The music of George Gershwin has “Made in the USA” stamped all over it. Coming of age in the 1920s and ’30s in New York City, Gershwin wrote music for a new generation of Americans.
Frequent Riverwalk Jazz guest artist Dick Hyman—a brilliant pianist, composer and arranger of film scores, ballet and Broadway shows—joins The Jim Cullum Jazz Band this week to celebrate George Gershwin’s works.
To this day, two of Gershwin’s Broadway show tunes are all-time most-often-played standard vehicles for jazz musicians and their endless improvisations. “Oh, Lady Be Good!” was introduced as the title tune of a 1924 stage musical starring the dance team sensation Fred and Adele Astaire.
Another Gershwin composition highly popular as a jazz vehicle, “I Got Rhythm” debuted in a 1930 Broadway musical, Girl Crazy. The chord changes of “I Got Rhythm” are so commonly used in jazz that musicians just call them “rhythm changes.” This simple harmonic framework forms the basis of countless jazz standards, such as Count Basie’s “Lester Leaps In,” Duke Ellington’s “Cotton Tail,” Charlie Parker’s “Anthropology” or Nat Cole’s “Straighten Up and Fly Right.” Dick Hyman says, “In jazz, there’s a saying that either you’re playing the blues or you’re playing ‘I Got Rhythm.’ Next to the blues, it’s just about the most common jazz form.”
In 1932 George Gershwin’s Song Book was published. It included the original sheet music and Gershwin’s own piano transcriptions—his songs as he liked to play them. They were difficult arrangements, many worthy of concert presentation. Gershwin explained, “Playing my songs as frequently as I do at private parties, I have naturally been led to compose numerous variations upon them and to indulge the desire for complication and variety that every composer feels when he manipulates the same material over and over again.” At these celebrity-studded parties in the living room of his Manhattan penthouse, he would often play versions of his “variations” arranged for two pianos, with his friend Oscar Levant on second piano. Just such an arrangement from the Song Book is “Fascinating Rhythm” with Hyman and John Sheridan.
Gershwin began composing his Piano Preludes in 1925. Prelude #2 with its 12-bar blues structure lends itself particularly well to our jazz treatment by the Band with Hyman and Sheridan.
Gershwin began his career in music at the age of 15 as a song-plugger for Remick’s, a music publishing house in New York. He’d spend his days in a small room—just about the size of a boarding house bedroom—at an upright piano, playing songs for singers and producers. At night he’d make the rounds of saloons playing these same tunes for the publishing company with the idea that somebody important would hear the tune, like it and put it in a big show.
At the age of 21 he got a huge break. The popular singing star Al Jolson heard one of Gershwin’s original tunes, “Swanee,” and fell in love with it. Jolson put it in his show Sinbad, and lucky for Gershwin, Jolson made a recording of it. Within days of its release, “Swanee” was touted as “Al Jolson’s Greatest Song” and Gershwin was riding high.
One of the first offers to come his way after the success of “Swanee” was a commission to write the music for George White’s Broadway Revue. These were flashy shows with big production numbers like the Zigfield Follies. The Scandals revues turned out to be George’s ticket out of Tin Pan Alley into Broadway. Between 1920 and 1924 George Gershwin wrote 34 songs for the annual shows. Two of them were lasting hits—”Somebody Loves Me” and “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.” From the title, you can imagine the elaborate production number this song inspired. But when Gershwin played it for himself he did it as a boogie-woogie.
On November 4, 1926 “the musical smart set,” as Carl Van Vechten wrote in Vanity Fair, “gathered at the Hotel Roosevelt to hear George Gershwin play his 5 new preludes for piano. It was the first public performance of these pieces Gershwin called “The Melting Pot.” They were to be an introduction to a larger 24-part work to be presented as musical snapshots of New York City life. The larger work was never written, but 3 “Piano Preludes” survived.
Hollywood lured George and Ira to California to write music for the movies. Writing the score for the Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire movie Shall We Dance?, George fell in love with the pace of life in Beverly Hills compared to New York. He enjoyed hanging out and playing poker with his heroes Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern. He’d go to the racetrack and even had his own personal body trainer. He was so distracted by his golf game, he once said. “If I expect to write more music I shall have to curb my love for golf…unless some farseeing golf club will place a Steinway at each tee.”
In 1937 George and Ira were at work on Damsel in Distress, a new movie for Fred Astaire. this time with Joan Fontaine as his leading lady. They wrote “Nice Work If You Can Get It” and “A Foggy Day.” About this time, George met the actress Paulette Goddard at a Hollywood party and fell madly in love with her. But after Walter Winchell linked their names romantically, they saw each other only on the sly because—in true Hollywood style—she was secretly married to Charlie Chaplin.
In those early days of 1937 no one could have guessed how tragically the year would end. In June, George started to get terrible headaches. He became moody and detached. The doctors couldn’t find anything physically wrong with him and said his symptoms were caused by “overwork” or “‘a nervous condition.”
By July, George’s headaches got worse and worse. He stopped playing the piano altogether. But even his family still thought his problems were strictly emotional and that he’d snap out of it.
On July 10th, George fell into a coma and was rushed to the hospital. He had a massive brain tumor. Though he underwent emergency surgery he never had a chance. He was 38 years old when he died on July 11,1937. His family was devastated and the whole world mourned his passing.
Photo credit for Home Page and Recent Radio Broadcast Page: 1925 cover of Time Magazine, Image from ‘Gershwin in His Time.’ Copyright 1998 Gregory R. Suriano
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick © 2011