He was born Jacob Gershowitz in 1898, to Rose and Morris – two of many Russian immigrants who'd settled in Brooklyn. His older brother (and future collaborator) Ira was bored with piano lessons, but 10-year-old Jacob was drawn to music after hearing a friend's violin recital. Soon, George (everyone called him that) began piano studies – beginning a life in music. Low-paying jobs as a “song-plugger” and song-writer on Tin Pan Alley would lead him to stardom on the Broadway and concert stage, where the flow of great melodies never slowed. His life was tragically cut short, but his music lives on, as we'll sample in this Active Minds program.
It's hard to think of another composer who so easily straddled the worlds of classical and popular music. But Gershwin seemed to do it with ease. He was the perfect combination of great timing (bursting out during the jazzy Roaring '20s) and a fearless personality and unlimited natural talent. As a teen, he became a solid pianist, good enough to earn a job working in that noisy, energetic part of New York known as Tin Pan Alley. He began as a “song-plugger,” pitching to singers and conductors the newest songs penned by others. It didn't take long for Gershwin to get the composing bug himself, and in 1918 (he was barely 20), he scored his first hit, Swanee, recorded by the great Al Jolson. The following year, he wrote an entire show, La, La, Lucille. Working in Tin Pan Alley allowed the young man to hone his keyboard skills, and polish his writing. As the '20s went into full bloom, his name was known to performers as well as audiences. An impresario named George White had hired Gershwin to write a few tunes for his annual “Scandals” revues, shows designed to compete each year with the Ziegfeld Follies. That collaboration lasted five years, netting such songs as Stairway to Paradise and Somebody Loves Me. But as 1924 arrived, bigger things were waiting for the young song-writer. He began working with his brother Ira, and the two produced their first show, Lady, Be Good. That same year, George received an invitation from band leader Paul Whiteman to contribute a concerto-like piece blending jazz and classical sounds, to be included in a concert titled “Experiments in New Music.” A glittering audience that included some of classical music's big-name conductors and instrumentalists gathered in New York's Aeolian Hall for a long, mostly hum-drum program that concluded with the premiere of Rhapsody in Blue. It brought down the house – and Gershwin became a composer to be reckoned with. That same year, 1924, he went to England with another, less successful show. But his star remained on the rise. The next year saw the premiere of his follow-up to Rhapsody, the equally jazzy-classical Concerto in F, which also drew cheers and rave reviews. A string of Broadway shows, some successful some not, resulted in several hit songs, many of which remain popular with singers and instrumentalists today. Gershwin traveled to France in 1928, a visit that resulted in the beloved orchestral “post card,” An American in Paris. George and Ira moved to Los Angeles in 1930, working with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers on a couple of Hollywood movies. Boldly, the Gershwins teamed with DuBose Hayward in 1935 to create what George labeled a folk opera, Porgy and Bess, which would become an international staple of opera houses. Sadly, it would be one of the last major works from the Gershwins. Back in Hollywood, George suddenly fell ill, after experiencing a series of headaches. A brain tumor was discovered, but efforts to remove it in surgery failed. On July 11, 1937, Gershwin was gone at age 38. News of his death shocked the world, for this was a talent and a personality that seemed destined for decades of greatness.
- What elements of jazz do you hear in Gershwin's concert-hall pieces?
- Listen carefully to the lyrics of some of his songs – even those written before he started working with Ira, such as Somebody Loves Me – and choose your favotite.
- Can you think of some composers who were clearly influenced by Gershwin, such as Ravel? How does that influence show up in their music?
- Which side of Gershwin still resonates – the pop-song side or the classical side?
- Imagine the music world with Gershwin still in it through the '40s and '50s.
More to Explore
- Gershin fan website Click here
Books for Further Reading
- Rimler, Walter. George Gershwin: An Intimate Portrait. University of Illinois Press. 2015. 240 pages (paperback). Though not as definitive as Howard Pollack's brilliant biography ([riced at over $50!), this nonetheless is an excellent look at the life and music of Gershwin, bringing a fine sense of intimacy with its liberal use of letters written by and to the composer.
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- Pollack, Howard. George Gershwin: His Life and Work. University of California Press. 2007. 884 pages. For the serious student (or fan) of the composer, this book has served as the source for all things Gershwin. It's pricey and it's long, but it brings the man, his world and his music to vivid life.
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