Classics, By George A distinctly American composer, George Gershwin brought jazz into symphony halls, and left an indelible imprint on popular music.

September 22, 1998|By J.D. CONSIDINE | J.D. CONSIDINE,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

When George Gershwin's "An American in Paris" got its premiere at Carnegie Hall in 1928, Oscar Thompson, music critic for the New York Evening Post, was not impressed. Complaining of its "blunt banality and ballyhoo vulgarity," Thompson predicted the piece would soon be forgotten.

Although he admitted that its opening-night audience found the work to be "good fun," Thompson dismissed Gershwin's attempt to bring the jazz idiom into symphonic music as a mere fad. "To conceive of a symphonic audience listening to it with any degree of pleasure or patience twenty years from now, when whoopee is longer even a word, is another matter," he sniffed.

Oh, Oscar. How wrong you were.

Seven decades have passed since that Carnegie Hall debut, and "An American in Paris" shows no sign of fading from memory. Indeed, as America gears up to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the composer's birth this Saturday, Gershwin's musical legacy seems more vital than ever.

It isn't just that Gershwin's orchestral works -- "Rhapsody in Blue," "Piano Concerto in F," "An American in Paris" and others -- are now basic repertory, or that "Porgy and Bess" is considered the greatest of all American operas. What makes Gershwin such a singular talent is that his legacy looms equally large in popular music, where his songs and stage shows have had an enduring impact.

Amazingly, he managed to conquer both worlds in a career that lasted less than two decades. He completed his first Broadway score in 1919, when he was just 20 years old; in 1937, two years after the premiere of "Porgy and Bess," he was diagnosed as having a brain tumor. Emergency surgery was performed, but within days, the 38-year-old composer was dead.

Naturally, Gershwin's birthday is being celebrated with galas galore. There will be orchestral tributes everywhere, from Carnegie Hall to the Kennedy Center (where Michael Tilson Thomas will conduct "An American in Paris," scenes from "Porgy and Bess," and other pieces on Saturday), as well as a host of lectures and exhibits (including "Kickin' the Clouds Away," which opens Thursday at the Peabody Archives' Galleria Piccola). All in all, there's ample evidence of Gershwin's permanent place in the classical repertoire.

But the symphony hall isn't the only place Gershwin's music may be heard. His earliest fame came as a Broadway composer, and he grew rich off the success of such tunefully ingenious titles as "Strike Up the Band," "Someone To Watch Over Me" and "Embraceable You," all of which are considered standards today.

His musicals, once deemed frothy and frivolous, have recently returned to favor. Not only are revivals of "Girl Crazy" and "Of Thee I Sing" hitting the boards on a regular basis, but productions of "Lady, Be Good," "Oh, Kay!" and "Pardon My English," drawn from material from the Gershwin archives, have returned these shows to the repertoire.

Cabaret singers invariably include a number of his songs in their arsenal; some, like Michael Feinstein, even do whole evenings of Gershwin. But jazz musicians are also big Gershwin fans, in part because he had such a firm grasp on the jazz vernacular, but mainly because tunes like "I Got Rhythm" are so well-suited to improvisation. (The Baltimore Jazz Orchestra with Ethel Ennis will offer an all-Gershwin evening at the Miriam Friedberg Concert Hall tomorrow.)

Even rock stars have recognized how great these songs are. Gershwin songs have been recorded by everyone from Janis Joplin to Al Green to Sting. There's also a new benefit album out, called "Red, Hot and Rhapsody," that offers versions of Gershwin songs by artists ranging from soul singer Bobby Womack to the trip-hop band Morcheeba.

Why have Gershwin's songs had such enduring appeal? Probably because they draw from such a broad range of influences while retaining an utterly singular sense of voice.

"He's really the first crossover figure," says jazz musician Marcus Roberts, a conservatory-trained pianist who has not only performed "Rhapsody in Blue" and the Concerto in F, but has also improvised on many Gershwin standards. "He had a pop appeal to a big, general public that carried over into film and a lot of other things.

"But he also was somebody who wanted to be taken seriously by the classical world. He wanted to have an impact on as many things as he could."

Certainly, Gershwin had a solid grounding in popular music. Born Jacob Gershvin on Sept. 26, 1898, in New York City, he was the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, a background he shared with such Tin Pan Alley songwriters as Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern. He was something of a prodigy, learning enough piano in three years to get a job at 15 as a song-plugger with the music publisher Jerome H. Remick & Co.

Before long, he had gone from trying to sell other people's songs to writing his own, and by the early 1920s he had built a name both as a pop tunesmith -- his earliest success, "Swanee," was a huge hit for Al Jolson -- and Broadway composer.

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