RHAPSODY: Six Questions for Mitchell James Kaplan [INTERVIEW]

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Mitchell James Kaplan brings George Gershwin and the jazz age to dazzling life in Rhapsody. (Photo courtesy Canva)

Few musicians left as indelible a mark on the great American songbook as George Gershwin. But it was his epic masterpiece, Rhapsody in Blue, that made him an icon. From the first moment audiences heard the score’s opening wail, it was clear there were few musicians as adventurous or brilliant as Gershwin. Yet as with every artist, there is much more to his story than just his music. Now novelist Mitchell James Kaplan pulls back the curtain on the famed pianist’s fabled career in the forthcoming novel, Rhapsody, a book that is both vividly written and utterly compelling, and truly worthy of becoming our first Diamond Reviewed title for 2021. It shines a light not only on Gershwin’s discography, but also on his decade-long romance with another pianist, Kay Swift. We loved the book so much we couldn’t wait to sit down with Mitchell James Kaplan for this exclusive interview. Enjoy! —J&H


J&H: In the last novel of yours we featured, Into the Unbounded Night, you delivered a haunting novel about ancient Rome. Now, you have fast forwarded to the 1920s to share a story about one of our favorite composers, George Gershwin. Have you always been a big fan of his? And what is it about his story that compelled you to write a novel about him?

MJK: Looking back at my first three novels, it is clear that I am fascinated with the condition of minority cultures within dominant cultures—how they survive, how they preserve their integrity or fail to do so, how they influence the dominant (or, perhaps, oppressive) culture and vice-versa. We tend to think of cultures as static identities but the more I look into these things the more I see diversities within diversities and constant transformation.

The Roman empire was a trying time for Rome’s subject cultures; either they were destroyed and replaced or they found a way to adapt and survive. New York City in the 1920s was a place where the melting pot philosophy was being tested. In some ways it worked better at that time and in that place than in America today.

Music and literature, as expressions of cultural diversity, are abiding interests of mine. There wasn’t a lot I could say about the music of ancient Britannia, Rome, and Judea, although I made a stab at it when I talked about the chanting of the Temple priests in Into the Unbounded Night. Written literature and  lore, however, were fertile realms for exploration in that novel.

New York in the 1920s, by contrast, is vibrant—you might say, electric—with the literatures and musical traditions and innovations of its subcultures. In that light, George Gershwin seems a good focal point insofar as he tried, quite deliberately, to give expression to many of those voices in his musical creations.

J&H: Rhapsody captures the sights and sounds of the Jazz Age so vibrantly that readers will feel the excitement of those “new sounds” and “new rhythms” in every page. How difficult was it for you to translate music to the printed page? Are there other books about music that inspired you to tackle this project?

MJK: To me, it seems profound that culture—narratives, music, etc.—is the medium through which we get to know one another. “Culture” is what we share. Kay Swift and George Gershwin were experiencing that certain feeling as they helped each other discover, shape, and define new musical realms.

I believe if it’s a fascinating, moving, and worthwhile experience for the writer, it will be stimulating for the reader as well. At least that is my hope.

J&H: Like Gershwin, Katharine “Kay” Swift has always taken her music very seriously, but her studies as a pianist were always classical in their approach. It is not until she meets George that he helps her unlock her potential by teaching her to “listen.” In what ways does her music evolve after this and how does that ultimately affect her career?

MJK: I’m so glad you picked up on that. Having written three novels, and with a fourth in progress, this subject has become important to me. Where does the music come from? (The music of language or of any other artistic medium.)

You can derive inspiration from other works of art, and to some extent we all do. Artists are influenced by other artists, contemporary and historical. What we learn from other artists is called “technique” and it can be impressive in its own right. Classical music emphasizes technique. Jazz—good jazz—also requires plenty of technique, but the emphasis is often elsewhere.

I do not mean to say that classical music, at the time when it was being developed, was only about technique. But to master a mature artistic idiom—a style that was fully explored during a prior stage of humanity’s maturation—is largely or primarily about technique. That is not a value judgment.

My experience as a novelist has taught me something surprising. There are voices within you (or perhaps, from somewhere else) and they have something to say. Your dreams, for example, are not random. That doesn’t mean they’re providing intellectually comprehensible information. But perhaps they are providing emotionally meaningful information. Similarly, some elements of any original artistic endeavor come from somewhere beyond the artist’s conscious control.

Kay Swift, at the point in Rhapsody to which you refer, possesses a rare mastery of technique—far more than Gershwin. But he has something else. He knows how to listen to those voices, that music that comes from who-knows-where. Kay is feeling frustrated; she senses she has something to learn from him (and vice-versa). And yes, her compositions change. Her style changes. It becomes more free, exploratory, and exciting, in my opinion.

J&H: You write about real places like the world-famous Cotton Club where George goes to hear Duke Ellington play. What do the two musicians have in common? And how does Gershwin sop up influences from everywhere? Are there certain pieces of his you can think of where this “education” is most evident?

MJK: Well, this is two questions.

1. Gershwin’s influences. He was the son of immigrants from Russia. He grew up hearing klezmer (Eastern European Jewish music) at bar mitzvahs and other celebrations. Like the music that would later be called “jazz,” klezmer incorporated improvisation, tone-bending and other exotic effects on the clarinet and violin, and minor scales.

What fascinated Gershwin most about America, it seems to me, was the way people from so many different musical cultures could co-exist and honor each other’s traditions—especially in New York City—in a way that was not possible in Europe. Perhaps the “melting pot” ideology seems passé today, but at that time it was perceived as radical and exciting.

Gershwin’s use of blues scales, ragtime, and African-inspired rhythmic innovations hardly needs comment. But then there’s his Cuban Overture, his Ravel-style harmonies and orchestration, his frequent use of the pentatonic scale (which is so often associated with Far Eastern music), not to mention his mastery of popular song. He was a major proponent of “world music” long before that term existed.

2. Gershwin and Ellington knew and respected each other. Both had ambitions far beyond the pop realm and they influenced each other.

It seems to me that both Gershwin and Ellington were consciously working to invent the sound of America. At a time when America was coming into its own as an economic powerhouse and a cultural beacon, they sensed the importance of the experiments that would later be subsumed under the rubric, “jazz.” It’s not just about being at the right place at the right time. It’s about knowing it and rising to the challenge. Both Gershwin and Ellington did that par excellence, in their different ways. (So did Scott Joplin before them. He deserves a much greater share of attention than he gets for his part in the invention of American music. And so did, of course, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and many others.)

J&H: In addition to Kay and George, you give us some fascinating auxiliary characters to sink our teeth into. Among them is Kay’s husband, James Warburg. At a time when women “were meant to facilitate their husbands’ ambitions, not to compete with them,” how did Jimmie differ in his thinking? And how does this affect his relationship with his wife?

MJK: As a young man, Jimmie was a rebel in a way that might seem counterintuitive today. He too was the son of immigrants, but from the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum as compared with Gershwin. That is to say, ultra rich.

His parents came from Germany, retained pride in their German identity, and took seriously their role as cultural ambassadors. James’ rebellion involved rejecting all that. He wanted to be a “pure” American, to fight for America in World War I, even while his father was advising President Wilson not to become involved.

Jimmie embraced the women’s suffrage movement. But “women’s liberation” in the 1920s was about so much more than voting. It was about exciting new fashions that repudiated Victorian stuffiness. It was about smoking cigarettes, wild dancing, and participating in the booming economy. All of this, Jimmie tolerated and even encouraged.

As he grew older (as recounted in his autobiography, The Long Road Home), he came to cherish his memories of his father. The young rebel matured into a man who appreciated much of what he had previously rejected, even while remaining thoroughly modern in other ways.

His relationship with Kay Swift was complicated. They loved and encouraged each other. But they did grow apart as their ambitions and their social circles diverged. Jimmie was eventually absorbed into the world of banking and politics, while Kay moved further into theater and music.

J&H: Having dug deep into the history of the Jazz Age, are there any stories you discovered about George or his contemporaries that you wish you could have incorporated into Rhapsody, but couldn’t? And which musicians would you have loved to see perform live in concert most of all?

MJK: Of course, I would have loved to attend the first performance of the Rhapsody in Blue. Who wouldn’t? It was a world-changing event. Beyond that, the mood of effervescent discovery in the 1920s—ballroom dancing, the Cotton Club, Fats Waller’s “rent parties,” the Harlem Renaissance in general, the heyday of the Broadway musical—would have been quite a kick to experience first-hand, wouldn’t it. (Quite a leg-kick, you might say).

A novel provides the opportunity to explore both personal and societal forces, but focuses more on the former. I don’t feel frustrated in that respect. My principal job was to bring these characters and their emotional journeys to life.

But in terms of evoking the larger context, I always feel frustrated. The twenties were such a transformational time. In addition to women’s suffrage and jazz, there was the Russian Revolution and all its consequences; there was the rise of the Mafia and its effects on the culture; there was Charlie Chaplin and later, the Marx Brothers; there was the founding of the League of Nations; the Scopes Monkey Trial; and so much else. I wish I could have crammed all of it into my book. Someone like Tolstoy did manage to do that kind of thing, but I’m not sure it’s possible today.

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ABOUT RHAPSODY

Mitchell James Kaplan's RHAPSODY
Gallery Books

Katharine “Kay” Swift—the restless but loyal society wife of wealthy banker James Warburg and a serious pianist who longs for recognition—attends a concert one evening. The piece: Rhapsody in Blue. The composer: a brilliant, elusive young musical genius named George Gershwin.

Kay is transfixed, helpless to resist the magnetic pull of George’s talent, charm, and swagger. Their ten-year love affair, complicated by her conflicted loyalty to her husband and the twists and turns of her own musical career, ends only with George’s death from a brain tumor at the age of thirty-eight.

Set in Jazz Age New York City, this stunning work of fiction, for fans of The Paris Wife and Loving Frank, explores the timeless bond between two brilliant, strong-willed artists. George Gershwin left behind not just a body of work unmatched in popular musical history, but a woman who loved him with all her heart, knowing all the while that he belonged not to her, but to the world.

Mitchell James Kaplan
Mitchell James Kaplan

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mitchell James Kaplan graduated with honors from Yale University, where he won the Paine Memorial Prize for Best Long-Form Senior Essay submitted to the English Department. His first mentor was the author William Styron.

After college, Kaplan lived in Paris, France, where he worked as a translator, then in Southern California, where he worked as a screenwriter and in film production.

He lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia with his family and two cats.

For more information, visit MitchellJamesKaplan.com, like him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter and Goodreads.

RHAPSODY
By Mitchell James Kaplan
352 pp. Gallery Books. $27.

Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours banner

Pre-order Rhapsody direct from Jathan & Heather Books or from one of these other fine online retailers: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Half Price Books, IndieBound, Powell’s, Target, or Walmart.

Rhapsody is brought to you in association with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

Need a little Gershwin magic before you get your copy of the book? Watch Rhapsody in Blue as it is performed in the 1945 film of the same name.

About Jathan Fink
Jathan is a journalist, philanthropist, and entrepreneur. He is also a travel junkie, foodie and jazz aficionado. A California native, he resides in Texas.

2 Responses to RHAPSODY: Six Questions for Mitchell James Kaplan [INTERVIEW]

  1. WOW, what a fabulous interview! I loved it! And I am thrilled that you loved RHAPSODY! Thank you for being on the tour. I hope you are both staying warm and safe out there!

    Amy
    HF Virtual Book Tours

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