On January 4, 1924, Ira Gershwin read in the local paper of an upcoming concert in Boston on February 24th that was going to attempt to answer the question "What is American Music?" (Ironically, the judges picked to determine this were Rachmaninoff, Heifetz, Zimbalist, and Gluck. Or maybe they were all foreigners to make them more objective. The answer is still lost to history.). In the last paragraph, it was mentioned that George Gershwin was currently working on a jazz concerto for the event.

This was news to Gershwin. When he called Paul Whiteman, the concert organizer the next day, Whiteman explained that he had kinda sorta announced the concert before inviting Gershwin in order to get the jump on his competitor Vincent Lopez, who was also planning a jazz concert.

Gershwin couldn't back out without damaging his reputation, but he complained to Whiteman that one month was not enough time to write a concerto. The two ended up agreeing that Gershwin would submit a Rhapsody instead, which is in a less strict form. He could also use the services of Ferde Grofe, Whiteman's arranger and composer, for orchestration.

While on the train to Boston, the rhythms of the locomotive inspired Gershwin, and by the time he reached his destination they had given him an epiphany: "...the complete construction of the rhapsody, from beginning to end" (his words). He began writing the piece on January 7th, and finished it on February 4th. A bit of trivia: The famous Clarinet opening was cribbed by Gershwin from a tune book of piano pieces.

The piece was, of course, a smash, outshining all the other attempts at "jazz" the concert could offer. Gershwin later chose to orchestrate the piece for a standard concert orchestra, which he also did with Grofe.

Condensed and Rewritten from the liner notes of my CD George Gershwin: The Complete Centennial Edition, with Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. The notes themselves were written by Edward Jablonski.