Gershwin Who was George Gershwin? Today, most people would answer that question by saying that he was the composer of the song thats in the airline commercial. Although that is true, he was much more than that. Gershwin was the most celebrated and wealthiest American composer who expressed the dreams of every American citizen of the 1920’s. He achieved this by mixing different styles of music like Jewish, black, jazz, classical, blues and put them into one genre and created absolute music. George Gershwin was born in Brooklyn, New York on September 26, 1898.
He had the childhood of any average kid growing up in the early 1900’s. His father Morris, a Russian Jewish immigrant, had many different jobs so George was forced to move around a lot and learn how to fight for his survival. Many people say that he was a very wild and robust child who was not interested in any type of school work (Schwartz 11). In the neighborhood where Gershwin grew up, anyone who was interested in music was known as a sissy. So after passing by a penny arcade and discovering a mechanical piano, George would go to homes of friends who had pianos and secretly tap out the popular tunes of the day (Peyser 21).
One day his parents purchased a piano for Ira, the eldest, and as soon as it was moved in George sat down and began to play. The family was flabbergasted! They had no idea he was interested in music or where he learned how to play the piano (Adam 12:08). Georges parents immediately sought a teacher for him. They found a lady named Ms. Green from the neighborhood who, for fifty cents an hour, taught him all of the scales and modes.
He then moved on to Mr. Goldberg who, for one dollar and fifty cents an hour, had him progress to opera overtures and arias. When his skill was matched to his teachers, he was introduced to Charles Hambutzer who taught him proper techniques, lyricism, harmony and most importantly opened up the worlds of Chopin, Liszt, Debussy and Schoenberg (Ewen 58-60). Under Hambutzers guidance, Gershwin was faithful to his practicing and musical studies and in May of 1914 he was offered a job at Remicks Music Publishing House in Tin Pan Alley. Gershwin jumped at the chance to become the youngest pianist ever employed at the popular music capital of the world.
So at the age of fifteen, he quit school and became a song plugger (Schwartz 21). The purpose of a song plugger was to make a song become a hit. Everyday hundreds of singers and actors came to Tin Pan Alley looking for fresh new materials. The song pluggers could improvise and transpose a song on the spot to fit a particular singer or actor. Soon, everyone was going to Gershwins booth because he could “.
. . make you hear a song as it really is.” Gershwin was happy at his new job but he wanted more so he began to compose (Gojowy 303). In 1916 Gershwin had his first song printed, When You Want Em, You Cant Have Em, When You Have Em, You Dont Want Em.” Sophie Tucker, a famous singer, was responsible for its publication. She heard him playing it one night in a bar and arranged for it to be printed because she liked his use of unusual forms and rhythms (Adam 20:22).
It was the publication of this song that led to him meeting famous lyricist, Irving Caesar. Gershwin and Caesar decided to work on a Broadway musical. In May 1919, it was completed and La La Lucille made its debut. It featured the tunes Nobody But You and Theres More to the Kiss than the Sound (Schwartz 45-46). It was billed as “.
. . a brilliant, up to the minute musical comedy of class and distinction” (Adam 32:19). This put his name out on the streets and it also brought in a few new job offers. After the huge success of La La Lucille, Gershwin and Caesar began to work on another project together.
It took them ten minutes to compose a song called Swannee (Ewen 73). Al Jolson heard the tune at a party and he liked it so much that he incorporated it into his show Sinbad at New Yorks Winter Garden. It was a huge success selling over two million copies of sheet music world wide and earning Gershwin and Caesar each over ten thousand dollars (Gojowy 303)! From 1920-1924 Gershwin signed on to write the music for a new Broadway musical, The George White Scandals. This production featured twenty-five Gershwin tunes including Somebody Loves Me, and Stairway to Paradise. He had also written a miniature opera that lasted twenty minutes but after the first performance it was taken out because it did not fit in.
What it did do was to foreshadow developments that would be used in future composition (Schwartz 47). Paul Whitman, one of the greatest jazz musician of all times, was the conductor for Gershwins failed attempt at an opera. He had been impressed with Gershwins use of jazz in the melody, harmony and rhythms so he suggested to him to write a piece that consisted solely of jazz. George set out to write a concerto for two pianos but soon got sidetracked and forgot about it. One morning he picked up a paper and read that in two days, his newest piece would be premiered at a concert in Aeolian Hall so he got to work and finished it in two hours (Adam 35:19).
On February 12, 1924 the concert entitled An Experiment in Modern Music was presented featuring jazz in “. . . all of its various facets” (Schwartz 73). The audience was packed with an array of formidable social and aristocratic figures like Stravinsky, Chrysler, Rachmaninoff and Stakowsky.
The program was very long and boring (Smith Lecture). By the end of the twenty third composition the audience had become irritable and restless. Then George Gershwin strolled up to the piano and the clarinet proceeded with the infamous first opening whale of Rhapsody in Blue. That caught their attention and it received a standing ovation. With this performance Gershwin had just opened the doors to concert halls everywhere for American composers. No one ever took an American seriously until Gershwin used his unique style of composing to produce this piece (Smith Lecture).
As Gershwins fame and wealth spread, so did his social status. He began to appear on everyones guest lists for dinner parties. After all, “An evening with Gershwin was a Gershwin evening” (Peyser 151). He became associated with elite stars like Gertrude Lawrence, Maurice Ravel and the Astaires. He began to change the way he dressed and talked and his manners so he could fit in with his new class of friends. One friend in particular was Kay Swift. No one knows exactly how close they were but they spent every moment they possible could together and he eventual composed a song for her (Adam 6:19).
In 1924 George and Ira were commissioned to write a score for a musical called Lady Be Good. It was about a brother and sister act, played by Fred and Adele Astaire. It featured the songs The Man I Love and Fascinating Rhythms. They were described as being full of “. . .
bold, brisk, inventive and original ideas” (Schwartz 119). This score brought a new sophistication to popular music and it established a firm partnership between George and Ira who were inseparable until Georges death. Soon Enough, George and Ira were writing new songs everyday. The phonograph began replacing piano rolls and this was an added boost to Georges fame. With the …