The title points to the union of classical music and jazz: Prelude (first movement) and Fugue (second movement) —both baroque forms— are followed immediately without a pause by a series of “riffs” (third movement), which is a jazz idiom for a repeated and short melodic figure.
Completed in 1949 for Woody Herman's big band as part of a series of commissioned works —that already included Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto— it was never performed by Herman as the Thundering Herd had disbanded and would reform only 15 years later.
Instead, it received its premiere as part of Bernstein's Omnibus television show, "The World of Jazz" on October 16, 1955, with Benny Goodman —Leonard's Tanglewood neighbour and friend since the 1940's— as the soloist and to whom the work is now dedicated.
In 1952 Bernstein revised the score from its original instrumentation for a more conventional pit orchestra, and the work was then incorporated into a ballet sequence in the first draft of the musical comedy Wonderful Town, the sister piece of On the Town. The revised version of Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs did not survive and the majority of the music was cut from the final version of the Wonderful Town score with the exception of a few phrases in the musical's "Conquering the City" and "Conversation Piece".
It later was transcribed for clarinet and orchestra by Lukas Foss.
Recordings by Leonard Bernstein
Recording of big band version (arr. Chris Walden)
Recordings available on CD