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Happy Birthday, George! An All Star Concert Celebration of the George Gershwin Centenary

George Gershwin, 1935

George Gershwin, 1935. Photo courtesy Wikimedia.

This edition of Riverwalk Jazz is an all-star bash in honor of George Gershwin's 100th birthday. Vocalists Nina Ferro and Carol Woods, bassist Milt Hinton and piano master Dick Hyman join The Jim Cullum Jazz Band to pay tribute to Gershwin’s musical legacy, a cornerstone of jazz repertoire today.

 

George Gershwin was born in Brooklyn on September 26, 1898, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants; he grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, never finished high school and died before the age of 40. Yet his music is full of joy and optimism, and his enduring popular songs stand out as the work of a rare and purely American genius. Gershwin wrote, "True music must repeat the thought and inspirations of the people and the time. My people are Americans and my time is today."

 

I Got Rhythm sheet music

"I Got Rhythm" sheet music. Image courtesy wicn.org.

Girl Crazy debuted at the Alvin Theatre on Broadway in October 1930. The show is a comedic sendup of life in the Wild West starring Ginger Rogers and Ethel Merman. Its story line revolves around a wealthy east coast playboy whose father sends him out West to get away from his loose-living friends in New York. Problems increase at an alarming rate when his colorful friends travel with him and try to transform a rundown lodge into a successful dude ranch. As the city slickers clash with the locals, romance and laughter ensue. George Gershwin himself conducted the orchestra, with musicians hand-picked by bandleader Red Nichols. The pit band had Benny Goodman on clarinet, Gene Krupa on drums and Jack Teagarden on trombone. The Gershwin and Gershwin score produced a trio of mega hits “Embraceable You,” “I Got Rhythm” and "But Not for Me,” a classic love song introduced by Ginger Rogers in the 1930 production. Making her Broadway debut in Girl Crazy in her famous role as Frisco Kate, Ethel Merman belted out "I Got Rhythm" night after night. The performance established her as a star of the Broadway stage.

 

Joining The Jim Culllum Jazz Band on stage at The Landing for our centenary birthday bash, Australian songbird Nina Ferro steps up to the microphone to offer her stylish interpretation of the timeless jazz standard “But Not For Me” and rocks the house on “I Got Rhythm.” The chord changes to "I Got Rhythm" comprise the single most-played song form in all of jazz aside from the 12-bar blues. These "rhythm changes," as they are known, and variations on them are the vehicle for countless tunes, riffs and improvised jazz choruses from every imaginable style of jazz player. From Louis Armstrong to Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, Nat Cole, John Coltrane and beyond!

 

Lady Be Good

Flyer for 1924 theater production Lady Be Good. Image courtesy musicals.com

Like "I Got Rhythm," the tune "Lady Be Good,” composed by George and Ira Gershwin for their first Broadway collaboration in 1924, is an evergreen staple of jam sessions. The Jim Cullum Jazz Band with Brian Ogilvie on clarinet shows us how it’s done at The Landing.  Also featured on our Gershwin birthday concert, bassist Milt Hinton plays the melody on "Fascinatin' Rhythm," a Gershwin tune that helped bring Jazz Age rhythms to Broadway. It was a showstopper first sung and danced by Fred and Adele Astaire in the 1924 debut production of Lady Be Good.

 

"How Long Has This Been Going On?" was originally composed by the Gershwins for the musical Funny Face in the late Twenties, but it didn't become popular until years later when vocalist Peggy Lee recorded it with Benny Goodman’s popular ensemble. Reunited once again with Jim Cullum and his Band, Nina Ferro offers her distinctive rendition of this Gershwin classic live on stage at The Landing.

 

Porgy and Bess program

Porgy and Bess program, 1942. Image courtesy Dubois Learning Center

Composing Porgy and Bess was one of the grand passions of George Gershwin’s life. He spent a great deal of his time and money developing the project. Flying in the face of convention, Gershwin refused to stage Porgy in blackface. He insisted Porgy and Bess be performed by an all-black cast, not by white actors in black makeup. As a result, Porgy debuted in the small and less than prestigious Alvin Theater rather than on the Metropolitan Opera stage as George Gershwin had hoped. Porgy's opening in New York in October 1935 was disappointing, reviews were mixed and the innovative folk opera soon closed. Jazz musicians have admired Porgy and Bess for decades. Bob Haggart, Miles Davis, Gil Evans, and The Jim Cullum Jazz Band are among those who have produced and recorded jazz versions of the score. Here, Jim and the Band play two pieces from their original jazz transcription, "I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin'" and "There's a Boat Dat's Leaving Soon for New York," both arranged by Band pianist John Sheridan.

 

On our show this week, John Sheridan and piano master Dick Hyman play Gershwin's "Sweet and Lowdown" in a unique boogie-woogie, two piano duet. The tune debuted in the 1925 show Tip Toes, where it was surprisingly staged for a choir of kazoos.

 

In 1936 George and Ira Gershwin went Hollywood. They left their home base in New York and flew to California where they leased an immense cream-colored Spanish-style mansion with a swimming pool and tennis court. George and Ira had no problem adapting to the West Coast lifestyle of Beverly Hills where their friends included playwright Moss Hart, actor Edward G. Robinson, writer Lillian Hellman and tunesmith Harold Arlen—all East Coast creative types like themselves who had migrated West to work in the movies.

 

Carol Woods with The Jim Cullum Jazz Band

Carol Woods with The Jim Cullum Jazz Band. Photo courtesy Riverwalk Jazz

Film studios welcomed George and Ira with open arms, sensing the enormous moneymaking potential of their songwriting skills. They signed a deal with RKO to write the music for a Fred Astaire movie called Shall We Dance? In addition to the title tune, they wrote "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" and the song for which Gershwin won his only Oscar for Best Original Song in 1937, "They Can't Take That Away From Me," sung here by Broadway’s Carol Woods with The Jim Cullum Jazz Band on stage at The Landing .

 

The Gershwin and Gershwin collaboration "The Man I Love" was dropped from three shows before it finally began to catch on. After it got rolling, it became one of the most performed and recorded songs in the Gershwin book. Particularly noteworthy from a jazz point of view are recorded versions by Art Tatum, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sara Vaughan, Miles Davis and Bill Evans. Here, London-based Nina Ferro joins The Jim Cullum Jazz Band at The Landing in San Antonio to interpret “The Man I Love.” Next up, Nina performs "I've Got a Crush on You,” a Gershwin tune that won Frank Sinatra his first pop single. And, Nina soars on the stirring "Someone to Watch Over Me," an early Gershwin number performed by Gertrude Lawrence in the 1926 stage show Oh, Kay!  The Jim Cullum Jazz Band closes out our 100th Birthday Bash for George Gershwin with a reprise on “I Got Rhythm.”

 

Photo credit for Home Page: George Gershwin, 1937. Photo courtesy Wikimedia.

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