Ferde Grofé (Ferdinand Rudolph von Grofé) was born on March 27, 1892, in New York City. He grew up in a musical family. When Ferde was very young, the family moved to Los Angeles.
Grofé moved away from home when he was about fourteen. He worked at a number of odd jobs, including bookbinder, truck driver, usher, newsboy, and elevator operator. He studied piano and violin and by the time he was fifteen, he was performing with dance bands. He also played the alto horn (like a small tuba) in brass bands and viola in the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Later, Grofé worked as an arranger of music by other composers, especially "jazzy-sounding" pieces. In 1924, he arranged Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. The success of this orchestration established Grofé's reputation as a composer and arranger, particularly in the jazz world.
Grofé started working as an arranger and pianist with Paul Whiteman, a jazz bandleader, around 1920. Grofé arranged music and composed original pieces in a symphonic jazz style. Grofé's own works included Mississippi: A Journey in Tones in 1925, Metropolis: A Fantasie in Blue in 1928, and the Grand Canyon Suite in 1931. Each piece painted a musical portrait of an American scene. He continued to work for Whiteman until 1933.
In 1916, Grofé drove across the Arizona desert with some friends to watch the sun rise over the Grand Canyon. During a radio interview more than forty years later, he described what he saw and felt. He told how he and his pals had arrived and set up camp. The next morning, just before dawn, they got up to watch the sunrise. He described how at first, it was very silent; then, as the day got lighter, the sounds of the natural world began. Suddenly the sun came up and the vision was so dramatic that he couldn't express it in words. Inspired by this experience, Grofé composed a movement of the Grand Canyon Suite called "Sunrise" in 1929. In 1930, he sketched out the "Sunset" and "Cloudburst" sections of the piece, but didn't have time to orchestrate them. He didn't get a chance to finish the Grand Canyon Suite until the summer of 1931.
The Grand Canyon Suite has five movements, including "Sunrise," "Painted Desert," "On the Trail," "Sunset," and "Cloudburst." The suite is Grofé's best-known work. The most famous movement is called "On the Trail." One section of the music imitates the "clip-clop, clip-clop" of a donkey's hooves.
In November 1931, the Grand Canyon Suite premiered in Chicago at the Studebaker Theatre, played by Paul Whiteman's band. To this day the Grand Canyon Suite is popular with performers and listeners.