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“The life of a beloved American composer reflected through his music, writings, and letters.
New York City native and gifted pianist George Gershwin blossomed as an accompanist before his talent as a songwriter opened the way to Broadway, where he fashioned his own brand of American music. He composed a long run of musical comedies, many with his brother Ira as lyricist, but his aspirations reached beyond commercial success.
A lifetime learner, Gershwin was able to appeal to listeners on both sides of the purported popular-classical divide. In 1924―when he was just twenty-five―he bridged that gap with his first instrumental composition, Rhapsody in Blue, an instant classic premiered by Paul Whiteman’s jazz orchestra, as the anchor of a concert entitled “An Experiment in Modern Music.”
From that time forward his work as a composer, pianist, and citizen of the Jazz Age made him in some circles a leader on America’s musical scene. The late 1920s found him extending the range of the shows he scored to include the United Kingdom, and he published several articles to reveal his thinking about a range of musical matters. Moreover, having polished his skills as an orchestrator, he pushed boundaries again in 1935 with the groundbreaking folk opera, Porgy and Bess―his magnum opus.
Gershwin’s talent and warmth made him a presence in New York’s musical and social circles (and linked him romantically with pianist-composer Kay Swift). In 1936 he and Ira moved west to write songs for Hollywood. Their work was cut short, however, when George developed a brain tumor and died at thirty-eight, a beloved American artist.
Drawing extensively from letters and contemporaneous accounts, acclaimed music historian Richard Crawford traces the arc of Gershwin’s remarkable life, seamlessly blending colorful anecdotes with a discussion of Gershwin’s unforgettable oeuvre. His days on earth were limited to the summertime of life. But the spirit and inventive vitality of the music he left behind lives on.
8 pages of photographs.”
- W.W. Norton & Co. Media Release
Ted Gioia writing in the Wall Street Journal Aug. 30, 2019
“George Gershwin ’s reputation as a composer is still going strong 100 years after he emerged on the music scene, but probably not in the way he envisioned. Sheet-music sales don’t generate much income nowadays, and Broadway has almost become a Disney theme park, but Gershwin calls the tune in other, unexpected places. You will hear his melodies everywhere from Starbucks playlists to United Airlines flight-safety videos. In fact, it’s hard to think of another musician from the 1920s who looms so large over the broader culture. Consider the following news stories.
Lady Gaga, who often plays Gershwin’s songs in concert, recently confirmed her breakup with her ex-fiancé by singing Gershwin’s 1926 hit “Someone to Watch Over Me.” She told the audience: “Last time I sang this song, I had a ring on my finger, so it’ll be different this time.”
A few weeks earlier, the Hungarian State Opera in Budapest made headlines when 15 members of its almost entirely white cast claimed that they self-identified as African-Americans—in an attempt to get permission from the Gershwin estate to mount a performance of the folk opera “Porgy and Bess,” which the estate has insisted be staged with black performers.
Around that same time, the Gershwin estate announced a new publishing deal and hinted at the possible release of 300 previously unheard songs, having tested the waters by allowing Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys to complete two unfinished compositions.
Given this flurry of activity, the timing is perfect for a new George Gershwin biography. Richard Crawford, a retired professor of American music at the University of Michigan, has obliged with his enthusiastic “Summertime: George Gershwin’s Life in Music.”
Mr. Crawford is perhaps best known for his scholarship on early American sacred music, but he started out as a jazz saxophonist and has long nurtured a special interest in Gershwin. By his own account, he has been planning this project since he retired from teaching in 2003 and turned his attention to “the American composer whose life in music had come to intrigue me the most.”
Of course, there’s no shortage of previous books on Gershwin. The earliest biography, “George Gershwin: A Study in American Music,” was published back in 1931 to coincide with the composer’s 33rd birthday. Two dozen more have appeared since, along with various musicological studies, sheet-music compilations and other works.
My personal relationship with Gershwin’s music goes back to my teenage years, when I first started performing his music on the piano. Since that time, I’ve learned from many experts, but I’ve come to value three books especially. Howard Pollack’s “George Gershwin: His Life and Work,” published in 2006, clocks in at almost 900 pages and stands out from the pack for its intelligence and depth. Ira Gershwin, the composer’s brother and frequent lyricist, left us a charming 1959 volume titled “Lyrics on Several Occasions,” a gossipy and insightful guide to their collaborations. Finally, I’ve consulted the chapter on Gershwin in Alec Wilder ’s seminal “American Popular Song” (1972) so many times that my copy is falling to pieces (perhaps the ultimate testimony to a beloved book).
Mr. Crawford’s new book doesn’t displace any of these. And even he agrees that some readers might wonder “what justifies the appearance of a new Gershwin biography.” He aims to secure a place in this sprawling literature by offering a genial account, around half the size of Mr. Pollack’s magnum opus, that demonstrates his passion for Gershwin on almost every page.
The life is certainly an inspiring rags-to-riches story. Gershwin (1898- 1937), the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, was raised in a chaotic, devil-may-care environment. Mr. Crawford tells us that the composer’s parents lived in 28 different residences in New York before Gershwin was out of his teens. In this tumult, just having access to a piano was a major achievement. But when an instrument finally arrived in the family household, around the time of Gershwin’s 14th birthday, the precocious youngster already knew how to play it—at least according to family legend. The surprise, in Mr. Crawford’s words, was not simply that the boy could play “but that his playing was good enough to sound like vaudeville.”
From this moment onward, Gershwin seemed to dazzle everyone he met with his talent and potential. A letter from Gershwin’s piano teacher Charles Hambitzer, written shortly after he started giving the youngster lessons, offers our first prediction of the glories to come: “The boy is a genius, without a doubt.” Gershwin would later make a similar impression on luminaries of the music establishment, from songwriter Irving Berlin to serialist composer Arnold Schoenberg. Everyone, it seemed, was a Gershwin fan.
The young composer’s extroverted personality and natural charm helped in his rapid ascent. At parties, he would make his way to the piano whenever one was handy. Songwriter Kay Swift recalled people jumping from their seats and rushing to the keyboard to listen. “It was extraordinary; it really was,” she later recounted. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Alas, the life of this remarkable artist is all too brief. Gershwin enjoyed his first hit with “Swanee,” an anthem to the Deep South written over the course of 10 minutes during a Manhattan bus ride, when he was only 21. Just five years later, he shook up the classical-music establishment with his ambitious “Rhapsody in Blue,” which merged jazz, blues, Tin Pan Alley melodies and the classical tradition into one iconoclastic 15-minute package. He followed this up with 13 years of whirlwind activity—more concert works, “Porgy and Bess,” Broadway hits, Hollywood films, frequent touring and interviews, and the constant party performances—before he died, after a sudden illness, at age 38.
No one in the history of American music has achieved so much in so little time. In 500 pages, Mr. Crawford offers rich details of this life in music. He builds his book around the key works in the Gershwin canon, describing each Broadway show and composition and gauging the reaction of contemporaries and critics. No Gershwin scholar has done a better job of digging into newspaper reviews and magazine articles from the 1920s and 1930s, culling quotes and commentary and providing an almost week-by-week study of how the composer made his mark on American cultural life.
And few musicians of the era generated more press coverage than Gershwin. When his “Rhapsody in Blue” made its debut, the New York Times announced the arrival of a composer who was destined “to say something personally and racially important to the world.” More cautious in tone, the New York World suggested that Gershwin “may yet bring jazz out of the kitchen.” On the other extreme, the Tribune heard “unadventuresome conformity.”
Mr. Crawford skillfully navigates through the disputes stirred up by Gershwin’s ascendancy, but there are curious gaps in this book. His lack of interest in Gershwin’s posthumous legacy is extreme by any measure. After describing the immediate aftermath of the composer’s death, Mr. Crawford wraps up his 500-page book in just two paragraphs. It’s almost as if Gershwin’s influence on the cultural landscape over the next 80 years is deemed unworthy of inclusion.
So if you want to know why the Gershwin estate continues to prevent any reissue or public showing of the star-studded Hollywood film version of “Porgy and Bess” (1959), you won’t find it here. In fact, there’s no reference to the movie at all. If you want to know how Ella Fitzgerald created a jazz classic with her “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Song Book,” you will need to consult another book. Even worse, none of the modern interpreters of Gershwin songs, whether Frank Sinatra or Willie Nelson or Lady Gaga, are so much as mentioned in Mr. Crawford’s account.
Even in the current day, jazz musicians rely heavily on what they call “rhythm changes”—their adaptation of harmonies Gershwin introduced in his 1930 song “I Got Rhythm.” These serve as the bedrock of much of the jazz repertoire. But you will learn very little about this vibrant tradition in these pages, where it is given only cursory attention. Even stranger is Mr. Crawford’s lack of interest in Gershwin’s complicated relationship to the jazz music of his own time. I find it puzzling that Gershwin allegedly legitimized jazz as serious music with the success of “Rhapsody in Blue” in 1924 but that not a single jazz musician was able to benefit from this crossover success.
You might think that Duke Ellington or James P. Johnson or some other jazz star would have also been embraced as a composer of symphonic music. But the door opened for Gershwin and quickly shut behind him. We can hardly blame Gershwin for this—he was, after all, an ardent champion of his favorite jazz musicians—yet it remains an important matter and isn’t dealt with anywhere in these pages. Ellington refused Gershwin’s request to collaborate on songs, according to clarinetist Barney Bigard, and there’s good reason to believe that Duke resented the opportunity that his rival had been given to stage “Porgy and Bess.” (Gershwin, for his part, proved that he could imitate the Ellington sound in the film staging of one of his last songs, “Slap That Bass.”) But Mr. Crawford seems unaware that there might have been any tension between these two towering figures of American music.
The final gap in this book is perhaps the most striking of all. In the current environment, many readers will view George Gershwin’s ascendancy as a major jazz figure and the creator of a famous opera drawing on African-American themes as problematic. Should a white composer get so much credit for black artistry? I believe that Gershwin can be defended against these charges and that our culture was greatly enriched by his immersion in the jazz idiom. Mr. Crawford might have been the perfect person to mount such a defense. He clearly loves Gershwin’s music and has studied the larger context of American music at a deep level. But he doesn’t even touch on these issues.
Instead, Mr. Crawford devotes a third of his work to plot synopses of Gershwin stage productions and films. Each scene and most of the *significant characters are painstakingly described. In a typical Gershwin stage production, however, George wrote the music and Ira supplied the lyrics, but neither of them created the plot or characters. Many readers will be puzzled by Mr. Crawford’s insistence on providing lavish details of even failed Gershwin shows while leaving so many larger issues unaddressed.
The result is a lopsided biography that has momentary highlights but fails to do justice to one of our greatest composers. Perhaps Mr. Crawford felt that the best way to defend his subject was to pass over the controversies and complications, but Gershwin deserves better. We still need a book that makes a strong case for this towering figure’s relevance in our own time. For now, you might get a better sense of Gershwin’s enduring genius simply listening to the songs playing at a nearby Starbucks.”
—Mr. Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His latest book, “Music: A Subversive History,” will be published in October.
By Richard Crawford
Norton, 592 pages, $39.95