Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Fascinating Rhythm

On this day seventy years ago, George Gershwin died at the age of 38.

I was alerted to this sad anniversary by today's entry in Joe Stollenwerk's 2006 book, Today in History: Musicals, which notes:

In addition to some thirty Broadway shows, Gershwin helped create an American sound in classical music with his "Rhapsody in Blue" and "An American in Paris." He also dabbled a bit in films, but held Hollywood in contempt, as evidenced by his parody of movie songwriting, "Blah Blah Blah." After his death, his music would be repurposed, recycled, and at times regurgitated into numerous movie and Broadway musicals.
Gershwin was part of a unique era in American songwriting, the era of Tin Pan Alley. In an interview on the NPR quiz show, "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me" originally broadcast in April and repeated last weekend, Linda Ronstadt -- who was perhaps the first rock singer to record an album of standards with her collaboration with Nelson Riddle, What's New, in 1983 -- said this in explaining her transition:
I didn't like playing in arenas because they didn't seem to me to be very appropriate places for music. People go out and buy beers and mill around and light a joint and get a hot dog. It just didn't seem like it was a place that was set up for an evening of magical reality....

Everybody had to have more smoke and more lights. You can't play music in those big places, so you have to do something. It has to be a big, bold gesture because there's so much reverb in there. Things are echoing around and echoing around. You get there and the guitar solo from the band that was playing the week before is still ringing around, and no one can hear you....

I like to play for the smallest audience possible, it's just hard to get paid... I wanted a theatre that was the way the Greeks designed theatres, so that you focus your attention on the stage.... For entertainers, after we got into those big coliseums, we didn't go and see each others' music anymore. In the old days, when I used to play at the Troubadour, which is a little folk club that held 300 people in Hollywood, we all went and saw each other. I saw every single night and every show of Jackson Browne and James Taylor and Joni Mitchell and Elton John and Carole King -- whoever was through there, singing, so we could be influenced by each other....

I still do concerts, I sing with the orchestra. I have all these great Nelson Riddle charts. I have a stack of them; it's really fabulous. That was my gift to myself in 1980. I decided I wanted grown-up music. I didn't want to be on stage singing "It's So Easy," which is a perfectly reasonable song when you're young and kinda out to get it, but when you get to be 60 you're kinda not out to get it, you kind of stay home at night, and I wanted a song for that.

So I vowed to mail myself this present into the future. I called up Nelson Riddle and said, "would you do some of these arrangements for me?" I didn't know if he had ever heard of me, and it turned out he hadn't....

We had a fabulous time. I had so much fun with him. The little secret is, why all of us rocker-geezer types are coming around to standards eventually -- although I did it as a younger woman -- those songs are beautifully written and they beg to be interpreted and reinterpreted and reinterpreted. Each person gets to make them his or her own, because they are enormously flexible and they're enormously sturdy in their musical construction. They're just really little jewels of artistic expression....

I just feel I had in my little way I may have rescued some of those songs from spending the rest of their lives riding up and down in an elevator.
Like Ronstadt and her contemporaries at the Troubadour, Gershwin was able to rub shoulders other great talents in his formative and productive years. In a recent book review, Jonathan Yardley quotes Fred Astaire, in the liner notes of an album of standards that he recorded in 1952:
"It was my good fortune that Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Arthur Schwartz, Howard Dietz, and others, supplied the music for these various films and stage shows. . . . Yes indeed, that was a fine lot of material to fall into one's lap."
While each of these men was talented in his own right and in his own unique way, they all learned from each other, both directly and by listening to each other's works in performance. Broadway buzzed in the 1920s and '30s, and they built what has been called, on more than one occasion, "the great American songbook."

Quoting from author Wilfrid Sheed's new book on the men and their era, The House That George Built, Yardley writes:
A good case can be made that this music, combined with its symbiotic partner, jazz, was the great American cultural achievement of the 20th century, a body of work, as Sheed says, "about the whole country, concerning which [these songs] provide maybe the most trustworthy record we have." It is music that reflects America as vividly and truly as anything the country has created, yet the irony is that it was largely produced by members of two groups of outsiders, Jews and blacks. "The standards have actually been referred to as a Jewish response to black music," Sheed writes, "but this definition is a loaded compliment that neither party has rushed to claim." He continues:

"Music is not produced by whole groups, but by one genius at a time, and it may be significant that the two families that gave us Irving Berlin and George Gershwin both fled Russia on the same great wave of czarist pogroms, only to find American black people not only singing about a similar experience, but using the Hebrew Bible as their text."

Had George Gershwin only written "Rhapsody in Blue" or "Concerto in F" or -- especially -- Porgy and Bess -- he would still be remembered as a genius today. (Not so with Of Thee I Sing, a critical and popular success that became the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Seventy-five years later, that work is creaky and dated. It does not stand the test of time -- which may say something about Pulitzer judges.)

Novelist John O'Hara said: "George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937, but I don't have to believe it if I don't want to."

Neither do we.

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