Born Ferdinand Rudolph von Grofé, in New York City, Grofé 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 a 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.
Ferde's father died in 1899, after which his mother took Ferde abroad to study piano, viola and composition in Leipzig, Germany. Ferde became proficient on a wide range of instruments including piano (his favored instrument), violin, viola (he became a violist in the LA Symphony), 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.
Grofé left home at age 14 and variously worked as a milkman, truck driver, usher, newsboy, elevator operator, helper in a book bindery, iron factory worker, and as a piano player in a bar for two dollars a night and as an accompanist. He 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.
Arranger for Paul Whiteman
Beginning about 1920, he played jazz piano with the Paul Whiteman orchestra. He served as Whiteman's chief arranger from 1920 to 1932. He made hundreds of arrangements of popular songs, Broadway show music, and tunes of all types for Whiteman.
Grofé's most memorable arrangement is that of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, which established Grofé's reputation among jazz musicians. Grofé took what Gershwin had written for two pianos and orchestrated it for Whiteman's jazz orchestra. He transformed Gershwin's musical canvas with the colors and many of the creative touches for which it is so well known. He went on to create two more arrangements of the piece in later years. Grofé's 1942 orchestration for full orchestra of Rhapsody in Blue is the one most frequently heard today. In 1928, George Gershwin wrote a letter to ASCAP complaining that Grofé had listed himself as the composer of Rhapsody in Blue. In spite of this misunderstanding, Grofé served as one of the pallbearers at Gershwin's funeral in 1937.
In 1932, The New York Times called Grofé "the Prime Minister of Jazz". This was an oblique reference to the fact that Whiteman was widely called "King of Jazz", especially after the appearance of the 1930 film of that name which featured Whiteman's music.
Due to Grofé's ubiquity in arranging large-scale musical works and a perceived paucity of American achievements in serious music, the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler complained that "America has no composers, only arrangers."
During this time, Grofé also recorded piano rolls for the American Piano Company (Ampico) company in New York. These captured performances were embellished with additional notes after the initial recording took place to attempt to convey the thick lush nature of his orchestra's style. Hence the published rolls are marked "Played by Ferde Grofé (assisted)".
Not everybody appreciated Grofé's flowery arrangements during this time. In a review of a Whiteman jazz concert in New York, one writer said the music was expected to be pleasing, and "it proved so when it was repeated last night, in spite of the excessive instrumentation of Ferde Grofé." A writer of a later generation said "the Grofé and Gould pieces were the essence of slick commercialism..."
Mardi Gras (from Mississippi Suite) was recorded in the radio transcription series Shilkret Novelties in 1931. and again by Nathaniel Shilkret in RCA Victor's transcription series His Majesty's Voice of the Air in 1932. On the Trail (from Grand Canyon Suite) was also recorded in the His Majesty's Voice of the Air transcriptions.
In 1943, he was a guest on Paul Whiteman Presents. During the 1930s, he was the orchestra leader on several radio programs, including Fred Allen's show and his own The Ferde Grofé Show. The "On the Trail" segment of Grand Canyon Suite was used for many years as the "musical signature" for radio programs sponsored by Philip Morris cigarettes, beginning with their 1933 program featuring Grofé and his orchestra. Jon Hendricks wrote lyrics for "On the Trail", and the song was recorded for Hendricks' album To Tell the Truth (1975). The piano version sheet music of the suite includes lyrics to the central section of "On the Trail" by songwriter Gus Kahn.
Several times he conducted orchestral programs in New York's Carnegie Hall. In January 1933 the premiere of his Tabloid, an orchestral suite in 4 movements, was presented in Carnegie Hall. In 1937, he conducted a concert tribute to George Gershwin at Lewisohn Stadium. The turnout (20,223 people) was the largest in that stadium's history.
In 1944, he was a panelist on A Song Is Born, judging the works of unknown composers. Before that time he had served several times as judge or co-judge in musical contests.
In addition to being an arranger, Grofé was also a serious composer in his own right. While still with Whiteman, in 1925, he wrote Mississippi Suite, which Whiteman recorded in shortened format in 1927. He wrote a number of other pieces, including a theme for the New York World's Fair of 1939 and suites for Niagara Falls and the Hudson River. Possibly as a result of his World's Fair theme, 13 October 1940 was designated Ferde Grofé Day at the American pavilion of the World's Fair. Grofé conducted his Niagara Falls Suite as part of the ceremony marking the opening of the first stage of the Niagara Falls Power Generation project.
Today, Grofé remains most famous for his Grand Canyon Suite (1931), a work regarded highly enough to be recorded for RCA Victor with the NBC Symphony conducted by Arturo Toscanini (in Carnegie Hall in 1945, with the composer present). The earlier Mississippi Suite is also occasionally performed and recorded. Grofé conducted the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in his Grand Canyon Suite and his piano concerto (with pianist Jesús Maria Sanromá) for Everest Records in 1960; the recording was digitally remastered and issued on CD in 1997.
In 1958, Walt Disney released a live-action short subject based on the suite and using its music. The thirty-minute Technicolor film, entitled Grand Canyon, used no actors or dialogue, simply shots of the Grand Canyon itself and several animals around the area, all shown with Grofe's music accompanying the visuals. The short won an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Subject, and was shown as a featurette accompanying Disney's 1959 Sleeping Beauty.
He began his 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. Published data for this movie do not list Grofé as the score's composer, however. He is also credited with the film score for the 1930 movie Redemption.
A review for the 1944 Joseph Lewis film Minstrel Man stated "the music, scored by Ferde Grofé, is an outstanding item." Grofe was nominated, along with Leo Erdody, for an Academy Award in the category "Scoring of a Musical Picture" for this film.
Although he spent the first half of his life living in New Jersey and working in and around New York City, by 1945 he had moved to Los Angeles full-time. In 1945 he also sold his Teaneck, New Jersey home.
Grofé married his first wife, Mildred Grizzelle, a singer, in 1916, and divorced in 1928. In May 1951, he filed for divorce in Las Vegas, Nevada from his second wife, Ruth, whom he married in 1929. The day after the divorce was granted, he married his third wife, Anna May Lampton (13 January 1952).
Ferde Grofé died in Santa Monica, California on 3 April 1972, at age 80, and was buried in the Mausoleum of the Golden West at the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California. He left four children, Ferdinand Rudolf Jr., Anne, Robert, and Delight, all of the Los Angeles area.
Grofé composed a large number of works in a variety of styles, commonly in symphonic jazz.
- Four Rags for piano (1906) Grofe's first compositions, written at the age of 14
- I. Harlem
- II. Rattlesnake
- III. Persimmon
- IV. Hobble
- Souvenir (1907) for solo cello, written for Grofe's grandfather
- Evening Shadows (1907–08, pub. 1915) for solo piano
- The Grand Reunion March (1909) his first commissioned work, for an Elks Club Convention in Los Angeles
- Wonderful One (1920; pub. 1923) for female vocalist and piano
- Broadway at Night (1924)
- Mississippi Suite (Tone Journey) (1925)
- Theme and Variations on Noises from a Garage (1925)
- Three Shades of Blue (1927)
- Metropolis: a Fantasy in Blue (1928)
- Free Air (1928)
- Early to Bed (1928) Silent film score
- Redemption (1930) film score
- Grand Canyon Suite (1931)
- Knute Rockne (1931) tone poem
- Sonata for Flute and Bicycle Pump
- Rip Van Winkle (1932–1954) Grofe worked on this tone poem for over two decades, before starting over and reworking the thematic material into the Hudson River Suite
- Tabloid Suite: Four Pictures of a Modern Newspaper (1933)
- A Day At The Farm, for orchestra (1934–1935)
- Diamond Jim (1935) movie score
- Christmas Eve, for orchestra
- Hot Lips popular song
- Miss Mischief (1937) for piano, dedicated to Shirley Temple
- Jungle Ballet (1937) written at the request of Dmitri Tiomkin
- Diana, for solo saxophone and piano
- Templed Hills (pub. 1940) popular song
- Hollywood Ballet, (1938, revised 1940)
- Rudy Vallee Suite
- Ode to Freedom, for orchestra (1937)
- Yankee Doodle Rhapsody (American Fantasie) film score (1936)
- Café Society (1938) a ballet, score rediscovered and repremiered in 2010
- Tin Pan Alley: The Melodic Decades (1938)
- Killarney: Irish Fanstasie for Orchestra (1938)
- Kentucky Derby Suite (1938)
- Saxophone Concerto (1939) unfinished, unpublished work written for Cecil Leeson
- Trylon and Perisphere one movement tone poem the New York World's Fair of 1939–40 (later rennamed Black Gold)
- Wheels, for orchestra (1939) dedicated to the Ford dealers of America
- An American Biography, for orchestra (1939–1940) about the life of and dedicated to Henry Ford
- Six Pictures of Hollywood also known as the Hollywood Suite, reworked thematic material from his earlier Hollywood Ballet
- Ode to the Star Spangled Banner, for orchestra
- Valsanne, for solo saxophone and piano
- Blue Flame
- Over There Fantasie (WWI Patriotic Medley) (c.1929) also known as the Ode to the American Solder
- Uncle Sam Stands Up a patriotic cantata, based on a text by Ben Hecht, for baritone solo, chorus, and orchestra
- Billy the Kid, unfinished and unpublished, some of this material may have been used in his score for the movie The Return of Jesse James
- Aviation Suite (1944)
- Minstrel Man (1944) movie score. Grofe was nominated for his only Academy Award for this score
- A Symphony in Steel
- Deep Nocturne, for orchestra (1947)
- Death Valley Suite (1949)
- Time Out of Mind (1950) rejected movie score
- Rocketship X-M movie score
- The Return of Jesse James (1951) movie score
- Blue Fantasy in B Flat
- Lincoln's Gettysburg Address (1954)
- March for Americans
- Halloween Fantasy for Strings also known as Trick or Treat for orchestra
- Atlantic Crossing a tone poem for orchestra, chorus with both male and female narrators
- Hudson River Suite (1955)
- Scalawag for concert band (1956)
- Dawn at Lake Mead, for orchestra (1956)
- Valley of Enchantment Suite for concert band (1956)
- Valley of the Sun Suite (1957)
- Gallodoro's Serenade for Saxophone and Piano (1958) written for the virtuoso Al Gallodoro
- Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in D (1958) a long one-movement concerto Grofe had been working on since 1931
- Yellowstone Suite (1960)
- San Francisco Suite (1960)
- Niagara Falls Suite (1960–61)
- World's Fair Suite (1964)
- Hawaiian Suite (1965)
- Requiem for a Ghost Town (1968)
- Lonely Castle for solo flute (1968)
- Christine for cello and piano (1969)
- Sequoia for flute, oboe, and strings (1970, Final Opus)
His soundtrack to the 1950 science fiction film Rocketship X-M included the use of the theremin. His monumental Grand Canyon Suite is his best known work, a masterpiece in orchestration and evocation of mood and location.
- Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite, performed by the NBC Symphony, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. On LP and on the recently out-of-print CD, it is coupled with works by George Gershwin, and (on the CD) Samuel Barber and John Philip Sousa.
- Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite, performed by the New York Philharmonic (with John Corigliano, Sr. as the violin soloist) conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Coupled with Bernstein conducting Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (with Bernstein at the piano) and An American in Paris (Sony 63086)
- Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite, performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Doráti. Coupled with Doráti conducting Gershwin's Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture (London/Decca Jubilee 430712)
- Symphonic Jazz: Grofé and Gershwin, performed by the Harmonie Ensemble/New York conducted by Steven Richman (Bridge Records 9212), playing:
- Grofé's Mississippi Suite (the original Whiteman Orchestra version)
- Gershwin's Second Rhapsody for Orchestra with Piano arranged by Grofé, with Lincoln Mayorga on the piano (premiere recording)
- Grofé's Gallodoro's Serenade for Saxophone and Piano with Al Gallodoro on alto saxophone and Mayorga on piano (premiere recording)
- Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite (original Whiteman Orchestra version; first complete recording)
- Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite and Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (with Jesus Maria Sanroma) with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Grofé. Out-of-print Everest LP, reissued on CD in 1997.
- List of jazz arrangers
- Chord names and symbols (popular music) – Jerry Gates, a professor of Berklee College of Music, tells that he has heard chord symbols came from Ferde Grofé and Jelly Roll Morton.
- Goldman Harry and Ed Angel. Kenneth Strickfaden, Dr. Frankenstein's Electrician. McFarland, 2005.
- Holden, Stephen (13 February 1989). "They Got America Humming: A Celebration". New York Times. Retrieved 23 March 2009.
- New York Times, 14 July 1937. (Archive, fee applies)
- New York Times, 16 October 1932. (Archive, fee applies)
- Downes, Olin (8 October 1928). "MUSIC: Whiteman’s Jazz.". New York Times. Retrieved 23 March 2009. (Archive, fee applies)
- New York Times, 8 June 1966. (Archive, fee applies)
- Shilkret Novelties Demonstration Disc JGB 531-1 states that the discs were recorded in Byers Recording Laboratory under the supervision of Leonard E. Cox and directed by Nathaniel Shilkret.
- Payroll records in the Nathaniel Shilkret archives show that the Shilkret Novelties transcriptions were recorded in November and December 1931.
- Shilkret, Nathaniel, ed. Shell, Niel and Barbara Shilkret, Nathaniel Shilkret: Sixty Years in the Music Business, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland, 2005, p. 281. ISBN 0-8108-5128-8
- Victor Archive ledgers for 1932.
- R-101 and R-102 are the transcription discs containing Grofé's compositions; dates for airing the transcriptions can be traced by, for example, advertising and themes for Christmas and Washington's birthday.
- New York Times, "Orchestra at Carnegie Hall meets enthusiastic crowd", 10 January 1937
- New York Times, "Grofé Guest Conductor at Benefit Concert for 'Free Milk Fund for Babies', 25 March 1938
- New York Times, 26 January 1933
- New York Times, 10 August 1937
- New York Times, 15 July 1934
- New York Times, 14 October 1940
- New York Times, 7 February 1961
- New York Times, 14 May 1960
- New York Times, "The King of Jazz, score by Ferde Grofé", 12 January 1930
- King of Jazz, Wikipedia entry
- New York Times, 3 May 1930
- New York Times, date not available
- New York Times, 1945
- New York Times, 13 January 1952
- New York Times, 4 April 1972
- Gates, Jerry (2011-02-16). "Chord Symbols As We Know Them Today – Where Did They Come From?". Berklee College of Music. Retrieved 2013-10-13.
- Liner notes by Don Rayno for Symphonic Jazz: Grofé and Gershwin (Bridge Records 9212)
- Ferde Grofé and the Grand Canyon Suite
- Biography of Ferde Grofé for the Songwriters Hall of Fame
- The Concert Band Works of Ferde Grofé
- "Little Johnny a Famous Pitchman" by Frank Roberts. The Virginian-Pilot (27 October 1994)
- Ferde Grofé at Find a Grave