Crawford, a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan and an impeccable scholar of the ambitious arc of American music dating back to our country’s early days, has attempted to place Gershwin within the broader context of 20th-century music. To be sure, his scholarship is scrupulous, and all the essential elements of the Gershwin legend are present: his precocious beginnings in Lower East Side poverty; his rise as a gifted all-purpose mechanic on Tin Pan Alley in the 1910s; his signature success (burnished by his eventual partnership with lyricist brother Ira) among a burgeoning tide of Broadway songwriters in the 1920s; his breezy assault on the heavily guarded fortress of classical music (and its fusty gatekeepers) with “Rhapsody in Blue”; his immense popularity on radio and the concert stage; his game-changing political satires for the musical theater in the 1930s; his jolly indifference to the formulaic conventions of the Hollywood musical; his famous friendships (he was as at home showing Fred Astaire a dance step as he was playing tennis with Igor Stravinsky); his bold venture on the operatic stage with “Porgy and Bess” (a multicultural challenge of enormous proportions); and inevitably, lamentably, his unfathomable death at the age of 38 in the wake of an operation to remove a brain tumor.
Crawford delivers a well-organized and scholarly framing of Gershwin’s life, but none of it is new or particularly insightful. Gershwin’s own evenhanded essays and think pieces (although they weren’t called that back then) have been collected and published for years; they’re the most edifying part of the book, at least when Crawford’s often redundant commentary moves out of the way to give them some oxygen.
Of course, a complex life such as Gershwin’s presents enormous challenges to a biographer; his personal life alone — as a commitment-averse bachelor who exuded considerable sexual magnetism — is difficult to parse at this distance. But Crawford seems ill at ease poking at these psychological runes; he’s even less adept at capturing the showbiz ethos of Gershwin’s life and achievements. He strains to transform a correspondence between Gershwin and Astaire’s sister Adele, the more popular member of their dancing duo, into a full-fledged romance (he’s not helped by having access to only her letters); it reads — to me, at any rate — much more like the hyperbolic effusiveness practiced by show folk when the curtain comes down. Likewise, the summaries that Crawford supplies for the Gershwin brothers’ political satires (written in collaboration with George S. Kaufman) — “Strike Up the Band,” “Of Thee I Sing,” “Let ’Em Eat Cake” — are tone-deaf to their wisecracking sense of humor and their continued relevance as reflections of hypocrisy and duplicity in American politics.
Relevance is a critical yardstick that Crawford seems reluctant to take up. One way of framing Gershwin’s life is to consider how he eagerly crossed the once-impermeable boundaries of “high art” and “low art.” Indeed, if there’s a through-line to Crawford’s disquisition it’s this; but his voluminous citations of long-dead, irrelevant critical gasbags (of both the musical and dramatic variety) only seem to reinforce an outdated, slightly tut-tutting overview of the composer’s struggles. Didn’t Gershwin himself win that battle decades ago, arguably within his own attenuated lifetime?
When he was bestriding the nation, Gershwin was the most modern guy around; 82 years later — guess what? — he still is. The “serious” music that confounded the fogeys nearly a century ago is played in every symphony hall around the world. There’s hardly a popular recording artist — from Garland to Gaga, from Ella to Elvis (Costello) — who hasn’t performed his songs in every manner of interpretation. Since 1983, there have been nine major revivals/reimaginings of his stage works on Broadway. And the magisterial “Porgy and Bess” — itself a signal lodestar for the insistent argument of cultural appropriation — opens at the Metropolitan Opera in a new production this month.
Alas, none of these reflections and refractions of Gershwin’s work are even mentioned by Crawford as an insight into the composer’s immense influence. Indeed, the book concludes hastily after Gershwin’s passing with a cursory and inorganic comparison to Duke Ellington and Aaron Copland. (Gershwin’s Broadway contemporaries — Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers — receive even less space for comparative analysis.) Readers fascinated with Gershwin’s personal and professional rhythms would do well to check out “The George Gershwin Reader” (2004) or even Michael Feinstein’s 2012 “The Gershwins and Me” (which has too much “Me” but is beautifully illustrated).
“Posterity Is Just Around the Corner” goes the penultimate number from 1931’s “Of Thee I Sing.” By the time Gershwin was zipping around the Hollywood Hills in his streamlined Cord convertible in the months before his death, he had certainly caught up to posterity at the next red light; since then, he has left posterity, the rest of us and Crawford’s obdurate tome in the rearview mirror, striving in vain to catch up with the vistas of his vision.
George Gershwin's Life in Music
By Richard Crawford
594 pp. $39.95