonderful World, by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss

What a Wonderful World, made famous by Louis Armstrong, always sounded to me like a Tin Pan Alley hit from the 1940s. I was surprised to learn that it first appeared in 1967. In reading for this post, I was also surprised at finding next to nothing about the composition of the song. Bob Thiele, who wrote the words, was at the time head of Impulse Jazz, a subsidiary of ABC Records. When he took that position, he was already a veteran of more than 20 years as a producer of jazz records. His obituary in the New York Times … Continue reading

Earliest jazz recordings: this year’s the 100th anniversary

A record of two songs by the Original Dixieland Jass band appeared in May 1917. It has gone down in history as the earliest jazz recording. Or was it? In any case, it made a huge splash. Recordings of dozens of other pieces with either jazz in the title or the name of the group appeared before the end of the year. The year 1917 marks a turning point not only in a particular art form, but in black music. Even though whites made the overwhelming majority of the earliest jazz recordings. … Continue reading

Autumn in New York by Vernon Duke

The season of autumn has inspired some of America’s best popular songs. New York has inspired more songs than any other American city. Inevitably, someone wrote a song called Autumn in New York. That it became a standard, recorded by dozens of the giants of American popular music was not inevitable. … Continue reading

A revolution in the music business: the phonograph

New media and services like YouTube and Spotify are shaking up the music industry. But they have no more impact than the phonograph record player did just over a hundred years ago. Not very long ago, if anyone wanted to experience music, they had to go to a concert or make it themselves. Many towns and smaller cities had no local professional concert organizations. Their citizens could attend a concert only if traveling performers chose to stop there. On the other hand, nearly every middle class household had a piano. Many people sang and played other instruments. Even small towns … Continue reading

Dueling melodies: Irving Berlin’s counterpoint songs

Lovers of Irving Berlin’s music know that he wrote double songs. Two characters on stage sing different songs in succession. Then they sing them together in counterpoint. Most may not be aware that Berlin published 15 of them between 1914 and 1966. … Continue reading

The birth of the popular music industry

  What’s the popular music industry? For that matter, what’s popular music? Most people today seem to equate “music industry” with “recording industry,” but it’s older than that. There’s no point in talking about a “classical music industry.”I looked that term up and only found articles about how badly classical music leaders conduct business. Merriam-Webster offers several definitions of “industry.” Only three seem applicable: systematic labor especially for some useful purpose or the creation of something of value a department or branch of a craft, art, business, or manufacture; especially:  one that employs a large personnel and capital especially in … Continue reading

How Tin Pan Alley transformed the popular music industry

Tin Pan Alley represents the apex of the sheet music industry in the United States. The term refers to publishers concentrated on 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. They raised marketing and commercialism to unprecedented sophistication. The popular music industry traces its history back to 18th century London. Thomas Arne and other composers wrote songs specifically for a mass audience. No one had cared so much about an unsophisticaled audience before. … Continue reading

April in Paris, by Vernon Duke

Vernon Duke didn’t expect “April in Paris” to be a hit. He had written his first complete score for a Broadway musical, Walk a Little Faster, in 1932. It did not include that song. Walk a Little Faster was one of the few shows that opened in the early years of the Depression. The producer got a hold of a second-hand Parisian set and wanted a song to go with it. Nothing Duke had written fit. … Continue reading

Answers to a Civil War tearjerker: Weeping sad and lonely

In a nation torn and divided over slavery, everyone could unite in their fear and grief at the carnage. “Weeping Sad and Lonely, or, When This Cruel War Is Over” became the most popular of the many songs that expressed it. Families on both sides of the conflict sang it. So did the soldiers. The lyrics sounded such a note of despair that some commanders tried to forbid soldiers to sing it. It was so successful commercially that it inspired more optimistic songs explicitly published as answers to it. … Continue reading