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When Rhapsody in Blue premiered at New York’s Aeolian Hall on February 12, 1924, most people couldn’t wait for the evening to be over. The piece was scheduled near the end of a long program called “An Experiment in Modern Music.” After two sluggish hours, the audience was bored, restless, and drenched in sweat due to the hall’s broken ventilation system. But then, a lone clarinet pierced through the orchestra, fizzing upward like a fountain of champagne. Suddenly, everyone was riveted.

For the next 17 minutes, George Gershwin, an unknown 26-year-old composer, caressed and pounded the piano at center stage, chasing the orchestra through a thrill ride of skyrocketing notes. It was an unforgettable debut -one that brought new respect to jazz and helped redefine classical music. Today, Rhapsody in Blue is one of the 10 most-performed works of the 20th century, right up there with “Happy Birthday” and “White Christmas.”

When George Gershwin was 11, he overheard a friend playing Anton Dvorak’s Humoresque No 7 on the violin. The music provoked “a flashing revelation” that hooked Gershwin immediately. He began sneaking over to a neighbor’s house in Brooklyn to teach himself to play different instruments. A year later, when Gershwin’s mother brought home a secondhand upright piano, the family was stunned to see George sit down and tear through vaudeville tunes. From then on, he was glued to the ivories. A few years of formal lessons followed, but his teachers could barely keep up with Gershwin’s prodigious talent.

At 15, Gershwin quit school and took a job as a song plugger in Tin Pan Alley, New York’s music publishing district. Song pluggers were basically pianists who sold sheet music by demonstrating the latest tunes for singers, dancers, and producers. With his outgoing personality, Gershwin was a natural, often weaving in his own musical ideas to liven up the pieces. Before long, he became a full-time songwriter, When he was 21, he penned his first hit, “Swanee,” made famous by blackface entertainer Al Jolson. The 1920s equivalent of a Beyoncé single, “Swanee” spent nine weeks at No. 1, selling one million copies of sheet music and two million records. Soon Broadway came calling, and Gershwin became, in his own modest words, “a fairly busy young composer.”

Keep reading for more info, his work in commercials, etc.

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