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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

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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?


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