FERDE GROFÉ (1892 - 1972)
Ferde Grofé was born Ferdinand Rudolph von Grofé, to Emil and Elsa von Grofé, in New York City on 27 March 1892. Shortly thereafter the family moved to Los Angeles. Ferde Grofé came by his instinct for music quite naturally. His father was a baritone and actor, while his mother was a cellist and music teacher of some note.
In 1906 Grofé left home to work variously as a bookbinder, truck driver, usher, newsboy, elevator operator, lithographer, typesetter and steelworker, studying violin and piano in his spare time. By 1908 he began to take casual musical engagements at lodge dances, parades and picnics and in 1909 met Albert Jerome, a dancing teacher, with whom he toured Californian mining-camps. By day the pair operated a cleaning and pressing establishing, at night Grofé played for Jerome’s pupils. It was also in 1909 that Grofé wrote his first commissioned work, The Grand Reunion March, for an Elks Clubs convention in Los Angeles. He joined the American Federation of Musicians that year and began a ten-year association with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, playing the viola.
In 1915 Grofé was playing at the Portola Louvre in San Francisco where musicians would drop in after hours to hear his original arrangements and jazz improvisations. One of the musicians in the audience was Paul Whiteman, whose orchestra Grofé joined in 1917 as pianist, permanently employed from 1920 for the next twelve years as pianist, assistant conductor, orchestrator and librarian. He toured Europe with the orchestra in 1923 and in 1924 had his first real break when he orchestrated Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a collaboration that brought immediate notice.
Grofé now undertook the composition of original works and among his earliest hits was the tone-poem, Broadway at Night. His subsequent Metropolis, Blue Fantasy in E Flat, Mississippi Suite and Three Shades of Blue, reveal an astonishing development in his handling of the symphonic jazz idiom. Challenged by a friend’s suggestion that he could even write music about a bicycle pump, he wrote two unusual works: Theme and Variations on Noises from a Garage (1926) and Free Air (1929). All the varied experiences of his life became inspiration for his music, as he himself observed, grateful for the background that made possible such compositions as Symphony in Steel, Tabloid Suite, Broadway at Night, Mississippi Suite, Metropolis, Henry Ford, Knute Rockne and Death Valley Suite.