Ferdinand Rudolph (Ferde or Ferdie) Grofé (March 27, 1892–April 3, 1972) was an American composer, arranger, and pianist who came to prominence during the 1920s and 1930s. Born in New York City, NY, into a musical family, Grofe came by his extensive musical interests naturally. Of French Huguenot extraction, his family had four generations of classical musicians. His father, Emil von Grofé, was a baritone who sang mainly light opera; his mother, Elsa Johanna Bierlich von Grofé, a professional cellist, was also a versatile music teacher who taught Ferde to play the violin and piano. Elsa’s father, Bernardt Bierlich, was first cellist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York, and Elsa’s brother, Julius Bierlich, was first violinist and concertmaster of the Los Angeles Symphony. When grandfather Bierlich moved to Los Angeles, he became first cellist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Young Ferdinand was taken to Los Angeles shortly after he was born. He made quick progress in learning to read music and play piano. Growing up in Los Angeles, Grofe attended public schools and studied with several music instructors, first his mother and then Ricardo Dallera.
Ferde’s father died in 1899, after which his mother took Ferde abroad with her when she went to study music in Leipzig, Germany for three years. Ferde also studied piano, viola and composition in Leipzig. Ferde became proficient on a wide range of instruments including piano (his favored instrument), violin, viola, baritone horn, alto horn, and cornet. This command of musical instruments and composition gave Ferde the foundation to become first an arranger of other composers’ music and then a composer in his own right. After the three years, Mrs. Grofe returned to Los Angeles, opened a studio, and soon afterwards remarried. Grofé was an indifferent student, always spending time learning new band instruments. He ran away from home at age 14 after his stepfather refused to let him quit school and worked at unskilled jobs such as a milkman, truck driver, usher, newsboy, elevator operator, helper in a book bindery, and iron factory worker. However, he continued in music by playing piano in a bar for two dollars a night and serving as an accompanist, writing popular songs at night.
Grofé continued studying piano and violin. When he was 15 he was performing with dance bands. He also played the alto horn in brass bands. He was 17 when he wrote his first commissioned work. His songs had brought him to the attention of The Elks (an American benevolent association), who commissioned him to write a special song for their 1909 convention, and the song, The Elks Grand Reunion March, gained some popularity. Soon Grofé joined his grandfather and uncle as a violist in the Philharmonic. In his spare time he played in dance halls, sometimes billing himself as “Professor Grofé.” He founded his own jazz band in San Francisco and wrote arrangements for it. In 1919 bandleader Paul Whiteman heard one of these arrangements. Grofé accepted a job as pianist and arranger, and immediately started taking orchestration lessons from Pietro Floridia. His very first arrangement for Whiteman was a success, and “Whispering” became a million-selling hit. When the Whiteman band relocated to New York, Grofé went with them. His orchestral ideas laid the foundation for what became the big-band sound. More important, he conceived the basic format that makes jazz playing in large ensembles possible.
Beginning about 1920, while playing jazz piano with the Whiteman orchestra, Grofe served as Whiteman’s chief arranger from until 1932. He made hundreds of arrangements of popular songs, Broadway show music, and tunes of all types for Whiteman. In 1923 Whiteman conceived a concert to be given at Aeolian Hall in New York. “An Experiment in Modern Music” presented a number of jazz-style classically composed pieces played by the Whiteman Band, many scored by Grofé. Among them was George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, in Grofé’s orchestration. Grofé took what Gershwin had written for two pianos and orchestrated it for Whiteman’s jazz orchestra. The event made Grofé nearly as famous as Gershwin, and Grofé’s symphonic version of the work has become the one best known to audiences. Grofé began to widen his ambitions as a composer. He wrote the Mississippi Suite and, a few years later, the Grand Canyon Suite for the Whiteman orchestra, later enlarging them for symphony. He began a second career as composer of film scores in 1930, when he provided arrangements (and perhaps portions of the score) for the film King of Jazz. He is also credited with the film score for the 1930 movie Redemption.
In 1931 Grofe resigned from the Whiteman organization and became conductor of the Capitol Theater orchestra in New York, hosting a network radio program. In 1932, The New York Times called Grofé “the Prime Minister of Jazz.” He was appointed to teach orchestration at the Juilliard School in 1939 through 1942. During World War II Grofe tirelessly conducted service bands and USO shows. After the war he moved to Los Angeles full-time and continued to write generally light music with a jazzy American flavor. A piano concerto was his most ambitious composition in a pure classical idiom. He also tried to follow up on the Mississippi and Grand Canyon suites with innumerable musical portraits of the American scene, including suites named for the Hudson River, Death Valley, Hollywood, San Francisco, New England, Virginia City, the World’s Fair, and Mark Twain, as well as an Aviators’ Suite, an Atlantic Crossing Suite, the Tabloid Suite, and a Niagara Falls Suite. These were generally played a few times and set aside. However, at the very end of the twentieth century there were some revivals of this forgotten music. In early 1950s, he continued to write scores for films, composing Rocketman X M and The Return of Jesse James. During this time, Grofé also recorded piano rolls for the American Piano Company (Ampico) company in New York. Grofé died in Santa Monica, CA, on April 3,1972, shortly after his 80th birthday.
The following works by Grofe are included in my collection:
Death Valley Suite (1949).
Grand Canyon Suite (1931).
Hollywood Suite (1935/1938).
Hudson River Suite (1955).
Mississippi Suite (1926).
Niagara Falls Suite (1961).