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New novel explores jazz through a pioneering woman composer

March 21, 2021 GMT

ROANOKE, Va. (AP) — A song played on a shuffle led to Roanoke author Mitchell James Kaplan’s newest novel.

Kaplan’s father, a professor of cardiology at University of California, Los Angeles, played the clarinet. “My father was a cardiologist, but he was a jazz musician. That was his identity. Just like my identity is novelist, but I do environmental reporting for industrial clients.”

As Kaplan listened to music in the early morning hours, George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” came on, triggering a memory from his childhood of his father standing in the family room, playing along to Gershwin’s tune. “And I started crying, and I just knew that’s my next novel.”

Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, released “Rhapsody” on March 2 in hardcover, audio book and e-book editions. Though inspired by Gershwin — a musical genius who composed such classics as “An American in Paris” and “Porgy and Bess” before dying from a brain tumor in 1937, at only age 38 — Kaplan’s third novel focuses on Kay Swift, the pianist and composer who was the love of Gershwin’s life.

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The first woman to compose a complete score for a Broadway musical, the 1930 hit “Fine and Dandy,” Swift is a fascinating figure in her own right. She collaborated so closely with Gershwin that parts of his scores are written in her hand, leading to speculation that she composed some of those famous works herself, a notion she repeatedly dismissed

Complicating matters further, through most of the years she was seeing Gershwin, Swift was married to James Warburg, a German-born banker who served as a financial advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt.

After Gershwin’s death, she dedicated much of her remaining decades to the preservation of his musical legacy.

“It’s the big love story of George Gershwin’s life. He was with Kay for 10 years, which is much of his mature life,” Kaplan said. “She was his girlfriend through the whole period, but she was married.

“The more I explored that, the more intrigued I became, because not only is Kay Swift an amazing person, who ultimately shatters a glass ceiling that’s of great importance, she becomes the first female composer of a hit Broadway musical … and then her husband, Jimmy Warburg, is an incredibly important, interesting, influential, brilliant man, and their marriage is a really interesting marriage, because it’s an open marriage. And it goes awry.”

A starred review of “Rhapsody” in Publishers Weekly praised Kaplan’s meticulous research — an element important to all three of his published novels.

Kaplan is unusual among authors with novels put out by major publishing houses, because his second novel, “Into the Unbounded Night” — set in the Roman Empire during the dawn of Christianity — came out only seven months ago.

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Kaplan’s own story has many chapters. The Los Angeles native studied literature at Yale University, met his wife while living in Paris, received advice about his first novel from “Sophie’s Choice” author William Styron, raised two sons and worked in Hollywood, first as a production assistant, then a screenwriter.

“I always wanted to be a novelist,” Kaplan said. “I didn’t like the film industry. I didn’t like the culture. I didn’t like having to write what other people wanted me to write and not being able to do what I wanted to write. The fact is that everything we wrote got rewritten by other people, just the way we were being hired to rewrite other people’s scripts.”

He got a pilot’s license and purchased an airplane so he could make meetings in Los Angeles without having to live in the city. A fortuitous friendship with another pilot allowed him to change careers completely to the environmental consulting job he still holds — and this gave him the time and energy to return to novel writing.

His first novel, “By Fire, By Water,” came out in 2010. “It’s about the Spanish Inquisition, the expulsion of the Moors — which is to say the last Islamic presence in Europe — from Spain, and the discovery of America, and what it purports to show is how those so called three different events are all one event.”

Even though “By Fire, By Water” sold well, received glowing reviews and won awards, Kaplan didn’t find the going easier afterward. “My first novel was published when I was 50,” he said. “It took me 10 years to get my second novel published.”

During that interval, he and his wife moved to Roanoke from Pittsburgh, in the process renovating and restoring a distinctive old house in the Wasena neighborhood.

A babysitter who had worked for the family in California had talked up Roanoke, something Annie Kaplan recalled as they were on the way back from a trip to Atlanta. On a whim, they detoured to visit and were charmed by the downtown market. “We’re walking down the street, they’re starting to put their vegetables out and we’re looking at this historic architecture.” That very day, they checked real estate listings, found a fixer-upper available at a price they considered astonishingly low, and ended up buying it.

“We set out to improve the house, which was a lot of fun,” Kaplan said.

They had considered similar cities, like Greenville, South Carolina, and Asheville, North Carolina, but those places have become too saturated with people, he said. “What we were thinking was, maybe we can get in here, you know, while the getting is good.”