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Glorious George

A Century After His Birth, George Gershwin's Music--From "Summertime" to "Embraceable You," Rhapsody in Blue to Porgy and Bess--is Attracting New Generations of Fans
Edward Jablonski
From the Print Edition:
John Travolta, Jan/Feb 99

One day in the middle of the Jazz Age, an interviewer asked George Gershwin, "Didn't you play anything when you were a youngster?"

"Nothing but hooky," Gershwin replied.

True, up to a point, for he was an indifferent and absentee student, and later a high school dropout. His schoolboy behavior led his teachers to consider him a hapless case, and his studious, slightly older brother Ira was often called into the principal's office at P.S. 20 in Manhattan's Lower East Side to account for his brother's poor scholastic record. George's major accomplishment at the time was street games; he was the acknowledged roller skating champion of Seventh Street, around the corner from the apartment on Second Avenue where Morris and Rose Gershwin raised their family.

It was here, in 1910, where the piano arrived that eventually led to George's leaving the High School of Commerce at the age of 15. Brother Ira was the intended victim. Ira, who wasn't keen on studying piano, watched apprehensively as the movers hoisted the upright from the sidewalk through the window of their second-floor flat. But the instant the piano was pushed into place, it was George who sat down and, as Ira recalled, "He played a popular tune of the day. I remember being particularly impressed by his left hand. I had no idea he could play and found out that despite his rollerskating activities, the kid parties he attended, the many street games he participated in [which resulted in the occasional bloody nose], George had found time to experiment on a player piano at the home of a friend on Seventh Street," Ira added. "Although our piano was purchased with my taking lessons in mind, it was decided George might prove the brighter pupil."

He was--with a vengeance. In his brief but dazzling career (he died at 38 of a brain tumor), George Gershwin composed hundreds of songs for dozens of musicals. Today, 100 years after his birth on September 26, 1898, many of his songs (often with Ira's lyrics) are still cherished standards: "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Fascinating Rhythm," "Summertime," "The Man I Love," "Embraceable You" and many more. His musicals and orchestral pieces such as Rhapsody in Blue, Of Thee I Sing, An American in Paris and his opera Porgy and Bess are considered among the greatest in American music.

And throughout George's career, there were always cigars. According to Gershwin's first biographer, Isaac Goldberg, he would ask the composer a question, "to which George, always through the fragrance of the omnipresent cigar, made a ready reply."

Charles G. Shaw, a writer for The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, interviewed Gershwin in 1928. By that time Gershwin was a celebrated, successful and frequently interviewed composer. Shaw revealed that Gershwin "likes ice cream sodas and Scotch highballs, with a casual cocktail on the side, but rarely touches loganberry juice. Don Sebastians are his favorite cigars," he noted, adding, "He seldom smokes cigarettes, save in feminine company."

Goldberg described a rehearsal of the Gershwin musical Strike Up the Band during its Boston tryout in December 1929, with George conducting: "The theatre is darkened, all but the stage. In the auditorium, only a few spectators...scattered, perhaps strategically, about the lower house. The composer had just ducked his way through the low door leading from under the stage to the orchestra pit. His gray felt hat and fur-lined overcoat are thrown across the top of the piano; his cigar--that ubiquitous cigar...already going full blast. Later in the evening it will serve as a baton; or George will blow songs through it."

Gershwin enjoyed cigars with his outdoor activities as well. As composer Kay Swift (his longtime mistress) recalled for Gershwin biographers Robert Kimball and Alfred Simon, "Riding. He did it well. He smoked a cigar at the same time. I told him it doesn't go with riding a horse."

At 14, Gershwin had not yet taken up cigars, but he sure had taken to the piano. Up to that time, he had gone through all of the neighborhood piano teachers and study books to no great advantage. But then he was introduced to pianist-composer-teacher Charles Hambitzer of Milwaukee. Years later, Gershwin told Goldberg "I was crazy about that man" who introduced him to Chopin, Liszt and Debussy. "He made me harmony-conscious. I went out, in fact, and drummed up 10 pupils for him."

The admiration was returned. "The boy is a genius," Hambitzer wrote to his sister in Milwaukee. "He's just crazy about music and can't wait until it's time for his lesson.... He wants to go in for this modern stuff, jazz and whatnot. But I'm not going to let him for a while. I'll see that he gets a firm foundation in the standard music first." As George's musicianship flowered, the boy who was mad about music was indifferent to schoolwork. Instead, he'd skip out of class and head up to West 28th Street off Fifth Avenue, where several music publishers clustered.

They were housed in four- or five-story brownstones, with the business offices on one floor and the other floors consisting of cubicles in which not-always-in-tune upright pianos were played by piano pounders, as they were called, who demonstrated the publisher's songs. During the summer, the clamor from dozens of pianos would spill out the open windows onto 28th Street. This inspired author-songwriter Monroe H. Rosenfeld to observe that it sounded like the noise of banging tin pans. The name Tin Pan Alley stuck, no matter where the publishers moved over the years.

Impressed with Gershwin's pianistic bravura, a friend in the music business introduced him to Mose Gumble, manager of the so-called professional department of Jerome H. Remick & Co., a prosperous publisher of popular songs. In May 1914, a month before the close of the school year, George Gershwin, age 15, joined the staff of Remick's at the then considerable salary of $15 a week. He was the youngest pianist in the cacophonous Alley. He believed the work would keep his fingers in melodic-rhythmic trim (for his ambition was, under the tutelage of Hambitzer, to become a concert pianist); but while playing other composers' tunes, he also tried his hand at composition.

His first instrumental piece, written when he was 15, was a "Tango" for solo piano; a slightly earlier work, never completed, was a song, "Since I Found You." These efforts reveal an ambitious youngster exhibiting a predilection for crossing the musical tracks.

This talent was not encouraged at Remick. When Gershwin submitted one of his songs to Gumble, he was informed, "You're here as a pianist, not a writer. We've got plenty of writers under contract." Whereupon Remick & Co. lost a pianist. For about two years, Gershwin had endured what he later referred to as "the popular song racket," but what he wanted to do was write theater music, what he called "production music." Having discovered the theater songs of Jerome Kern, Gershwin was convinced by the rejection of his own song that he must escape from Tin Pan Alley. Of all the professionals--dancers, singers, comedians--for whom he performed songs at Remick, Gershwin warmly remembered two: a brother and sister dance team from Omaha, Nebraska, the Austerlitzes, soon to become known as Fred and Adele Astaire.

Adrift, Gershwin found work as an accompanist for such rising singers as Vivienne Segal and Louise Dresser and as a rehearsal pianist for shows with scores by his idols Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin. At the same time, he was turning out songs that got some attention and led to his first published song, "When You Want 'Em, You Can't Get 'Em, When You've Got 'Em, You Don't Want 'Em"; the lyrics were written by a friend named Murray Roth. The "Ems" were "girlies." This was the song rejected by Gumble, but with the aid of vaudeville headliner Sophie Tucker, Gershwin and Roth were introduced to songwriter-publisher Harry Von Tilzer, writer of such heart-tuggers as "Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie" and "I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl that Married Dear Old Dad." To the joy of the fledgling writers, Von Tilzer took their song.

Gershwin was quickly introduced to the business of music publishing: "Murray Roth got an advance of fifteen dollars on the song. I waived an advance, wanting royalties--glamorous word!--in a lump sum. After some time I went and asked [Von Tilzer] for a little cash on the song. He handed me five dollars. And I never got a cent more."

He fared better with singer Vivienne Segal's help. She booked him a concert at New York's Century Theater, where the musical Miss 1917 was struggling for survival. The score was by Kern and another giant, Victor Herbert; Segal was in the cast and Gershwin had been the rehearsal pianist. With the theater dark on Sunday nights, producer Florenz Ziegfeld added to his receipts with concerts. According to Ira Gershwin's diary, on November 25, 1917, "Geo played for Vivienne Segal who took him out for a bow. She sang 'There's More to the Kiss than the X-X-X' [the x's indicate the sound of a kiss] and 'You-oo Just You,' both with lyrics by Irving Caesar." The second song was published by, of all companies, Remick's.

Fortunately for Gershwin, Harry Askins, manager of the Miss 1917 company, was a good judge of song. He brought George to the attention of Max Dreyfus, who ran Harms, which specialized in the publication of show music (Herbert and Kern were Harms composers). On hearing some of Gershwin's songs, Dreyfus signed the 19-year-old to a position as staff composer at a hefty salary of $35 a week. If Harms published one of his songs, in addition to the weekly income Gershwin would receive royalties on publication. Seven months later, in 1918, Harms published its first Gershwin song, "Some Wonderful Sort of Someone," which brought in some agreeable royalties. That year George also wrote a song entitled "The Real American Folk Song (Is a Rag)," one of his earliest collaborations with his brother Ira, who wrote the lyrics.

Dreyfus was a power in the trade, and unique--he could actually read music. He was responsible for Gershwin's first show assignment; he even put money into the production. It was called Half Past Eight and starred a popular comic named Joe Cook. Gershwin's contribution was a handful of songs, now forgotten. A young producer named Edward B. Perkins had brought the show to Dreyfus with several finished songs. The show opened in Syracuse, New York, on its way to Chicago and then New York. The opening date was December 9, 1918; the show was a disaster and never left Syracuse. "The newspapers came out the next day," Gershwin ruefully recalled, "and I remember one saying 'Half Past Eight isn't even worth the war tax.'" Gershwin was lucky to get his fare back to New York after the show's five-day run. It was an unhappy introduction to the vicissitudes of show business.

Meanwhile, Dreyfus, certain that Gershwin would make his mark, continued to market his songs. His pluggers managed to get a few inserted into the scores of musicals being produced at the time. In 1919, Gershwin composed his first full Broadway score in La-La-Lucille!; the lyrics were penned by Arthur Jackson and B. G. DeSylva. The show was a success and boasted an excellent song, "Nobody But You." Later that year Gershwin had two songs in a revue, Demi-Tasse, at New York's Capitol Theater. The vaudeville-like songs and dances were presented onstage between showings of the Capitol's film of the week. Gershwin and his lyricist, Irving Caesar, stood in the lobby with piles of the sheet music. To their dismay, nobody bought the songs.

But early the following year, Gershwin went to a party at which the "World's Greatest Entertainer," as Al Jolson billed himself, was present. He was celebrating his return to New York after touring with his show, Sinbad, scheduled to reopen at the Winter Garden. It took little coaxing to get Gershwin to the keyboard, with his, in Goldberg's phrase, "omnipresent cigar" clenched in his teeth. He played brilliantly through his small but burgeoning repertoire to a responsive audience. When he came to the Capitol revue songs, Jolson's ears perked. He would include one that excited him ("That song's for me!" he exclaimed when he first heard it) into his show.

Early in January 1920, Jolson recorded that Gershwin song, "Swanee," which swept the nation and, in time, much of the rest of the world. Jolson's record sold more than 2 million copies and, with the singer's smiling face replacing the original Art Deco cover, the sheet music also sold in droves. The song was Gershwin's sole smash hit.

The Roaring Twenties dawned with Gershwin on Broadway composing full scores. "Swanee" brought him to the attention of a young producer, George White, whose musical revue, George White's Scandals, was filled with songs no one would remember.

Beginning with the George White's Scandals of 1920, Gershwin wrote music for five Scandals, creating one of his earliest adaptations of the blues, "On My Mind the Whole Night Long," in the first. In the 1922 Scandals he produced another hit in "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise," with lyrics by B. G. DeSylva (who wrote most of the lyrics for the 1922 show) and Ira Gershwin, who had been disguising himself since 1920 with the pseudonym Arthur Francis. (The older Gershwin used the names of his younger siblings so that no one could suggest that he was slipping into Tin Pan Alley on his brother's coattails.) Even more significant, Gershwin and DeSylva concocted a one-act mini-opera, Blue Monday, which, while it lasted only one night in New York, intimated the Gershwin to come.

That happened the year of Gershwin's last Scandals (1924), out of which came the enduring "Somebody Loves Me." Paul Whiteman, whose wildly popular band had been featured in the 1922 Scandals, had been impressed with Blue Monday, and suggested to Gershwin that he should write a "serious" composition in jazz. (Whiteman was known as "The King of Jazz" at a time when few had heard of Louis Armstrong or Jelly Roll Morton.) Gershwin agreed, then forgot about it.

Two years later, Gershwin was joltingly reminded of that casual exchange. The setting was the Ambassador Billiard Parlor at Broadway and 52nd Street in Manhattan; it was not quite midnight, January 3, 1924. Gershwin and Buddy DeSylva were shooting pool, relaxing after working on their musical, Sweet Little Devil, on its tryout tour in Boston before its New York premiere later that month. Nearby, seated on a tall stool, Ira Gershwin was reading the morning's New York Tribune. A brief item caught his eye: Whiteman Judges Named/Committee Will Decide "What is American Music". Read-ing further he learned that "George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto, Irving Berlin is writing a syncopated tone poem and Victor Herbert is working on an American suite."

This was news indeed to George--and to Berlin, for he was not struggling over a tone poem, and while Herbert did compose a Suite of Serenades, not one of them was American.

When he called Whiteman the next day for an explanation, Gershwin learned that the unexpected announcement had been forced on Whiteman because another bandleader was talking about doing a "jazz concert." Gershwin, still involved with Sweet Little Devil, could not see how he could write a concerto for a Whiteman concert scheduled for February 12. But Whiteman was persuasive, settling for any composition for piano and his orchestra and, further, offering the services of his arranger, Ferde Grofé, to assist with the orchestration.

Rather than work within the strict form of a concerto, Gershwin decided that he would compose an "American rhapsody." Ira suggested another title after visiting an art gallery that was displaying the canvasses of James McNeill Whistler. His familiar "Whistler's Mother" is, in fact, titled "Arrangement in Gray and Black"; another, "Nocturne in Green and Gold." So why not, Ira suggested, Rhapsody in Blue?

Gershwin began his Rhapsody in Blue (for Jazz Band and Piano) three days later, on January 7. Grofé haunted the Gershwin apartment on 110th Street daily for pages of the rhapsody in Gershwin's two-piano version (which Gershwin did for all his subsequent concert works--from these he worked out the orchestration). The fully orchestrated rhapsody was completed a month to the day after it was begun, five days before Whiteman's concert at Aeolian Hall in New York City.

It was the sensation of a long, often tedious, afternoon. Newspaper critics argued over it for days, questioning whether a man who wrote show music could compose a serious work. Subsequent concerts of Rhapsody in Blue took place at the hall in March and in Carnegie Hall in April, and then it went on the road. Gershwin stayed with the band until it reached St. Louis, then returned to New York to work on his next show. The notoriety and popularity of his very American and innovative composition brought him a contract from the New York Symphony for a full-scale concerto, resulting in the brilliant Concerto in F in 1925.

As it had begun in triumph with Rhapsody in Blue, 1924 closed with another hit, the musical Lady, Be Good! This was the first major collaboration on a Broadway show by the Gershwins. (By this time, Ira had shed his alter ego, Arthur Francis. By then everyone in the business knew who he was and, in addition, there was an English songwriter named Arthur Frances.)

Lady, Be Good! proved to be a landmark musical, short on plot but abundant in musical and lyrical quality; literate, breezy, youthful, of its time and in a word, Gershwinesque. Forty musicals were produced in New York that year, and after the Gershwins' hit, the sound of the American musical changed--it grew up. Just as Rhapsody in Blue opened the doors at Carnegie Hall to American composers, Lady, Be Good! paved the way for the likes of Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Vincent Youmans and others. And, as they had hoped for years before, Fred and Adele Astaire were the happy stars who sang such songs as "Fascinating Rhythm," "The Half of It, Dearie, Blues," "So Am I" and, for a time, "The Man I Love," which was dropped from the show after it opened in Philadelphia, two weeks before its Broadway debut.

With the success of Rhapsody in Blue and Lady, Be Good!, George Gershwin was now the George Gershwin, which is how the less dynamic, less flamboyant Ira preferred it; sibling rivalry was no problem in their unique collaboration.


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