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‘We must face harms done”: Béla Fleck’s defense of George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’

Bela Fleck
Jesse Borell
Bela Fleck

I loved reading Ethan Iverson’s beautifully written discussion on“Rhapsody in Blue” for The New York Times, and the pitfalls and problems with it. It certainly made me think, and I appreciated reading such well-articulated and thoughtful points. To be fair he did also acknowledge the strength of “Rhapsody in Blue,” which of course is why we’re still talking about it 100 years after being premiered.

My perspective is different from his, and I’ll attempt to share it here.

I first heard the piece long before I played any instrument or saw myself as a musician. My Uncle Steve, who played the piano in his youth and may be the world’s biggest Gershwin fan, took me to see the movie at the Thalia on 95th street near Broadway. Gershwin was a cultural hero to the New York Jewish community, seemingly plucked from our own ranks, a do-it-yourself genius, who proved his mettle over and over with success after success, achieving nearly god-like status for many.

As a 7-year-old, I was deeply moved by the movie and the music, and that love of the piece has remained with me, growing even stronger over the years. Knowing what I now know about music after 50 years as a musician has not changed that first impression for me. It’s hard for me to see it as the “worst masterpiece,” because I am emotionally connected to it, and expect to love it for the rest of my life.

Music imprints on us, especially at an early age. Perhaps that’s why it’s hard to accept some of the negativity currently being shared about it, which seems connected to a concern about cultural appropriation, as well as a lack of equal opportunity for black composers and players than about the integrity of the piece.

As a white man playing the banjo, an essentially African invention falsely branded as a white-bred instrument as it traveled through the 1900s, everything I do moves within the problematic nature of the harm done along race lines throughout American history. I wouldn’t want to segregate ourselves further by dividing musical inspiration along race lines before it even emerges into musical composition.

Did Gershwin actually “steal” the basic concepts from Black musicians of the day? Perhaps in today’s world he would have been ostracized or “canceled” for doing so. But is that fair? Is it wrong to be so inspired by music from another sphere that it leads one to transcend and create something truly unique? Must an artist create not only the work but all the source material as well? Can’t inspiration happen in a variety of ways?

The sources should certainly be acknowledged, in my opinion, but I do believe Gershwin did that.

Making art is firing at a moving target, and in my opinion, building a set of rules for what is and isn’t an acceptable way to do it seems antithetical to creativity. If it’s wrong for Gershwin to be inspired and influenced by great black music of the day, would it also be wrong for Charlie Parker to be inspired by Hindemith and Prokofiev to grow jazz into more of a twelve-tone music? Would Coltrane no longer be acceptable, because he drew considerable inspiration from Indian music, African music, and Stravinsky? Was Chick Corea wrong to be deeply inspired by Bartok, or is that fine because they are both “white”?

For me the key is that the artist attempts to create something new, inspired by whatever source material turns on the faucet. Part of that process is unconscious and almost compulsive, at least for me. I know when I hear something new to me that truly inspires, it throws open the doors in my head. The mind says “wow—if that is possible, then this, this, and this must be possible,” and off to the races I go, writing frantically ‘til the creative battery runs out of juice. This is the nature of creativity for me, so I can imagine how excited and charged up George must have been as “Rhapsody in Blue” came together and he realized that he knew what he wanted to do with this piece, and how to complete it. Which in this case apparently happened blindingly fast…

Here’s one more point about the piece. Critics of “Rhapsody in Blue” have a habit of attacking it as a shabbily written piece, compared to the great classical works. But I challenge them—by what criteria are we measuring? What are the criteria for greatness? How many works that we have agreed are great have this many unforgettable melodies? I do think the melodies are pretty damn important. “Rhapsody” scores rather high in that category. Another might be strong development. Some composers are fabulous at developing ideas, but if the ideas being developed are not compelling, what has been achieved besides a demonstration of formidable skill?

Maybe “Rhapsody in Blue” doesn’t blow the roof off in the development area.

Opportunity for an emotional response might be another criterion of its quality. How does “Rhapsody” do in that regard? Um—pretty great, actually. It may be one of the most beloved pieces in history; although not always respected by the gatekeepers and experts in classical music, it does evoke feelings. It has crossed over into the mainstream, and that is rare for a classical work, (if we are willing to call “Rhapsody in Blue” that) although it does happen.

As a concerto, does it open the door to exciting new techniques for the featured solo instrument? Seems like it to me. I’m not a pianist, but from my vantage point it seems that the techniques in “Rhapsody’s” piano part have changed the language of the instrument, in the classical world and beyond. Pieces written after “Rhapsody” have had to take Gershwin’s piano part into account. It’s part of the standard rep now.

America’s music is innovative and full of endless possibilities BECAUSE of the way we are moved by the diversity of thought and culture that we are submerged in. We must face harms done, reclaim histories with truer narratives, and adapt our humanity in this moment to create space, opportunity and justice for voices pushed away from the stages, curricula and fame.

We can do this by elevating composers like Duke Ellington in our curricula, teach African and Latin diasporic pulses in the training of classical music. But we still can enjoy “Rhapsody” as one piece of an illustrious puzzle showing the dawn of a powerful coming together of culture in music.

To wrap it up, I would also say it’s very hard to un-love a piece that moves you. That connection to the listener is a huge piece of the point of music, and George Gershwin sure was great at it.

In my opinion.

Bela Fleck’s new album Rhapsody in Blue is out now from the Thirty Tigers label.


Béla Fleck: Rhythm, Raga & Rhapsody will take place Saturday, May 4 at Carnegie Hall. Tickets are on sale now

18-time Grammy winner Béla Fleck—the world's premier banjo virtuoso and a celebrated musical adventurer—has both explored his instrument's complex global history and unlocked the breadth of its possibilities. For over 30 years, he has led Béla Fleck & The Flecktones, the groundbreaking quartet inspired by jazz, funk, bluegrass and beyond. He has written and performed three banjo concertos and traced the African origins of the banjo with the award-winning 2009 documentary Throw Down Your Heart. Collaborators include Abigail Washburn, the Brooklyn Rider String Quartet, Chris Thile, The Blind Boys of Alabama, McCoy Tyner, Zakir Hussain, Rakesh Churasia and Edgar Meyer (their latest album As We Speak won two Grammys in 2024). His latest album Rhapsody in Blue was released February 12 on the centennial of its premiere, and the Grammy-winning My Bluegrass Heart, is named in honor of his friend and hero Chick Corea (My Spanish Heart). Béla and Chick have toured as a duo and released a pair of acclaimed albums, the Latin Grammy-winning The Enchantment (2007) and Two (2015).