George Gershwin: Master of American Popular Music
Buy some of George Gershwin's music . . .
George Gershwin’s melodies are unforgettable
The name of George Gershwin and American popular music seem synonymous. Gershwin’s music, a blend of pop, classical and jazz captured the mood of the American soul during the Jazz Age of the 1920s and ’30s. Though much of Gershwin’s music is decidedly jazzy, George was never considered a jazz musician in the ilk of Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington. He simply had his own Gershwin-esque style.
At a performance in 1924 entitled “An Experiment in Modern Music,” George Gershwin displayed his style, startling the music world with his introduction of Rhapsody in Blue. After hearing the Rhapsody, one critic said, “He may yet bring jazz out of the kitchen.” And that, as they say, was just the beginning. Gershwin produced numerous compositions for orchestra and also wrote the music for more than a dozen Broadway musicals, as well as the musical scores for several motion pictures.
Since Gershwin’s death in 1937, just about everybody in the realm of popular music has played his music and emulated his style. You can’t do much better than play Gershwin’s music. Of course, if you can pound the piano keys the way George did – Ginger Rogers called his playing “delicious” – you would also be a virtuoso!
So let’s behold the career of George Gershwin, master of American popular music, who created music with which to dance, soar through the sky, make love or just have a good little tear-jerking cry.
Tin Pan Alley
Born to Russian Jews in 1898, George Gershwin grew up in Brooklyn, New York. He started playing piano at 10. An obvious prodigy, George quit school at 15 and began plugging songs on Tin Pan Alley. (The musical style of Tin Pan Alley eventually influenced artists such as the Beatles.) Almost immediately George began making money with his musical talent. At 17, he sold his first song, “When You Want ‘Em You Can’t Get ‘Em, When You’ve Got ‘Em, You Don’t Want ‘Em” and earned five bucks!
In 1919, George scored his first national hit by writing the music to “Swanee,” with words by Irving Caesar, who, incidentally, also wrote the words to “Tea for Two.” A year later the great Al Jolson recorded “Swanee,” which reached number one on the charts and stayed there for weeks.
From 1916 and through the 1920s, George recorded scores of piano rolls, playing the music of others as well as his own compositions. Much of George’s income came doing this kind of work.
Around 1920, George took a plunge into vaudeville, providing accompaniment on the piano for various singers. (By this time George was considered one of the best pianists in the New York area.) In this milieu George eventually produced with lyricist Buddy DeSylva the experimental, one-act jazz opera Blue Monday . Set in Harlem, the work foreshadowed Gershwin’s masterpiece Porgy and Bess. Unfortunately, Blue Monday was a commercial failure.
Rhapsody in Blue
George Gershwin’s career exploded in 1924 when he produced the most popular work of his career. Rhapsody in Blue captivated people with its originality, sweeping melody and jazz-inspired improvisational techniques. Written for solo piano and jazz band, George introduced the piece with Paul Whiteman and his band at Aeolian Hall in New York City. From this point on, American popular music was permanently changed for the better, for jazzy is always better, isn’t it? It could be said anyway!
Reflecting on the rhapsody’s creation, George told his biographer in 1931:
It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer – I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise... And there 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 metropolitan madness.
But many critics panned the piece. Lawrence Gillman of the New York Tribune wrote:
How trite, feeble and conventional the tunes are; how sentimental and vapid the harmonic treatment, under its disguise of fussy and futile counterpoint! ... Weep over the lifelessness of the melody and harmony, so derivative, so stale, so inexpressive!
However, Leonard Bernstein loved it, though he didn’t think Gershwin was a great composer. Good, bad or mediocre, Rhapsody in Blue was certainly original and definitely exciting to many. All in all, the composition remains one of the most influential pop offerings of all time. But purists still argue whether it constitutes jazz.
If the clarinet glissando at the opening of the piece isn’t jazz, then what is?
In 1924, George began a collaboration that would last the rest of his life. George and his brother Ira Gershwin, a brilliant lyricist, created the music for the musical comedy Lady Be Good, introducing such immortal tunes as “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Oh, Lady Be Good!”
Reportedly, when George and Ira worked together, George’s music came first and then Ira wrote the lyrics. But Ira once joked that the “contract” actually came first.
Interestingly, as accomplished as George was at the time, he still sought instruction from masters of the classical form in Europe, when he traveled there in the 1920s. As the stories go, when George visited Maurice Ravel and Arnold Schoenberg, both wondered why George wanted to be a second-rate Ravel or Schoenberg rather than a first-rate Gershwin. They sent George on his way, untutored. Nevertheless, George incorporated much of the European style in the orchestral compositions Concerto in F (1925), An American in Paris (1928) and the Second Rhapsody (1931).
Also during those years, George wrote the music for many plays: Oh, Kay! (1926), Strike Up the Band (1927), Show Girl (1929), Girl Crazy (1930), which introduced the pop classic “I’ve Got Rhythm,” and then Of Thee I Sing (1931), the first winner of the Pulitzer Prize for musical comedy. In fact, George and Ira Gershwin made the musical comedy an art form.
Porgy and Bess
In 1935, George embarked on his most ambitious accomplishment to date. Along with Rhapsody in Blue , this was another Gershwin tour de force. Called an American folk opera, Porgy and Bess was another group effort with George’s brother Ira, who wrote the lyric along with the husband and wife team of Dubose and Dorothy Heyward. This musical play shows Gershwin’s music at its most sophisticated; it included the use of techniques such as atonality, polytonality, polyrhythm, fugue and passacaglia.
Porgy and Bess is the story of a fictitious all-black area called Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina during the early 1920s. Just about everybody in Catfish Row is poor and many succumb to drug use. The story revolves around the characters Porgy, a disabled beggar and Bess, whom Porgy tries to recue from the clutches of the local drug dealer.
Porgy and Bess incorporates elements of black music, particularly blues and jazz idioms and is presented in an operatic style. The most popular songs in the production are “It Ain’t necessarily so,” “Bess, You Is My Woman,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’” and “Summertime,” which has become a standard pop and folk tune. It would be hard to name a song that’s been covered more than “Summertime.”
If Porgy and Bess opened today, it almost certainly wouldn't be considered politically correct. When first produced, many critics condemned the opera because they thought it showed numerous black stereotypes. Many also thought the story wasn't good enough to be presented in an operatic format. Nevertheless, Porgy and Bess is generally considered an astonishing work of artistic Americana and, understandably, George Gershwin considered it his greatest work.
Early in 1937, George began having terrible headaches and often had blackouts while performing. In July of that year he was diagnosed as having glioblastoma multiforme, essentially a malignant brain tumor. One theory suggests the condition may have been misdiagnosed. Perhaps he only had a lesser form of brain tumor. Be that as it may, shortly after having surgery to remove the tumor George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937. He was just 38 years old.
Even though the career of George Gershwin was cut short by illness, he was prolific while he lived and his music beloved by millions. No one will soon forget his music, a blend of classical, jazz, folk and pop that dances through the mind like a pleasant memory. Although Gershwin’s music may seem dated now, perhaps a little too sentimental or theatrical, it will remain an integral aspect of American popular music. At the very least, his music will influence us for a very long time.
Hey, isn't it time to throw on one of Gershwin's records, tapes or CDs? Have you ever heard his Lullaby?
Please leave a comment.
Click on the following link and listen to some of the music of George Gershwin: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?p=PL0C98785E1F49FF77
Click on these links for more articles about jazz artists . . .
More by this Author
This article summarizes the achievements of the jazz band Spyro Gyra. It also tries to answer the question of whether the band plays jazz or pop or a hybrid of both.
This article provides an in-depth biography of jazz great Miles Davis. The content tries to prove that Miles Davis was one of the most talented and influential jazz artists of the twentieth century.
This article provides a list of some of the most notorious serial killers in the history of the United States. Body counts weren't emphasized in this story, instead the infamous nature of these dastardly criminals.