April 20, 2024

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More on Gershwin, “Does Jazz Belong to Art?” Video, Photos

The vast amount of Gershwin reception includes over a dozen biographies. While researching my latest think piec …, “The Worst Masterpiece: Rhapsody in Blue at 100,” I mostly paged through the recent Howard Pollack tome George Gershwin: His Life and Work plus various books in the central branch of the Brooklyn library.

Gershwin wrote several substantial think pieces, including

“The New National Anthem”
“Does Jazz Belong to Art?”
“Mr. Gershwin Replies to Mr. Kramer”
“Jazz is the Voice of the American Soul”
“Making Music”
“The Composer in the Machine Age”
“The Relation of Jazz to American Music”
“Rhapsody in Catfish Row”

These valuable Gershwin-authored essays really should all be collected online somewhere. Until that happens, they can be found in Gershwin in His Time (pictured above) and The George Gershwin Reader.

In “Making Music,” Gershwin writes:

I learned to write music by studying the most successful songs published. At nineteen I could write a song that sounded so much like Jerome Kern that he wouldn’t know whether he or I had written it.

That’s just a lovely thing to read. Indeed, any time a great musician cites influences it just warms my heart. Over the course of his think pieces, Gershwin also name checks various European composers — Arthur Honegger is perhaps a surprise inclusion — and a few concert musicians.

In “Jazz is the Voice of the American Soul,” Gershwin is justifiably proud of hanging out with celebrities after the debut of his Piano Concerto at Carnegie Hall:

…I was not totally surprised when great musicians came to the piano and paid me compliments on my efforts as a composer. What caused a surprised smile, however, was that all of them — Rachmaninoff, Heifetz, Hofmann — complimented me upon my piano execution.

As far as I have found, Gershwin never mentions a black musician by name. For him, jazz is an abstract folk concept aligned with the famous announcement by Antonín Dvořák: “I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the negro melodies.”

Gershwin writes in “Jazz is the Voice of the American Soul”: I do not assert the American soul is Negroid. But it is a combination that includes the wail, the whine, and the exultant note of the old “mammy” songs of the South.

Gershwin does not see “mammy” as a racist trope. Indeed, his first hit song, “Swanee,” includes the word “mammy” in the lyrics.

The composer said, “‘Swanee’ penetrated the four corners of the earth,” but posterity has distanced itself from this first Gershwin hit.

It is quite something to see Al Jolson sing “Swanee” in blackface against a backdrop of well-to-do white people in the posthumous Gershwin biopic Rhapsody in Blue.

The year of the movie is 1945. Duke Ellington premiered “Black, Brown, and Beige” in 1943.

Again, I don’t think Gershwin himself ever took the trouble to tell his public names like James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, or Willie “The Lion” Smith in print. However, he knew them all, and at least once invited them to an upscale social event.

The Lion gets the last word, from a famous passage in Music on My Mind describing the first time James P, Fats, and the Lion visited a swanky Park Avenue shindig. The year is 1924, probably shortly after the premiere of Rhapsody in Blue:

We all knew Gershwin because he used to come up to Harlem to listen to us and he was the one who got us invited. It looked for a while as though he was going to stay seated at the piano all night himself and hog all the playing. We three were standing at the bar getting up our courage and the more we imbibed the more anxious we became to get at those keys.

I finally went over and said to Gershwin, “Get up off that piano stool and let the real players take over, you tomato.” He was a good-natured fellow and from then on the three of us took over the entertainment.

Oscar Levant was a big talent: charismatic on film, an interesting composer. His terrific memoirs make for hilarious reading. However, I had to push Levant under the bus for my “Worst Masterpiece” essay, for Levant was simply too useful a foil.

In his lifetime, the pianist Oscar Levant was considered a popular Gershwin expert and practitioner, partly because he was close friends with the composer, partly because he was a charming film personality. Levant even plays excerpts from the title piece in the cheesy Gershwin biopic “Rhapsody in Blue” (1945). Although Levant was a virtuoso and his rendition of the “Rhapsody” has high pianistic finish, his rendition also has terrible rhythm — worse than any first-year jazz piano student in college. Still, Levant’s inability to play Gershwin’s basic syncopations and polyrhythms correctly didn’t stop him from selling many performances and recording of the piece.

In the 1945 recording of Rhapsody in Blue with Ormandy, Levant is skittering all over the place like a scalded kitten. I could lift from almost any moment of solo piano, but let’s just look at letter C. The passage marked with an arrow, going up from G major to the subdominant, is absolutely illegible.

Black music often has a kind of relaxation in the phrasing. Major practitioners even can play quite “behind the beat.” (And, of course, that beat needs to be steady.) In European music, harmony often dictates phrasing. In black music, rhythm is often paramount. Anyone can do either, they are simply traditions to be studied and acquired.

In my essay, I bemoan how the potential of black rhythm — as espoused by that great obliterating hit, Rhapsody in Blue — has been ignored by European-based conservatories in America. That imbalance has begun to change a bit, and will only continue to get better.

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