George Antheil composed A Jazz Symphony in 1925, in anticipation of a commission from jazz bandleader Paul Whiteman. Whiteman had taken a chance on George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue in the "Experiment in Modern Music" concert held at Aeolian Hall on March 9, 1924, and his gamble paid off handsomely. Whiteman was looking to repeat his success and spread the word among composers that he was looking for a major-league work, either a concerto or a symphony, to present at a follow-up Carnegie Hall concert of December 29, 1925.
Unfortunately for Antheil, then resident in Paris, Whiteman did not take interest in A Jazz Symphony, possibly since it was difficult to read and ultramodern in style. Antheil instead programmed A Jazz Symphony for his own Carnegie Hall debut scheduled for April 10, 1927. Antheil found an ally in the form of bandleader, composer, and publisher W.C. Handy, who agreed to lead his own orchestra in the work. In the course of some 25 rehearsals held on behalf of A Jazz Symphony, Handy found its intricacies beyond his means and handed leadership of the concert over to Allie Ross, an associate conductor of the Harlem Symphony.
At the Carnegie Hall concert, A Jazz Symphony received an ovation, and critical notices describing Antheil's notorious Carnegie Hall debut that bothered to mention A Jazz Symphony were entirely favorable. George Gershwin was present at the concert and remarked, "I really can't compare Antheil's jazz with mine. He deals in polytonalities and dissonance and follows (the sympathies of) Stravinsky and the French." Had the 13-minute Jazz Symphony alone been the major work programmed for this Carnegie Hall concert, then Antheil's reputation might well have been assured in New York. But this was not to be; the main work presented was Ballet Mécanique, which came close to precipitating an in-concert brawl at Carnegie Hall. So while A Jazz Symphony was a success, the concert itself was a disaster, and Antheil's Jazz Symphony was forgotten.
In 1954, Antheil undertook a major overhaul of Ballet mécanique, and the following year he similarly turned his attention to A Jazz Symphony. He streamlined the original Whiteman-styled orchestration down to a basic wind band with piano and removed a number of improvised solos included in the original. A Jazz Symphony is not set in any kind of symphonic form; rather, it is a patchwork collage of jazz-inspired rhythms and gestures. Antheil greatly reduced the number of "patches" used and eliminated several bars of repetition, much as he had in his 1954 Ballet mécanique. In the end, the 13-minute work was reduced by more than half to six minutes, and it was in this form that the work was finally published and, for three decades, programmed. The music starts with a kind of Afro-Cuban jazz, alternating with a dissonant dance somewhere between a "stomp" and ragtime. There are quick changes of time signatures, asymmetrical combinations of duple and triple meter, Harlem stride piano solos with tone cluster chords, and an ending that suddenly goes into a wild and crazy kind of sliding and swooping waltz with sentimental harmonies and dissonant harmonics above.The original version, which included prerecorded airplane propeller sounds, was revived for the first time under Maurice Peress with the New Palais Royale Orchestra at the 92nd Street Y Summer Jazzfest in New York in June 1986.