GERSHWIN: A Biography
By Edward Jablonski
Da Capo, 520 pages (paper), $17.95
The Complete Lyrics of Ira Gershwin
Edited by Robert Kimball
Da Capo, 414 pages, $35
Reviewed by Don Rose
Winding up the centenary of the birth of George Gershwin, Da Capo Press has reissued what is widely regarded as be the definitive biography of one of the greatest and most versatile musicians America has ever produced. As a sort of companion piece, the noted reprint house also brought out this amazing collection of every verse and every refrain produced by his older brother and collaborator, Ira, who bids fair to being our finest lyricist—whose centenary was celebrated in 1996.
It's hard to write about the works of these brothers—jointly or individually—in any but superlatives. One is, of course, tempted to say, "'S Wonderful" and keep on going with that set of lyrics alone. Although Ira was often touchy about jazz—he hated anyone fooling around with his words and by extension his brother's music—just consider how much poorer jazz would be without these guys.
Who would have created the chord structure for "I Got Rhythm," which has been the basis of hundreds, maybe thousands, of jazz "originals" ever since the swing era—including dozens by Charlie Parker alone? And speaking of Parker, where would we all be without his heart-rending pair of improvisations on "Embraceable You" or his uncanny recreation of "Oh! Lady Be Good" as a virtual blues at a 1946 Jazz at the Philharmonic concert. If there were no George Gershwin, it would have been necessary for Parker to invent him.
Jablonski is remarkably successful at capturing the essentials of Gershwin's life along with a sensitive lay discussion of his music—from the novelty and pop songs through the classical compositions—and the groundbreaking blendings of African-American stylings, pop and European traditions—long before anyone came up with the idea of a "third stream." The man lived just under 39 years, rising from the Jewish ghetto of New York's Lower East Side, to become first a song-plugger then accompanist then song writer in the first two decades of his life—with his first big hit "Swanee" coming at age 21, thanks to its rendering by Al Jolson. Then on to create an incredible outpouring of works that became standards, many of them originally composed for the Broadway musicals he and Ira turned out almost every year for a decade.
Meanwhile, he enjoyed a parallel career as a scholar and composer of classical music—and a close follower and champion of the most advanced modern European composers of his time, such as Alban Berg. His compositions were played by everyone from Paul Whiteman to Serge Koussevitzky. In the midst of all this he still found time to perform—he was an accomplished pianist—and to have his own well received radio programs in the 1930s. To say nothing of becoming a force in Hollywood as well.
The creation of works such as "Rhapsody in Blue" and "An American in Paris" as well as the lesser-known compositions are the stuff of legend—as is the initial cool reception of what is still a landmark American opera, "Porgy and Bess." These, as well as his hot popular songs thrust him onto an international stage; he was lionized in Paris and elsewhere on the Continent during his long sojourns there.
These broad outlines of his life were caught in a fair-to-middling Hollywood biopic and have been the subject of many other books. What Jablonski does in this laudable effort is get into the life of the man—sometimes well into the process of his work—discarding the myths that began to grow around him while the man was alive and flourished when he died so young, so tragically, of a brain tumor, while being treated by a still controversial psychoanalyst.
"Gershwin" is a model biography of a musician and ought to be read for its sensitivity and clear-headed approach to a person who accomplished so much and was such an enormously complicated personality. It's an important slice of our cultural history during the first part of this century.
Its epilogue is devoted to Ira, who many thought would be all washed up when his brother died. Little did anyone know he would go on to create some of his own finest songs and theatricals in collaboration with the other greats—such as Kurt Weill—during what we now think of as the golden age of American songwriting.
All of Ira's work, from the ditziest novelties to the apex of works such as "They Can't Take That Away from Me" and "A Foggy Day" to the political satires (a political progressive, he was once an uncooperative witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee) is here in the collection of his lyrics. They are annotated in part by well edited excerpts from his own worthwhile book, "Lyrics on Several Occasions." It's a treat to go through them, especially picking up on the many additional verses and choruses you never hear in performances of otherwise familar songs.
There's a temptation here to just give example after example, reiterate old refrains or whatever, but—as the master put it in a song for Fred Astaire—I'm dancing and I can't be bothered now.