Hey, I just discovered that my boss, Linda Wehrli’s all time favorite jazz pianist and composer, George Gershwin’s birthday is coming up on September 26th🎂. That’s also near the start of the Fall season. There’s something about Fall that makes me want to cozy up with a cup of cinnamon tea and admire the fall foliage colors while binge-listening to classic jazz music. Sooo, when deciding on a story for our Fall Music History 101, a birthday tribute to the great jazz pianist and composer, George Gershwin, was the perfect choice. Linda enthusiastically gave it two thumbs up!

For students and readers not yet familiar with George Gershwin, he wrote primarily for Broadway musical theater, but important as well are his orchestral and piano compositions in which he blended the techniques and forms of classical music with the stylistic nuances and techniques of popular music and jazz. Linda had the pleasure of learning his Three Jazz Preludes back in her post high-school days and delighted in teaching the first movement to one of her advanced piano students.

We hope you enjoy sipping a favorite Fall beverage while immersing yourself in this engaging story of how this remarkable music spirit paved the way for Jazz music to enter the realm of classical music vernacular. Info courtesy of www.gershwin.com, www.britannica.com, and www.biography.com.

First, a little backstory. Born in Brooklyn, New York on September 26, 1898, George Gershwin was the grandson of a Rabbi and second son of a mechanic, all Russian immigrants. Although his family and friends were not musically inclined, he developed an early interest in music through his exposure to the popular and classical compositions he heard at school and in penny arcades. He began his musical education at age 11, when his family bought a second-hand upright piano, allegedly for George’s older sibling, Ira.

Pastimes Music History Blog on George Gershwin

George and Ira Gershwin

When George surprised everyone with his seamless playing of a popular song, which he had taught himself by following the keys on a neighbor’s player piano, his parents decided that George would be the family member to receive lessons. He studied piano with the noted instructor Charles Hambitzer, who introduced his young student to the works of the great classical composers.

Charles Hambitzer

Hambitzer was so impressed with Gershwin’s potential that he refused payment for the lessons. Now that’s a compliment! As he wrote in a letter to his sister:

“I have a new pupil who will make his mark if anybody will. Gershwin is a genius.” - Charles Hambitzer Click To Tweet

In 1914, Gershwin left high school to work as a Tin Pan Alley song plugger.

Wait. Back it up. What the heck is Tin Pan Alley? And what’s a song plugger?! Hold your horses. Here are the answers for-the-win: Tin Pan Alley was a place and a time from American music history lore.

The place? West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in the Flower District of Manhattan.
Time? Late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Who? New York City music publishers and songwriters who dominated the U.S. popular music scene then.
Why the name “Tin Pan Alley”? Rumor has it that the humorously derogatory reference referred to the collective sound of many cheap upright pianos all playing different tunes, reminiscent of the banging of tin pans in an alleyway. Hahaha, perfect.

“Song pluggers” were pianists and singers who represented those music publishers, making their living demonstrating songs to promote sales of sheet music. Most music stores had song pluggers on staff. Other pluggers were employed by the publishers to travel and familiarize the public with their new publications. Sounds like you had to be a pretty good sight-reader for the job!

Back to our story, within three years of Gershwin’s working as a song plugger, his composition “When You Want ‘Em, You Can’t Get ‘Em; When You Have ‘Em, You Don’t Want ‘Em,” was published. Did we mention he was also the youngest song plugger in Tin Pan Alley? The kid sure had spunk!

Though this initial composition created little interest, Gershwin’s “Swanee” (lyrics by Irving Caesar) turned into a smash hit thanks to Al Jolson in 1919 and brought Gershwin his first real fame.

While still in his teens, Gershwin was known as one of the most talented pianists in the New York area and worked as an accompanist for popular singers and as a rehearsal pianist for Broadway musicals.

In 1924, when George teamed up with his older brother Ira, “The Gershwins” became the dominant Broadway songwriters, creating infectious rhythm numbers and poignant ballads, fashioning the words to fit the melodies with a “glove-like” fidelity. This extraordinary combination created a succession of musical comedies, including “Lady, Be Good!” (1924), “Oh, Kay!” (1926), “Funny Face” (1927), “Strike up the Band” (1927 and 1930), “Girl Crazy” (1930), and “Of Thee I Sing” (1931), the first musical comedy to win a Pulitzer Prize. Pretty prolific siblings!

Starting with his early days as a song composer, Gershwin had ambitions to compose serious music. Asked by Paul Whiteman to write an original work for a concert of modern music to be presented at Aeolian Hall in New York on February 12, 1924, George, who was hard at work on a musical comedy, “Sweet Little Devil”, barely completed his composition in time.

Beginning with the first low trill of the solo clarinet and its spine-tingling run up the scale, “Rhapsody in Blue” caught the public’s eye and opened a new era in American music. In 1925, conductor Walter Damrosch commissioned Gershwin to compose a piano concerto for the New York Symphony Society. He also played as the pianist with the Boston Symphony under Serge Koussevitzsky in 1932.

In 1926 Gershwin read Porgy, DuBose Heyward’s novel of the South Carolina Gullah culture, and immediately recognized it as a perfect vehicle for a “folk opera” using blues and jazz idioms. “Porgy and Bess”  was Gershwin’s most ambitious undertaking, integrating unforgettable songs with dramatic incident. It previewed in Boston on September 30, 1935 and opened its Broadway run on October 10. The opera had major revivals in 1942, 1952, 1976, and 1983 and has toured the world. It was made into a major motion picture by Samuel Goldwyn in 1959.

George Gershwin was at the height of his career in 1937. His symphonic works and Three Jazz Preludes for piano were becoming part of the standard repertoire for concerts and recitals, and his show songs had brought him increasing fame and fortune.

Sadly, it was in Hollywood, while working on the score of “The Goldwyn Follies”, that George Gershwin died of a brain tumor; he was not quite 39 years old. Countless people throughout the world, who knew Gershwin only through his work, were stunned by the news as if they had suffered a personal loss. Some years later, the writer John O’Hara summed up their feelings:

“George Gershwin died July 11, 1937, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.” - John O'Hara Click To Tweet

As it turns out, Gershwin’s works are performed today with greater frequency than they were during his brief lifetime. His songs and concert pieces continue to fill the pages of discographies and orchestra calendars. The Trustees of Columbia University recognized Gershwin’s influence when they awarded him a special posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1998, the centennial of his birth. Without question, Gershwin left an astounding impact on the jazz world.

Can’t get enough of Gershwin? Same. Please enjoy the YouTube documentary below to learn more about this remarkable pianist and composer. Video courtesy of Sherway Academy of Music.

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Music History 101 reviews selected musicians from periods of history that continue to influence today’s culture and taste. If you enjoyed the story, go ahead and share on your favorite social media! We’d be honored. Comments appreciated!

Psst! If there’s a musician or composer you’d like us to blog about, please email me at Jessica@pastimesinc.com. Thank you for your support!

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For more on Pastimes for a Lifetime’s Art Curriculum, and founder/instructor Linda Wehrli, visit the website.

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