Tuesday, January 6, 2015

George Gershwin: Classical Jazz

George Gershwin was an American pianist and modern classical composer whose contributions to popular music fall within the realm of jazz. Gershwin was the first classical musician or composer who embraced the new 20th century music of jazz and melded it with classical music.

Gershwin was born Jacob Gershowitz in Brooklyn, New York, in 1898, to Russian/Ukrainian parents. He studied piano from age ten under the tutelage of classical pianist Charles Hambitzer, who would remain Gershwin’s mentor until Gershwin was around 20-years-old.

Gershwin began his music career upon dropping out of high school at age 15, finding work as a songwriter of pop tunes in New York City’s famed Tin Pan Alley. His first successful song was the ragtime hit, “Rialto Ripples,” in 1917. Two years later he penned the famous song, “Swanee,” which would become a huge hit for Al Jolson. Gershwin also produced piano rolls for player pianos for the Aeolian company.

Gershwin began writing jazz songs in the early Twenties with lyricist Buddy DeSylva and his brother, Ira Gershwin. The team’s early songs included “Oh, Lady Be Good” and “Fascinating Rhythm.” These classic songs were followed by “Funny Face,” “I Got Rhythm,” and “Of Thee I Sing.”

In 1924, Gershwin wrote the jazz-infused modern classical masterpiece, “Rhapsody in Blue.” This famous work was introduced to the world by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in a New York City performance. Gershwin then headed to Paris with the ambition of furthering his classical training, but was rejected by several prospective mentors including Maurice Ravel. While in Paris, Gershwin penned another jazzy classical masterpiece, “An American in Paris,” which made its debut at New York City’s Carnegie Hall in 1928.

In 1929, Gershwin turned his attention to Hollywood and the burgeoning film industry that required his musical talents to write scores. He wrote the score for the film, “Delicious,” in 1929, but was upset when much of the music he wrote was scrapped by the film’s producers.

Gershwin, embittered by the treatment of the Delicious score, switched his efforts back to classical music and wrote the American folk opera masterpiece, “Porgy and Bess,” which contained some of Gershwin’s most brilliant compositions including, “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “I Got Plenty of Nuttin’,” and “Summertime.” Porgy and Bess was a commercial failure at the time, but has since become a staple of American opera and popular music.

Gershwin returned to Hollywood and wrote film scores, including the one for the Fred Astaire musical, “Shall We Dance.” In 1937, Gershwin died suddenly from the effects of a brain tumor.

Gershwin’s music is best heard on the following collections: “Rhapsody in Blue/An American in Paris (New York Philharmonic; The Columbia Symphony/ Leonard Bernstein)” (1959), ‘S Marvelous: The Gershwin Songbook” (1994) and “The Essential George Gershwin” (2003).