- - Monday, September 30, 2019


When I was a young member of the National Press Club, still in my 20s, one of the old timers told me about a legendary musical evening he had attended in the club’s early days. 

It was a gathering in support of the fledgling American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). Many of the biggest names in American music were there, everyone from operetta master Victor Herbert (an ASCAP founder) to “March King” John Phillip Sousa. But it was a less famous young man, smoking a cigar and doing a brilliant impromptu turn at the club piano, who stole the show. “There,” remarked Victor Herbert, “is a young man with a future.” 

Victor Herbert was right. The “young man with a future” was George Gershwin. In a tragically short but incredibly productive life, he would create a memorable body of music that would help shape American musical theater, provide some of the best numbers for the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals and bring a distinctly American, jazz-inspired sensibility to the classic concert stage. There was, to borrow the title of one of his countless hits, a “Fascinating Rhythm” to the life and works of composer George Gershwin.

In his own words, the rhythm began when he was a 6-year-old living in Harlem with his Russian-Jewish immigrant parents and “stood outside a penny arcade listening to an automatic piano leaping through Rubinstein’s Melody in F. The peculiar jumps in the music held me rooted. To this very day I can’t hear the tune without picturing myself outside that arcade on One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street, standing there barefoot and in overalls, drinking it all in avidly.”

In an era where even families of modest means aspired to having a piano, his parent’s acquisition of one began an ever-more-serious round of piano lessons that introduced this born musician to the rudiments of technique, musical theory and, of course, notation. Ragtime or Rubinstein, to George Gershwin, it was all music. And music was his first and strongest love.

Playing saloons, silent movie theaters and “legitimate” stage venues, he perfected his finesse as a pianist while deepening his musical range and knowledge. By the time he died of a brain tumor at age 38, on July 11, 1937, he was certainly the best, and probably the most world famous American popular composer of his time.

I became convinced of his pre-eminence after listening to two anthology CDs, one featuring major artists performing Cole Porter favorites and the other featuring many of the same artists singing Gershwin evergreens. While Porter’s lyrics are probably a notch above those written for Gershwin by his brother, Ira, Gershwin’s music simply had more depth and breadth to it — more alive and more rooted in real feeling.

The legendary stage and film director Rouben Mamoulian, whom I got to know in his later years, agreed to direct Gershwin’s — at the time — highly controversial black-jazz-fusion opera, “Porgy and Bess,” after a memorable evening in the composer’s Manhattan apartment where the Gershwin brothers handed him a tall highball and put him in a comfortable leather armchair as “George sat down at the piano while Ira stood over him like a guardian angel … To describe George’s face while he sang ‘Summertime’ is something that is beyond my capacity … It was very late into the night before we finished the opera and sometimes I think that in a way it was the best performance I ever heard.”

Readers will come away from “Summertime” agreeing with the gracious eulogy delivered by one of George Gershwin’s most prominent peers, librettist Oscar Hammerstein II:

“We remember a smile that was nearly always on his face, a cigar that was nearly always in his mouth. He was a lucky young man, lucky to be so in love with the world, and lucky because the world was so in love with him. It endowed him with talent. It endowed him with character. And, rarest of all things, it gave him a complete capacity for enjoying his gifts.”

In the context of his time and setting, George Gershwin was something close to an American Mozart. Like Mozart, he died in his 30s, still at the height of his powers. And, like Mozart, his zest for life complimented rather than distracted from his love of music. As author Richard Crawford sums it up, George Gershwin’s days on earth may have been limited to the summertime season of life, but “the music he left behind, endowed with his extraordinary inventiveness and intellectual curiosity, has yet to cease thriving as an evergreen gift to the world.”

• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

• • •


By Richard Crawford

Norton, $39.95, 594 pages

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