George Gershwin: He Got Rhythm
By Ron Cowen
At age 12, George Gershovitz seemed well on the way to becoming a juvenile delinquent.
He skipped school, got into fights and occasionally stole from pushcarts plying the crowded streets of New York’s Lower East Side. George excelled at back-alley games—he was the roller-skating champ of Seventh Street—but reading bored him. At school, his scholarly brother Ira, two years older, often was called in to explain George’s poor attendance and bad attitude.
At that point, their mother Rose decided that the family needed a piano. Her sister had one, and she wanted Ira to start taking lessons. He was less than thrilled at the prospect. But one day in 1910, a secondhand upright was hoisted through a front window of the Gershovitz’s apartment. The piano stool clearly had Ira’s name on it, but it was rough-and-tumble George who twirled the seat down to size, lifted the keyboard and banged out an accomplished version of a popular tune.
''The family was flabbergasted,'' his sister Frances later recalled. George, it turned out, had discovered music in the midst of his shenanigans. The family of a schoolmate had a player piano, an automatic device whose keys went up and down in synch with a paper roll, and whenever he had the chance, George would tinker with it.
Ira, to his relief, was allowed to go back to his books. His brother had stolen the show. When George adopted the new last name Gershwin while still a teenager, Ira followed suit, but George would continue stealing the show throughout his short life.
George was the master musician of the Jazz Age, composing show tunes and symphonies with equal ease, the man who dared to begin a serious orchestral work with the wail of a clarinet or the squawk of taxi horns. He was the white composer of the haunting but stereotypical black folk opera, Porgy and Bess, and the writer of some of the most lushly romantic and inventive songs on Broadway and in Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s.
A century after his birth, Gershwin remains one of the most familiar and celebrated American composers. Elton John, Sting and even Cher have recorded his tunes. ''Many groups of today will say that they wouldn’t have existed without the Beatles,'' writes George Martin, a record producer. ''Well, the Beatles couldn’t have existed without the Gershwins.''
Amy Henderson, a cultural hisotrian at the Smithsonian Institution, says Gershwin ''provided the voice for what he saw and heard around him every day. It’s this vitality, this raw energy'' that is so captivating.
Smithsonian hisotrian Dwight Bowers adds, ''There are others who did elements of what he did as well or better, but the point is he did it all.''
''He took the Jewish tradition, the African-American tradition and the symphonic tradition, and he made a language out of that which was accessible and understandable to all kinds of people,'' says Michael Tilson-Thomas, who conducts the San Francisco Symphony and whose family ties to the Gershwins date nearly a century.
This year, which marks the centennial of George’s birth, singers and musicians across the nation are celebrating his work. The Library of Congress, repository of the Gershwin archives, has opened a permanent exhibit featuring letters, recordings, sheet music and images that document the artistry of George and his closest collaborator, Ira, who wrote the words.
In 1914, four years after Rose acquired the family’s first piano, George quit high school to break into the music business. He joined the Jerome H. Remick Music Co., a music publisher on 28th Street in Manhattan. At 15, he was the youngest ''piano pounder'' on what was called Tin Pin Alley [see accompanying article.] But the music he was paid to play repeatedly wasn’t his.
George didn’t begin to make a name for himself for another six years. In 1919, he teamed with Irving Caesar, a young lyricist, to write an all-American version of a current hit called ''Hindustan,'' whose lyrics evoked the mysterious Far East. Their new song would refer to the southern United States, although neither had been farther south than Brooklyn.
As they rode a bus uptown from Times Square to the Gershwin family’s apartment on West 144th Street, George and Irving fleshed out the theme. Within minutes of arriving at the apartment, as Caesar recalls it, they had the complete tune. George’s father, at first annoyed that the music was interfering with his nightly poker game, ended up accompanying George on a tissue-wrapped comb. That was the first performance of ''Swanee.''
Sixty chorus girls with electric lights in the tips of their shoes sang and danced to the tune at the opening of a motion picture theater in October 1919. But the spectacle didn’t persuade many in the audience to buy the sheet music, thousands of copies of which were available in the lobby.
Soon after, Al Jolson, the over-the-top white singer who performed in blackface, heard Gershwin perform the tune at a party. He immediately decided to put the song in his latest show and to record it.
Jolson’s recording of ''Swanee'' in January 1920 sold millions, along with the sheet music. The tune catapulted 21-year-old George into the limelight, and he never left it.
If there was one year in which George’s talents blossomed, it was 1924. The year began with a jolt when Ira opened a New York newspaper Jan. 4 and read that George was writing a jazz concerto for band leader Paul Whiteman. George had all but forgotten the commitment but proceeded to write the composition in just three weeks.
The themes, for what became ''Rhapsody in Blue,'' came to George, he later said, while he was on a train bound for Boston:
''It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang that is often so stimulating to a composer.‚.‚.‚. I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise. And then I suddenly heard—and even saw on paper—the complete construction of the rhapsody from beginning to end.‚.‚.‚. I hear it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America—of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.'' In one musical message, Tilson-Thomas says, George ''expressed what it was to be alive at that moment as an American .‚.‚. to let people know what it feels like to stand right here on this street corner and hear this elevated train go by and hear this building being built and hear this wail from a jazz club.''
Rhapsody in Blue debuted as No. 23 on a program entitled ''Experiment in Modern Music,'' and by the time it began, the audience in New York’s stuffy Aeolian Hall was restless. From the opening, a clarinet’s 16-note-long whoop, the rhapsody’s Russian-like melodies and jazzy blues notes electrified the crowd.
Putting such music into the concert hall ''was a huge leap that took immense talent and a great amount of guts,'' says Max Morath, a pianist and music historian. ''It wasn’t so much that the establishment didn’t like this kind of music. It didn’t know it was out there.''
Overnight, the already successful composer became famous. It didn’t hurt that George was young, handsome and supremely confident. Women adored him, and he adored an audience. Publicizing his work using new technology—radio, film, phonograph recordings and piano rolls—George became a celebrity. Time magazine put him on the cover when he was just 26.
November 1924 saw the opening of the musical Lady, Be Good!, the brothers’ first complete score on Broadway. The plot was trite; the tunes were anything but. Starring dancer Fred Astaire and his sister Adele, the musical included the song ''Fascinating Rhythm,'' with its speedy, jagged meter and breezy language.
''The score that George and Ira concocted captured the verve, syncopation and colorful speech pattern of the Jazz Age in a way that never quite happened before,'' Bowers says.
At the same time, there is a sadness, a longing in many of Gershwin’s melodies that seems to hark back to his Russian Jewish roots, according to Tilson-Thomas.
For the next 13 years, George and Ira remained a team despite their differences, or maybe because of them.
''Ira was more the intellectual side, George was the creative, yet the two melded into each other,'' says performer Michael Feinstein, Ira’s assistant during the last six years of his life. ''George would sometimes get a flash for a lyric, and Ira would sometimes get a flash for a melodic idea.‚.‚.‚. They could sort of get inside each other’s brains.''
Ray White, curator of the Library of Congress exhibit, says, ''George was a party animal, sophisticated and glamorous and a clothes horse and out there playing the piano, and Ira was stay-at-home-and-read.. George seems to have worked fast, in a sort of frenzy, while Ira was more contemplative or careful.''
Self-portraits of the composer and lyricist illustrate their differences. George painted himself in white tie and tails, wearing an evening hat. Ira’s portrait, which hangs in the Library of Congress exhibit, shows him in yellow underwear ''with a cigar in his mouth, a 5 o’clock shadow and way more of a potbelly than he actually had,'' White says.
After 1924, concertos and musicals appeared in rapid succession. For An American in Paris, a symphony he completed after a 1928 visit to the French capital, George employed a quartet of Parisian taxi horns. Almost as loud as those was singer Ethel Merman, who made her Broadway debut in a 1930 Gershwin musical called Girl Crazy. Her clarion rendition of ''I’ve Got Rhythm,'' in which she held a single note for 12 bars, stopped the show nightly.
In 1934, Gershwin began work on the most ambitious project of his career, an opera based on the play Porgy, about a crippled black man whose passion for a young woman drives him to commit murder. The setting was Catfish Row, a mythical community on the Charleston, S.C., waterfront. The stereotyped plot portrayed a culture in which lying, cheating and gambling were a way of life. The music has received worldwide acclaim.
To absorb the sense of place, Gershwin visited James Island, a barrier island near Charleston where black residents spoke Gullah, an English creole dialect with vocabulary and grammatical features from West African languages. He attended their religious services and held his own in a complex pattern of dancing and singing called shouts. ''He was the original funky white guy,'' Feinstein says.
Gershwin labored for 11 months to compose the score and another nine months to orchestrate it. To raise money for the show, he hosted a radio program sponsored by the laxative Feenamint, which, he was fond of saying, paid for Porgy and Bess. The opera’s first run lasted only 124 performances, a flop by Broadway standards, but a later version would tour the world.
Anne Brown, who played Bess, recalls a drama offstage after the show closed in New York. A native of Baltimore, she was pleased to see that the show would tour Washington. But when she realized that the venue was the National Theatre, she was taken aback. Her black friends, family and the black public would not be allowed to attend.
Brown decided to take a stand. She would refuse to sing under those circumstances and persuaded the cast to go along with her. Her action prevailed. For one week in 1936 when the company of Porgy and Bess came to town, the National Theatre admitted blacks. It then reverted to segregation.
In 1936, with the Great Depression limiting opportunities on Broadway, the Gershwin brothers moved to Hollywood. They wrote music for two Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies, producing such classic songs as ''Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,'' which the dancers performed on roller skates.
Early in 1937, George began to complain of headaches. He experienced a memory lapse while playing one of his concertos, had dizzy spells and grew irritable and uncoordinated. To ease his pain, George would lie down in a darkened room with a towel against his head. Medical checkups could find nothing wrong.
In June, his symptoms grew worse, and in early July he fell into a coma. Too late, doctors discovered a brain tumor. George Gershwin died July 11, 1937, only 38 years old.
''The whole course of American music would have been so different had he lived,'' Tilson-Thomas says. ''His music was ever more assured and daring, and he would have brought along such a big audience with him on his voyage of discovery.''
Ira never fully recovered from George’s death, often going through George’s unpublished melodies, Feinstein says, ''hoping to find another Gershwin hit because he wanted his collaboration with George to continue.''
And so it has: Sixty-one years later, the Gershwins’s music is here to stay.
Ron Cowen is a staff writer at the weekly magazine Science News.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company