Ferdinand Rudolph von Grofé was born into a musical family. His maternal grandfather, Bernard Bierlich, was first-desk cellist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. His mother was also a cellist, his father a singing actor, and when grandfather Bierlich moved to Los Angeles, he became first cellist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where Grofé's uncle Julius was already concertmaster.
Young Ferdinand was taken to Los Angeles shortly after he was born. He made quick progress in learning to read music and play piano. After his father died in 1899, his mother took him with her when she went to study music in Leipzig for three years. She returned to Los Angeles, opened a studio, and soon afterwards remarried.
Grofé was an indifferent student, always spending time learning new band instruments. He ran away from home after his stepfather refused to let him quit school and worked at unskilled jobs, writing popular songs at night. These brought him to the attention of The Elks (an American benevolent association), who commissioned him to write a special song for their 1909 convention; the song gained some popularity. Soon Grofé joined his grandfather and uncle in the Philharmonic, as a violist. In his spare time he played in dance halls, sometimes billing himself as "Professor Grofé." He founded his own jazz band in San Francisco and wrote arrangements for it.
In 1919 bandleader Paul Whiteman heard one of these arrangements. Grofé accepted a job as pianist and arranger, and immediately started taking orchestration lessons from Pietro Floridia. His very first arrangement for Whiteman was a success: "Whispering" became a million-selling hit. When the Whiteman band relocated to New York, Grofé went with them. His orchestral ideas laid the foundation for what became the big-band sound. More important, he conceived the basic format that makes jazz playing in large ensembles possible: the contrasting of fully written-out orchestra passages with improvised "breaks."
In 1923 Whiteman conceived a concert to be given at Aeolian Hall in New York. "An Experiment in Modern Music" presented a number of jazz-style classically composed pieces played by the Whiteman Band, many scored by Grofé. Among them was George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, in Grofé's orchestration. The event made Grofé nearly as famous as Gershwin, and Grofé's symphonic version of the work has become the one best known to audiences.
Grofé began to widen his ambitions as a composer. He wrote the Mississippi Suite and, a few years later, the Grand Canyon Suite for the Whiteman orchestra, later enlarging them for symphony. In 1931 he resigned from the Whiteman organization and became conductor of the Capitol Theater orchestra in New York, hosted a network radio program, and was appointed to teach orchestration at the Juilliard School in 1939. During World War II he tirelessly conducted service bands and USO shows.
After the war he continued to write generally light music with a jazzy American flavor. A piano concerto was his most ambitious composition in a pure classical idiom. He also tried to follow up on the Mississippi and Grand Canyon suites with innumerable musical portraits of the American scene, including suites named for the Hudson River, Death Valley, Hollywood, San Francisco, New England, Virginia City, the World's Fair, and Mark Twain, as well as an Aviators' Suite, an Atlantic Crossing Suite, and a Niagara Falls Suite. These were generally played a few times and set aside. However, at the very end of the twentieth century there were some revivals of this forgotten music. Grofé died in Los Angeles shortly after his 80th birthday.