Ferde Grofé: Mississippi Suite
The Modern American Music of Ferde Grofé (Basta 9083)
The Beau Hunks, conducted by Jan Stulen.
Composed by Ferde Grofé.
Recorded: Utrecht, October 17, 1997
Rating: 93/100 (learn more)
What Billy Strayhorn was to Duke Ellington, Ferde Grofé (1892-1972) was to George Gershwin and Paul Whiteman—a brilliantly talented musical facilitator who contributed to the more famous achievements of others. Such careers are often accompanied by frustration, and one can get a bitter taste of that from a 1928 letter from Gershwin to ASCAP complaining that Grofé had claimed composer credit for Rhapsody in Blue.
Yet the Whiteman connection is even more problematic. Whiteman? An unfortunate surname for this gentlemen, who even with a more nondescript patronymic would have served as a lightning rod for criticisms that white artists tried to usurp the fame and fortune that should have gone to the African-American pioneers of jazz. The thorny issue here is less Whiteman himself, who did a lot of good for the music and served as catalyst for many excellent works (even securing commissions for Duke Ellington and other black artists), but rather the attempts to label him "the King of Jazz," which created an invevitable backlash. The first major jazz critics treated him the way current arbiters of jazz opinions deal with Kenny G. Mr. White-man, please step to the back of the jazz bus.
In such instances, I prefer to check out the music. This isn't easy for fans to do these days, since no one has thought it worthwhile to put out a comprehensive box set of Whiteman's music. In jazz circles, Whiteman is someone you talk about, but don't actually listen to or study. Fortunately the Beau Hunks, a Dutch ensemble, have meticulously recreated Ferde Grofé's concert jazz works written for Whiteman's band during the period from 1924 through 1931, and presented a complete version of Mississippi Suite (1925), which Whiteman himself never recorded in its entirety.
It is hard not to be charmed by this period work, which juxtaposes moments of gravitas with lighthearted syncopation. The melodic material may not rise to the level of Gershwin's works from this period, but it comes close. The missing element for me is simply the absence of jazz solos. If Grofé had revised this work a few years later and recorded it with improvisations by Beiderbecke, Trumbauer and other jazz-oriented talents in the Whiteman band, Mississippi Suite would be an acknowledged classic. Instead, lacking these elements, it is jazz light—an especially polished example, to be sure, but a notch below the masterpieces of the era.
Reviewer: Ted Gioia