Wow – it has been a long time since I’ve last posted – gotta do something about that!
A question to all:
Does anyone have an idea/opinion/fact about where chord symbols, as we use them today (not figured bass) came from? I’ve heard Ferde Grofé (George Gershwin’s time) and also Jelly Roll Morton. Any thoughts?
The following seems plausible:
We’re all familiar with George Gershwin writing “Rhapsody in Blue.” The first version of that piece was written for Paul Whiteman’s band which was a very popular dance band (the band included banjo and lots of woodwind doubles) at the time – around the 1920′s. Gershwin had mentioned to Whiteman that he wanted to write a piece for the band (he was formulating some ideas but hadn’t written anything down yet).
After this conversation, out of the blue one day (and unknown to Gershwin), Whiteman publicly announced that Gershwin was going to write a piece for the band and it would be performed at a concert only a few weeks away (this part is well documented). In fact though, Gershwin was on his way to work on a show in Boston when he heard that Whiteman had announced this. Needless to say, he needed to start writing – fast, while also working on the show in Boston (Hence the need for a short hand system to quickly indicate intentions for instruments such as the banjo and possibly the piano as well – otherwise everything would need to be all written out, for the piano or taught by rote, for the banjo).
Ferde Grofé was brought in to orchestrate Gershwin’s ideas which is when the system was introduced. (Grofé would later do several other orchestrations of “Rhapsody in Blue” that became more famous)
From my research it seems that the issue wasn’t so much about a problem teaching the banjo player his part (one of the only instruments that didn’t formally need to learn to read music to play), but the speed at which the music needed to be learned.
I’m going to continue the research, but any further “angles” on this topic could be fun.
PS: If you want to see what players looked at before lead sheets came along (Tune Dex index cards), go to: