Monday, 15 November 2010

I like a Gershwin tune ~ how about you?

George Gershwin
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Life is a lot like jazz... it's best when you improvise.

The man who would become known as George Gershwin was, in fact, born Jacob Gershowitz in Brooklyn, New York, on September 26th, 1898, to immigrant Russian-Jewish parents who came to America in 1891. As a child, he excelled at outdoor sports and activities but did not show any inclination towards music until the age of around twelve, when a piano was brought home for his brother, Ira. True to form, George immediately took an interest in the instrument and began to play a popular tune he had heard played on a neighbour's player piano and had memorised. This did not go unnoticed by the Gershowitzes; at the age of thirteen, his parents decided to invest in their son's evident talent by sending him to study music. George began studying with several composers, among them: Rubin Goldmark, Henry Cowell, Wallingford Riegger and Joseph Schillinger. By age of fifteen, having quit school altogether, he was already earning $15 per week playing for a Tin-Pan Alley publishing firm called, Jerome H. Remick & Co. (Source:, 2000)



To to supplement his income, he recorded what was known as piano rolls under various pseudonyms, thus earning a much-needed $35 for every six rolls of music produced.  It was also at this time in his life that he decided to change his last name from Gershowitz to Gershwin: he had admired the comedian, Ed Wynn, so he simply dropped the "witz" and incorporated "win" from Wynn, creating his newly-adapted surname. His first published song came in 1916, When You Want 'em; but it was the success of his first real hit, Swanee, written for a revue at the just-opened Capitol Theater in 1918, that established his reputation as a composer. Its success - the unparalleled hit of his entire career - was brought about when Al Jolson sang it in Sinbad. (Source:, 2000)  

As an American composer of international renown, Gershwin was one of the first to introduce jazz rhythms into popular songs - some of his best-loved songs are The Man I Love, I Got Rhythm, and the dolefully beautiful, Someone To Watch Over Me - all mainstays of the greatest crooners of our time. George and his brother, Ira, collaborated on a number of revues and musical comedies as well: Scandals (1920-24), Lady Be Good (1924), Funny Face (1927), and Of Thee I Sing (1931) - the first musical comedy to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize. Ira was responsible for writing the lyrics of nearly all of George's songs. But perhaps his most recognisable work was undertaken in 1924, when Paul Whiteman, the bandleader, commissioned George to write a work for a piano and jazz band; he wrote it in less than three weeks: Rhapsody In Blue. The haste with which it was written was mainly due to the fact that George had completely forgotten about his commitment. He only recalled it when Ira read about the upcoming concert in the newspaper and George set to work on it post-haste. (Source:, 2000)  

It has been said that Gershwin's inspiration for the rhythm of Rhapsody In Blue came from the rhythm of the train on which he was travelling to Boston. As it has been recounted by Gershwin, much of the work came to him on that journey, "with its steely rhythms, its rattlety-bang... I suddenly heard - and even saw on paper - the complete construction of the rhapsody from beginning to end. I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America - of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness." The music itself was written in a week on his return to New York. The success with which Rhapsody In Blue met led Gershwin to write other pieces for piano, including Concerto in F (1925). His other evocative piece is An American in Paris, written in 1928, and takes the listener to the heart of the French capital in the 1920s - it even includes four car horns to recall the chaotic traffic noise of the city.
(Cited from:, 2000)  



An American in Paris was inspired by a trip the Gershwins took to Paris in 1928. The thematic intent behind the work was that he wanted not only to capture some of the capital's spirit, but also the carefree attitude of his compatriot Americans vacationing in Paris as well. For the sake of authenticity, Gershwin visited Parisian garages where he purchased real car horns which he incorporated into the score later on. An American in Paris premiered at Carnegie Hall in December, 1928, and was quickly transferred from the concert hall to the musical stage, into a ballet scene of the musical, Show Girl. Then in 1930 came the last (and probably the greatest) of Gershwin's lighthearted musicals, Girl Crazy - it starred Ginger Rogers; it was also the stage debut of a neophyte Ethel Merman. In the pit, musicians such as Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller played. Success followed success: in 1932, Of Thee I Sing received the Pulitzer Prize; as was mentioned earlier, it was the first musical to do so. However, it came as a posthumous prize. Being an award for writing, the prize went to Ira Gershwin, George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryakind; George received his musical recognition on the centenary of his birth, in 1998. (Source:, 2000)  



Up until 1935, Gershwin's work had met with resounding success. That was not the case with his next piece, a controversial opera: Porgy and Bess. Based on the 1925 book Porgy by author DuBose Hayward, and set in the South, the composition was Gershwin's greatest endeavour. It failed to receive the recognition he had hoped it would. Later, it was revived on Broadway (in 1942 and again in 1953); in 1959 it was made into a motion picture, directed by Otto Preminger. Today it is considered a Gershwin masterpiece. (Source:, 2000)  




In 1927, Gershwin took up painting and drawing as a hobby; the previous year he had begun to collect contemporary art. His interest in art became an increasingly important pastime over the years. At the pinnacle of his career, his life came to an abrupt end on July 11, 1937. While working in California on the score of his last composition, The Golden Follies, Gershwin collapsed into unconsciousness. After lapsing into a coma, he later died of a brain tumour. Tragically, Gershwin was only 38 years of age. 

He once aptly said, "True music... must reflect the thought and aspirations of the people and time. My people are Americans. My time is today." And so it is; the greatness of his music is still alive today and used in numerous films and musicals. They are classics. (Cited from:, 2000)








The above fifteen videos are all courtesy of: YouTube

Recommended readings:

The Gershwin Years: George and Ira (1996), by Edward Jablonski & Lawrence D. Stewart: Da Capo Press

Gershwin: With A New Critical Discography (1998), by Edward Jablonski: Da Capo Press

George Gershwin (1998), by Rodney Greenberg: Phaidon

George Gershwin: A New Biography (2003), by William Hyland: Greenwood Publishing Group

The George Gershwin Reader (2004), by Robert Wyatt & John A. Johnson: Oxford University Press

George Gershwin: His Life and Work (2006), by Howard Pollack: University of California Press

The Memory of All That: The Life of George Gershwin (2007), by Joan Peyser: Hal Leonard

George Gershwin: An Intimate Portrait (2009), by Walter Rimler: University of Illinois Press

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