Born Ferdinand Rudolph von Grofé on March 27, 1892 in New York City to a musical family stretching back four generations, Ferde Grofé was taught violin and piano by his mother and
viola by his grandfather. He played other instruments including E-flat alto horn and drums, and his familiarity with a large number of instruments helped him with his arranging and orchestrating skills.
After working a number of odd jobs such as truck driver, elevator operator, and lithographer, he began finding work in the music field, playing at dances, parades, and bars, and performing in bands and
orchestras. In 1909 he began a decade-long tenure playing viola with the Los Angeles Symphony, and he was also arranging for jazz bands and doing jazz improvisations. He joined Paul Whiteman’s
orchestra as a pianist, doing much arranging for them through the 1920s and into the ’30s, the popular group having some influential hit recordings arranged by Grofé.
In 1924 he recorded piano rolls for Ampico, the American Piano Company, attempting to capture a more orchestral style of performing, and that same year Whiteman commissioned Grofé to
arrange George Gershwin’s two-piano “Rhapsody in Blue” for jazz orchestra. This became a substantial success and helped establish Grofé’s reputation, and his 1942 full orchestral
arrangement of the piece became extremely popular. Grofé began composing large-scale works in the 1920s, many in the symphonic jazz idiom. Painting evocative musical landscapes on a wide variety of
subjects became his main musical focus throughout the remainder of his life, with some of his works being “Mississippi Suite” (1926), “Three Shades of Blue” (1927), “Metropolis”
(1928), “Grand Canyon Suite” (for jazz band, 1931; for full orchestra, 1934), “Tabloid Suite” (1933), “Hollywood Suite (1938),” “Aviation Suite” (1944), “Death
Valley Suite” (1949), “Niagara Falls Suite” (1961), and “World’s Fair Suite” (1964).
He arranged the music for the 1930 movie King of Jazz, a musical revue centered around Paul Whiteman, and for 1944’s Minstrel Man he and Leo Erdody were nominated for Academy Awards. In 1950 he scored the films Rocketship X-M and The Return of Jesse James,
but despite rumors, there is no definitive evidence that he scored other motion pictures. Music from “Grand Canyon Suite” was featured in Walt Disney’s 1958 documentary short Grand Canyon,
and Ken Russell’s 1977 film Valentino used previously-written Grofé compositions that were adapted and arranged by Stanley Black. The composer wrote or co-wrote many songs, including “Wonderful One,” which was a hit for Whiteman’s orchestra and was used in many films. Harold Adamson added lyrics to a melody from the “Mardi Gras” movement of Grofé’s “Mississippi Suite,” and the resultant song “Daybreak” was recorded by many singers, including two versions by Frank Sinatra. Grofé’s “On the Trail” from “Grand Canyon Suite” became identified as the musical signature for Philip Morris cigarettes.
Grofé taught at the Juilliard School of Music from 1939 to 1943, and he was involved with national music educational projects. The composer was
married three times, passing away on April 3, 1972 in Santa Monica, California. He is buried in InglewoodParkCemetery. In 1997 Grofé was honored with a stamp by theUnited States Postal Service.