June 1, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
George Gershwin started his musical career as a “song plugger.” Back in the days of Tin Pan Alley, there were pianists and vocalists who were hired to play new songs for the music-buying public. The song pluggers often worked in music stores where folks shopped for sheet music. If you were interested in a title, the song plugger (in stores they were referred to as “song demonstrators”) would play it for you, and if you liked it, you bought it. Song pluggers worked for music publishers as well, playing songs for record companies or radio DJs. When song plugging was a lucrative career, the six hundred or so song pluggers had their own union. Some song pluggers were composers as well, like Gershwin and Jerome Kern. Lil Hardin Armstrong, who was Louis Armstrong’s second wife and the pianist in his Hot Five, was also a song plugger. The job brought her into contact with some of the most prominent musicians of the time including Jelly Roll Morton, and from there, her career took off.
George Gershwin started his song plugging career at the age of fifteen. He worked for Jerome H. Remick and Company, a Tin Pan Alley music publisher. He plugged other people’s songs, but sold one of his own when he was seventeen. He made five dollars for the song, “When You Want ’Em, You Can’t Get ’Em, When You’ve Got ’Em, You Don’t Want ’Em.” Two years later, he hit it big with his song “Swanee.” When Al Jolson heard Gershwin play the tune, he knew he wanted to record it. When writing his own songs eclipsed his song plugging career, George teamed up with his brother Ira, who wrote lyrics. The two produced some of the most memorable songs from Tin Pan Alley, including: “Nice Work if You Can Get It,” “The Man I Love,” “Embraceable You,” “A Foggy Day (In London Town),” and “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” Some of these songs were stand-alone songs, but many of their popular tunes came from musicals like Lady Be Good, Oh, Kay!, Girl Crazy, and Of Thee I Sing. One of Gershwin’s musicals, Blue Monday, composed in 1922, was an experiment in symphonic jazz and blues. It was a short piece, a one-act musical, but it demonstrated a fusion of styles and must have provided Gershwin with a solid foundation for Porgy and Bess, which he would write more than a decade later. (Aspects of the musical fusion must have inspired Rhapsody in Blue as well, but more on that later.)
The action in Blue Monday took place on 135th street in Harlem, and a revival of the work renamed the piece 135th Street. Gershwin grew up on the lower east side of Manhattan, and his music—both popular and “classical”—reflects the influences he encountered as a resident of that particular “melting pot.” At one point Gershwin intended to write a set of twenty-four preludes for piano that would draw upon his multiple musical influences, but in the end, there were only three published preludes. I often wonder what this collection would have been like had Gershwin had the time to finish it.
One of George Gershwin’s greatest successes came early. Composed in 1924, Rhapsody in Blue, became an instant classic. George Gershwin once said of Rhapsody in Blue, “I heard [the piece] as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.” It is indeed a masterpiece in so many ways, and it’s one of my favorite pieces. I encountered it when I was thirteen years old, and honestly, it changed me. I didn’t know orchestral music could be like that, and it opened a new world of music up to me.
Bandleader Paul Whiteman had collaborated with George Gershwin on the Scandals of 1922, a musical revue, and felt the young composer was a promising talent. He asked Gershwin for a concerto for an all-jazz concert in 1924. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a “jazz concerto,” is a wonderful fusion of classical and jazz-inspired elements. He had about five weeks to compose the work, and he set down his first ideas for the piece while on a train to Boston. In the rhythms and the noise of the train, Gershwin would see the whole structure of Rhapsody in Blue laid out before him. Gershwin wrote the work for two pianos, and Ferde Grofé—who worked as an arranger for Paul Whiteman—orchestrated it. Grofé actually orchestrated three versions of the piece over the years, each time accommodating larger and larger groups. While most contemporary critics of Gershwin’s piece complained it was too sectional and did not adhere to traditional forms, it was a popular success then and remains so now.
It opens with a famous clarinet glissando that leads into the main theme. Gershwin played the piano solo in the premiere and improvised some of his parts, only writing these parts down after the first performance. Because of that, those solo sections still have an improvisatory feel to them, making the work seem more “jazzy.” The piece itself has an infectious rhythmic energy throughout, drawing especially on the influence of Ragtime. Some themes seem to mimic popular dances, like the Charleston, or jazz, while some just sound like the train Gershwin was riding on when he was imagining the work. Gershwin builds his harmonies on the blues scale and moves freely between key areas, not worrying so much about classical transitions. He incorporates different styles of piano playing in the solo and allows the soloist rhythmic freedom through rubato (a slight speeding up and then slowing down of the tempo in key points of the music). Gershwin shows various colors in this “kaleidoscope of America,” using dance rhythms and blues harmonies to capture the American spirit: vibrant, alive and ever-changing.
In the late 1930s, after Porgy and Bess sealed Gershwin's place in music history, the composer began to complain of terrible headaches. His coordination began to suffer. Worse than that, he suffered from frightening mood swings and erratic behavior. He was living with his brother and sister-in-law at the time; George and Ira were collaborating on some projects in Los Angeles. George’s behavior was disturbing to Lenore, Ira’s wife, and George moved out to live in Yip Harburg’s place (Yip was the famous lyricist who wrote the words to “Over the Rainbow”). We know now that George Gershwin was suffering from a brain tumor, but the diagnosis came to late to save him. By the time the doctors figured out what was wrong, Gershwin was in a coma, and an attempt to remove the tumor was unsuccessful. He died on July 11, 1937 at the age of thirty-eight. Thirty-eight is simply too young for anyone to die, and for Gershwin, it meant that a promising voice was silenced, when there was clearly so much more to say. I have to remind myself to be grateful for what Gershwin was able to share with the world, but I will always wonder what might have been.