Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


GROFÉ, Ferde

(b Ferdinand Rudolph von Grofé, 27 March 1892, NYC; d 3 April 1972, Santa Monica CA) Arranger, composer, multi-instrumentalist. His grandfather had played second cello to Victor Herbert in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and then played first chair in the Los Angeles Symphony at the turn of the century; his mother was a cellist and a teacher, among whose students was the cellist Alfred Wallenstein, later conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Grofé's family wanted him to study architecture or civil engineering, but he had a very successful career in music. Grofé is best known for his orchestration of Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue, and for his own Grand Canyon Suite, but before that he was a pioneer who influenced the sound of 20th-century popular music.

He played several instruments in symphony orchestras, theatre orchestras, operas, vaudeville, 'mood music' bands on silent film sets, etc. He began composing as a teenager and by then was playing in dance bands all over the southwest. These dance bands were moving beyond ragtime and straight dance music in the direction of jazz. Grofé would have known what improvisation was, but collective improvisation, everybody improvising at once, was something new. He described these early bands as using a 'huddle' system, the arrangements created by deciding the parts, order and length of solos just before playing a tune (no doubt what was later called a 'head' arrangement). In Grofé's bands, the result was that the arrangement was different each time. Grofé began to notate the most effective features so that they could be played each time, even if the personnel in the band changed; these were in effect among the earliest jazz-band arrangements.

By 1917 Grofé was working with Art Hickman, a popular bandleader based in San Francisco. Hickman began hiring more instruments, so that instead of having one of each, Grofé was able to write harmony for a reed section or a brass section: Hickman and Grofé are often credited with pioneering the dance band style that subsequently dominated popular music for several decades. In 1920 Grofé was hired by Paul Whiteman, and wrote virtually all of Whiteman's arrangements until 1924, as that band became the most popular in the country.

Grofé had pursued both popular and classical music until Whiteman moved to the East Coast and was discovered by Victor Records. From then on he spent a lot of time in Tin Pan Alley, where he met George Gershwin. Young Gershwin was already a successful songwriter, and was commissioned to write a piece for a Whiteman 'jazz' concert in 1924, but did not yet have the confidence to arrange it himself; Grofé arranged the extremely successful Rhapsody In Blue for its première. Ryan Raul Bañagale in his book Arranging Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue and the Creation of an American Icon (2014) gives Grofé considerable credit for establishing the piece as a classic. He knew how to arrange it for the Whiteman band so that the public would hear it as in the line of the hit records of the day while also allowing for Gershwin's genius. He arranged it at least five more times, according to Bañagale: "Two were for his own use: the first at a Gershwin memorial performance in 1937 and the second for Grofé's Novachord Orchestra at the 1939 World's Exposition. Three were prepared for widespread use: theatre orchestra (1926), concert band (1937), and symphony orchestra (published 1942)." The 1942 is the one most often heard ever since. There is a story Gershwin complained to ASCAP in 1928 that Grofé was claiming to be the composer of the piece.

Whiteman was called the 'King of Jazz' and Grofé was dubbed the 'Prime Minister', but although Whiteman was a great judge of talent and led a fine band, neither of them were jazzmen, and some critics derided the pomposity of Whiteman's 'symphonic jazz'. Later arrangers, notably Bill Challis, wrote dance-band arrangements of pop songs for Whiteman that were an advance on earlier ones. Grofé continued to work in radio and in movies; his film score credits included Diamond Jim (1935, with Franz Waxman), Knute Rockne, All American (1940), Minstrel Man (1944, with Leo Erdody), and Rocketship X-M (1950; the score included a theremin).

Grofé's own music has not aged well. He has 141 titles listed with ASCAP. The Grand Canyon Suite was recorded by Toscanini in 1945, by Hugo Winterhalter in the early 1950s, Antal Dorati, Leonard Bernstein and others; the donkey-clopping from the 'On The Trail' section was used for many years in a cigarette commercial on radio and early TV. 'Daybreak' was a hit song in 1942, with words by Harold Adamson, the tune drawn from Grofé's Mississippi Suite. He also co-wrote a song called 'Count Your Blessings' in 1933 (for a film called Palooka), not to be confused with better-known songs of the same title by Cole Porter (1943) and Irving Berlin (1954). As a conductor he recorded Grand Canyon and his own piano concerto (with pianist Jesús Maria Sanromá) for Everest in 1960.

Grofé recorded about 64 piano rolls for Ampico (the American Piano Company) in 1924-7. The Ampico (and the Welte Mignon) reproducing system was much superior to the ordinary piano roll, allowing a range of dynamic expression (whereas the QRS rolls, for example, recorded by Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton and many others, sound rather flat, everything at the same volume in playback). A selection of 23 of Grofé's Ampico rolls was issued on a CD by the Pierian Recording Society of Austin, Texas in 2008, titled The Roaring 20's! Grofé's treatment of pop songs of the period makes an interesting period piece, rather ornate, and somewhat lacking in, er, swing.