Posts Tagged ‘Richard Crawford’

“A Genius, Without a Doubt”: Ted Gioia considers Gershwin’s legacy

Saturday, August 31st, 2019
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The year of his death. (Photo: Carl Van Vechten)

Jazz scholar Ted Gioia‘s personal connection to George Gershwin’s music goes back to his teenage years, when he first started performing his music on the piano.

Ted reviews the newest biography, Richard Crawford‘s Summertime, in A Genius, Without a Doubt, in yesterday’s Wall Street JournalTed describes it as “a genial account … that demonstrates his passion for Gershwin on almost every page.” At nearly 600 pages, it’s not for the faint-hearted.

Many biographies precede it: the earliest, George Gershwin: A Study in American Music, was published in 1931 to coincide with the composer’s 33rd birthday – not as soon as it might seem. The gifted composer died at 38 of a brain tumor.

It was the first of many biographies: “Two dozen more have appeared since, along with various musicological studies, sheet-music compilations and other works,” Ted writes. “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).”

His legacy? “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.”

Yet Ted finds 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.”

He concludes: “We still need a book that makes a strong case for this towering figure’s relevance in our own time.” Read the rest here.

Postscript on 8/31: A Facebook comment from journalist Jeff Selbst:  The fallacy cited is that somehow Gershwin was a ‘crossover’ figure who should have been followed with the same respect by James P. Johnson or Duke Ellington. This fundamentally misunderstands Gershwin’s music and his place within music history.  He was emphatically not a composer of jazz. Every analysis will reveal a composer who began firmly in the tradition of Tin Pan Alley and transitioned successfully to a conservative classical tradition. “Jazz,” if it exists at all in his music, is a spice, an overlay, a hint of exoticism over well-shaped post-Romantic classical music. His most important works were written in the late 20s through the mid to late 30s, a period in which really revolutionary things were being done in music (Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Ravel), something Gershwin recognized when he went to Paris to ask Ravel to teach him and was famously turned down. (In a wonderful irony. Ravel wrote his Piano Concerto in G shortly after meeting Gershwin and guess who seemed to have rubbed off on him!)

The point of all this is that the door didn’t open and close around a seminal jazz figure. He was never the groundbreaking figure that some musicologists pretend. That said, I find his music bloody irresistible.