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Jazz Opera? Problems of Genre in Blue Monday

While it was never particularly successful, George Gershwin’s 1922 one-act “jazz-opera” Blue Monday played an important role in bridging the gap between his popular style and classical compositions. This post—the final installment of our three-part series devoted to Blue Monday—explores just what a “jazz-opera” might be and delves deeper into the cultural implications of these stylistic elements in Gershwin’s work.

Content Warning: This post contains a quotation of an offensive racial slur.

As discussed in the initial post of this series, George Gershwin’s Blue Monday was cut from the George White Scandals of 1922 after opening night. Still, this short blackface scene marked a turning point in the young composer’s creative output as he began to experiment with the synthesis of popular and classical sounds that would later shape his legacy. Many biographers and Gershwin scholars single it out as a precursor to The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (1935), but Blue Monday, a twenty-minute minstrel scene, was a far cry from that enduring “American folk opera.” In Blue Monday, Gershwin created something musically unique, incorporating stylistic aspects of traditionally Black genres (jazz, blues, spirituals) into operatic forms (recitative, aria). This combination of genres has always made Blue Monday difficult to classify. Beginning with a reference in a 1922 newspaper, critics and scholars have often called Blue Monday a “jazz-opera”: a new genre for a new type of piece (Whyte). However, even this designation proves nebulous and problematic, if not downright inaccurate.

When George Gershwin wrote Blue Monday in 1922, he was a much sought-after Broadway songwriter. His breakout hit “Swanee”—popularized by well-known blackface star Al Jolson—catapulted Gershwin to fame in 1920. This newfound popular success kept Gershwin busy with gigs and engagements in New York. Simultaneously, he was pursuing classical composition studies with violinist and composer Edward Kilenyi, Sr. Gershwin’s studies with Kilenyi were sporadic, squeezed in as the up-and-coming songwriter’s busy production schedule allowed. When Gershwin expressed a desire to steer his career away from Broadway and Tin Pan Alley to pursue classical composition more seriously, Kilenyi instead encouraged him to build on his popular success: “You would come nearer to your goal if you were to continue your studies and become even a bigger success than you are today. You should attain such fame that conductors in due time would ask you for serious compositions to be performed by them” (Kilenyi 12).

Gershwin took his teacher’s advice to heart. He applied his growing knowledge of voice-leading and modulation to all of his songwriting endeavors, including an annual engagement with the popular Broadway revue, the George White Scandals. As the primary composer for the Scandals between 1920 and 1925, Gershwin was expected to write the catchy songs that were interspersed between comedic sketches and other guest performances.

For the 1922 Scandals, Gershwin and lyricist Buddy DeSylva decided to try something new, what Gershwin called “an opera for colored people” (Pollack 269). While something of this ilk was uncharted territory for Gershwin, parodying operatic works had been a staple of blackface minstrel shows dating back decades, and referencing Italian opera was fairly common in vaudeville spectacles of the early twentieth century. In fact, Spice of 1922, a competing variety show (to which Gershwin and DeSylva also contributed), included a parody of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca (Pollack 272). Gershwin and DeSylva used Ruggero Leoncavallo’s 1892 verismo opera Pagliacci as the operatic blueprint for Blue Monday (Shirley 9). Blue Monday begins with a play on Pagliacci’s distinctive narrated introduction. In Leoncavallo’s opera, the audience is told to expect to see “men love as in real life they love, . . . true hatred, . . . shouts both of rage and grief, and cynical laughter.” Gershwin and DeSylva’s adaptation promises something similar: “…the theme will be love! Hate! Passion! Jealousy.”  Beyond their parallel introductions, there is an undeniable resemblance between the plots of Blue Monday and Pagliacci: in both works a man rejected by the heroine orchestrates a bloody revenge.

Gershwin drew from his classical composition lessons and relied on his ease with popular styles in creating the score for Blue Monday, as well as elements of Black vernacular genres that were gaining popularity in the early twentieth century. His ever-strengthening grasp on harmony and voice-leading is evident throughout the score as he experiments with musical forms and structures: song-like arias are interspersed with recitative, upbeat dance interludes, and underscored dialogue. Gershwin’s success as a writer of popular songs is most apparent in the title number, “Blue Monday Blues”—a blues-inspired solo sung by a minor character. The syncopated melody and simple, strophic form positioned it to become an independently successful song—like “I Got Rhythm” (from Girl Crazy, 1930) or “Summertime” (from Porgy and Bess, 1935)—but a racial slur was central to the rhyme scheme, which even in the 1920s was a barrier to entering the mainstream. By the time the offensive language was removed, popular taste had moved on and the song failed to find a life of its own outside the show.

The operatic influences in Blue Monday, on the other hand, are most apparent in Gershwin’s writing for the couple at the center of the plot, Vi and Joe. Vi’s solo material, unlike the show’s bluesy refrain, is more evocative of operatic compositions. Her tender arias and emotionally-charged recitative traverse the singer’s range. For her solos, Gershwin turned to melodies from his own Lullaby for String Quartet, composed in 1919 under Kilenyi’s tutelage. These bel canto-like arias are slow and lilting, lending themselves to expressive rubato. In contrast to other vocal solos in the work, Joe’s material is notably unsyncopated. His aria “I’m Going to See My Mother” draws from the African American spiritual tradition, foreshadowing similar stylistic elements and influences in Porgy and Bess. But Gershwin’s emulation of spirituals, as well as his borrowing from jazz and blues, were not entirely harmless. While the composer had cultural claim to the Tin Pan Alley and European classical traditions from which he borrowed, his use of Black American genres constitutes a form of musical appropriation that would continue throughout his career. Gershwin was just one of many White composers whose privilege allowed them to profit from Black musical styles more than the Black musicians who created and cultivated these traditions.

While Blue Monday’s libretto was fairly successful at juxtaposing operatic conventions and blackface minstrelsy per vaudeville convention, Gershwin may have pushed the limits of musical genre too far for the Scandals. Operatic parodies were typically comical, and blackface minstrelsy traditionally relied on bumbling depictions of absurd stereotypes. To this end, DeSylva created a cast of racist caricatures of Black people—a drug addict, a rapacious man, a jealous woman, a gambler, and a lazy janitor—poised to elicit the buffoonery typically associated with blackface performances. Gershwin’s score didn’t play into stereotypes in the same way, however. The classical influences made the scene feel more like a melodrama than a spoof, and while he did evoke traditionally Black genres like jazz, blues, and spirituals, he did so with the same seriousness and care that he gave to the classical and operatic influences in his work. In other words, Gershwin’s writing didn’t play into DeSylva’s offensive stereotypes. Without the comedic relief of those caricatures, the weight of the show’s tragic plot interrupted the playful flow of the Scandals. Recognizing this, producer George White made the choice to cut the scene.

An odd act for a revue show, Blue Monday has been difficult to classify from its inception, but most sources have referred to it as a “jazz-opera.” This designation has two sets of implications. The first deals with content: “opera” refers to its plot, and “jazz” to its use of blackface in the vein of minstrel shows. The second set of implications is stylistic: the piece incorporates elements of popular song and Black vernacular genres (all of which were reductively swept under the “jazz” umbrella in the 1920s) and the European operatic tradition. “Jazz” was a vague and evolving term in the early 1920s that carried musical, cultural, and racial implications. Musically, it is easy to see the jazz influence in Blue Monday’s syncopated rhythms and blues harmonies. Because of the African American roots of jazz music, however, “jazz” was also used at this time as code to refer to other aspects of Black culture.

Scholars in recent decades have used the term “jazz-opera” primarily in reference to the musical elements of Blue Monday, but it is clear from earlier descriptions that, in its original application, this term more likely meant “Black opera.” While one reviewer of the premier performance called it a “jazz-opera,” a contemporaneous review referred to it simply as a “long blackface scene.” When it was revived two years later, the New York Times used “Colored Opera” and “Jazz Opera” interchangeably. The first orchestrator, prominent Black composer Will Vodery, subtitled his score “Opera Ala [sic] Afro-American,” and in the prologue, DeSylva’s narrator describes the work as a “colored tragedy.” Even more bluntly, Ferde Grofé, the orchestrator of a 1925 revival, subtitled it “A Glorified Mammy Song”—a reference to minstrelsy. Isaac Goldberg, Gershwin’s first biographer, blatantly called it a “Nigger Opera” in a 1931 interview with Gershwin (Goldberg 199).

If the “jazz” moniker is complicated, “opera” can be downright misleading. While it has operatic elements, it is certainly a stretch to call Blue Monday an opera outright. It is highly unusual for any twenty-minute piece to be considered an opera, let alone a blackface revue piece. At most, it resembles an operetta, yet even that classification is imperfect, as it is generally reserved for full-length comical works. While it is certainly a testament to Gershwin’s novel and unique approach to composition that this piece is so difficult to define, the danger of settling on “opera” is that it elevates this brief work, with its crude libretto, to the level of the celebrated masterpieces that have shaped the history of European classical music. Many of these operas themselves present problematic cultural portrayals to grapple with, but their sheer scope and influence is enough to make the distinction clear.

At its core, Blue Monday is a blackface scene with a score that far exceeds the quality and range of its simple libretto. This experimental and problematic piece has come to mark the turning point in Gershwin’s career from a revue show songsmith to a genre-bending classical composer. It is undeniable that Gershwin’s unique synthesis of so-called high- and low-brow styles that started with Blue Monday has made him an important and lasting figure in American classical music. However, beginning with this early and formative work, it is important to acknowledge the role that appropriation and harmful stereotypes played in Gershwin’s process. The fact that so many scholars directly connect Blue Monday to Porgy and Bess gives rise to an uncomfortable parallelism between the White lens on Black tragedy in both of these pieces. And, although he approached Porgy and Bess with much more nuance and awareness than could ever be said for Blue Monday, this connection nevertheless frames his career in a racially problematic light. From Rhapsody in Blue to Cuban Overture to Porgy and Bess, Gershwin’s distinctive efforts to elevate popular genres to classical settings were accompanied by musical appropriation and cultural exploitation. While Blue Monday laid the groundwork for a celebrated classical career, it was also instrumental in the formation of this more complicated legacy.

Further Reading

Downes, Olin. “Music: Paul Whiteman’s Novelties.” The New York Times, January 2, 1926: 10. 

Goldberg, Isaac. “Music by Gershwin.” Ladies’ Home Journal, April 1934: 25, 196, 198, 199. 

Jablonski, Edward. Gershwin Remembered. Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1992.

Kilenyi, Edward. “George Gershwin…As I Knew Him.” Etude Magazine 68, no. 10 (October 1950): 11–12, 64. 

Pollack, Howard. George Gershwin: His Life and Work. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Shirley, Wayne D. “Notes on George Gershwin’s First Opera.” I.S.A.M Newsletter XI, no. 2 (May 1982): 8–10. 

Whyte, Gordon. “Musical Comedy: Musical Comedy Notes.” The Billboard, Oct 28, 1922: 32. 

  • Floyd E Tinsley on May 2, 2021

    Who plays VI and JOE

    • Gershwin Blog Team on May 11, 2021

      Hi, Floyd. The original cast was as follows:

      Mike: Arthur Brooks
      Sam: Lester Allen
      Cokey-Lou (Sweet-Pea): Roger Little
      Walter (Tom): John “Jack” McGowan
      Vi: Coletta Ryan
      Joe: Richard Bold

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