The Inexhaustible music of George Gershwin.
The older I get, and the more music I listen to, the more I marvel at the staggering musical achievements of George Gershwin (1898-1937) in his short life. He wrote music for Broadway shows, for Hollywood films; he wrote long-form concert music like “An American in Paris,” the “Cuban Overture,” and of course “Rhapsody in Blue.” He wrote the music for Porgy and Bess, an opera. Gershwin’s music has always translated easily into the jazz and swing realms because of its strong melodies, and interesting harmonies. Most of all, the music of George Gershwin is quite simply wonderful to listen to, no matter where it was first presented.
Very recently, friends of mine told me about a concert by a symphony orchestra featuring a guest soloist who is a pianist. After this pianist and the orchestra worked their way through a program of very challenging symphonic music, the audience was on its feet, clapping and shouting for an encore. While this was going on, the pianist and conductor embraced onstage, absorbing the appreciation of the audience for the music that had just been played.
Then, the pianist sat down at the piano to play an encore. It was a solo rendition of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love,” which he dedicated to the conductor of the orchestra who facilitated the thrilling performance that had just ended. The audience sat in rapt attention as the pianist played Gershwin’s deeply romantic melody. At the end of the encore, the audience gave him another standing ovation. He accepted the plaudits with deep bows and a smile, closed the lid over the keys of the piano, and left the stage.The audience floated out of the hall in a state of ecstasy.
I recall more than one other time when a performer dedicated “The Man I Love” to someone onstage before an audience. The sentiment is eternal: musicians who work together to make music deeply appreciate the efforts of their co-workers, both in rehearsal and in performance. When the music “works” for the conductor, soloist, orchestra and audience, magic has taken place.
Recently I have re-read the book The House That George Built…With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty, by Wilfrid Sheed, (2007) Random House. Generally, it tells the story of the development of what is now called “American Popular Song,” and places George Gershwin at the epicenter of that cultural hurricane. For anyone who has an interest in American Popular Song, this book will be a wonderful introduction. Sheed was a skilled writer whose literary pyrotechnics sometimes got a bit excessive. Nevertheless, this book contains much basic information and many valuable insights.
A second book I just read is George Gershwin…An Intimate Portrait, by Walter Rimler (2009) University of Illinois Press. This is a concise (178 pages) and well-written biography of Gershwin that focuses tightly on his life and work. It would be an excellent first book for someone who wanted to get the basic Gershwin story. Although this book is not long, it is rich in insights about Gershwin as a person and musician, about his music, and about the people who were a part of his life. And it contains about three dozen well-chosen photographs. I recommend it.
I will be posting notable performances of George Gershwin’s work from time to time here so that you will get a deeper appreciation of his enormous influence on American music. Here is one of the greatest from the swing era, Artie Shaw’s recording of “Summertime” the lullaby from Porgy and Bess. “Summetime” is the first music Gershwin wrote for Porgy and Bess, and it was composed in either late 1933 or early 1934. In this performance, the Shaw band brings Eddie Sauter’s brilliant arrangement vividly to life.
Music by George Gershwin; arrangement by Eddie Sauter.
Recorded by Artie Shaw and His Orchestra on April 17, 1945 in Hollywood, California.
Artie Shaw, clarinet, directing: Paul Cohen, first trumpet, Bernie Glow, George Schwartz and Roy Eldridge, trumpets; Ollie Wilson, first trombone; Harry Rodgers, Bob Swift and Gus Dixon (Augustino Ischia), trombones; Lou Prisby first alto saxophone; Rudy Tanza, alto saxophone; Herbie Steward and Jon Walton, tenor saxophone; Chuck Gentry, baritone saxophone; Michael (Dodo) Marmarosa, piano; Barney Kessel, guitar; Morris Rayman, bass; Lou Fromm, drums; arranger, Eddie Sauter. (NOTE: The alto and tenor saxophonists also play B-flat clarinets during this performance; baritone saxophonist Chuck Gentry also plays bass clarinet.) Solos: Artie Shaw, clarinet; Roy Eldridge, trumpet; Herbie Steward, tenor saxophone; Dodo Marmarosa, piano.
The story and music: One of the greatest recordings Artie Shaw ever made was of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess, arranged by Eddie Sauter. This classic performance was captured in superb fidelity by RCA Victor’s engineers in their Hollywood studio on April 17, 1945. Two takes are extant, and while both are excellent, I prefer the longer of the two (presented here) because its slower tempo allows the listener to hear Sauter’s kaleidoscopic presentation of the sections, indeed the individual instruments, of the band. It also enhances the balladic, almost melancholy quality of the music as written by Gershwin, and as reconstituted by Sauter.
In addition to all of the other merits of this recording, “Summertime” is a brilliant example of Artie Shaw’s great ability as the conductor of his band. The music they recorded that day was complex, yet subtle in the extreme. Shaw had his band perfectly prepared when they entered RCA’s studio on Sycamore Street to record this challenging music, and they performed brilliantly and feelingly under his inspired direction.
There is one section of the arrangement that was unprecedented, at least for a jazz/dance band. It is the part, approximately two minutes and thirty seconds into the recording, where it appears that Shaw’s solo clarinet contains some sort of echo or reverb. Although experiments with reverb in sound recording certainly had taken place before this recording, what is so unusual here is that the echo effect is present only on Shaw’s clarinet, not on any of the other instruments playing at the same time. For at least forty years, even though I continued to wonder about this, I assumed that some sort of reverb had been added to Shaw’s clarinet by RCA’s engineers after the recording had been made. This seemed more plausible with the passing years, and the huge increase of post-recording “doctoring” that had become standard operating procedure in the production of recorded music. But I had misjudged Artie Shaw. In reality he and Eddie Sauter had achieved this unusual effect by using purely musical techniques.
I had never had the opportunity to see any of Artie Shaw’s original bands, and until 1983, I had no reason to think I would ever see any band playing Artie Shaw’s music. In that year, however, Shaw decided to allow the formation of an Artie Shaw band, with his clarinet parts to be played by the very capable Dick Johnson. I was lucky enough to be able to attend the debut of this new Artie Shaw band at Glen Island Casino, just outside New York City, on December 14, 1983, at which Shaw himself conducted. I was even luckier to meet Mr. Shaw that night, and talk briefly with him. Our conversation was perfunctory, not because of rudeness on his part, or mine, but because I caught up with him at intermission, after he slipped away from the crowd of well-wishers surging around him as he stepped off of the bandstand, to go to a bar in another part of the ballroom to get a drink. I extended my hand to him and said “Mr. Shaw, I have always enjoyed your music, and I’m really glad that you’ve decided to form this new band. Why did you do it”? He looked at me and immediately realized that I was not one of his fans from the glory days of the Swing Era. I was 33 years old at the time. He took my hand, shook it, and said: “The reasons why I formed this band are very complicated. I’m glad that you enjoy my music because when you buy my records, you help me make a living.” (At right: Artie Shaw leads his band at the Strand Theater in Manhattan in early 1945.)
By then, a number of women had found Shaw at the bar, and began imploring him to sign autographs, which he refused to do, politely, by saying: “I just don’t do that anymore,” then to pose with them for snapshots, which he did allow. After about a minute of this, he declared: “I’m sorry ladies, but I’ve got to get back on the bandstand,” and left.
I do not remember if the band played “Summertime” that night, but I don’t think they did. I was to see and hear the Shaw band on a couple of other occasions between that night and September of 2005, but again, I do not think they played “Summertime” on any of those occasions. Then, in the summer of 2005, my long-time friend, the Chicago-based Christopher Popa, who is an expert on the music and musicians of the swing era, and who is the person behind the “Big Band Library” website (bigbandlibrary.com), informed me that he was working with the Chicago Jazz Orchestra on a tribute to Artie Shaw. What made this idea so exciting was that the CJO was going to play numerous selections from Shaw’s string orchestras, including one from his 1949 “classical period,” using an appropriately sized string section. (No touring Shaw orchestra since 1942 had included strings.) The conductor of the CJO, Jeff Lindberg, wisely had consulted Chris regarding many issues related to Shaw and his music as he planned this concert. He specifically asked Chris which selections from the Shaw music archive at the University of Arizona he thought would make up a musically interesting program. Chris discussed this with me at some length, and he then made his recommendations to Mr. Lindberg. Ultimately, Lindberg chose a very interesting cross-section of Shaw’s music for the program, including “Summertime.” The dates for the concerts were set, and I made plans to go to Chicago to attend one of the concerts, and also a rehearsal. (Trumpeter Roy Eldridge above left.)
I have been lucky enough over the years to have been able to get myself into various rehearsals of bands and orchestras, and I have come to enjoy attending the rehearsals as much, or more, than the actual concerts. I love to watch the conductor and the musicians interacting in rehearsal, intently shaping the best performance possible. My experience attending the Saturday afternoon rehearsal of the CJO, prior to the Sunday afternoon concert, was highly rewarding. The musicians, all top-flight players, were carefully taken through the music by Jeff Lindberg. There was a lot of give-and-take between them. Gradually, each selection began to sound good. (Tenor saxophonist Herbie Steward at right.)
One of the pieces they rehearsed was “Summertime.” As they played through it initially, I waited patiently until they reached the middle part of the arrangement where, on the record, it sounded like Shaw’s clarinet had some sort of reverb on it. I was completely astonished when the clarinet soloist, Larry Combs, who was the principal clarinetist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and a splendid, sensitive musician, began playing the famous Shaw solo, which had been written out, and which he played flawlessly, and the first alto player, from his seat in the saxophone section, played exactly the same notes on his clarinet, in unison with Mr. Combs. There it was right before me: the secret of the reverb was nothing more than two clarinets playing in unison.
I never would have thought that Shaw’s solo at this point in the arrangement had been written out for him, but it seemed that it would have had to have been, because for this effect to work, both parts had to be identical so they could be played simultaneously. It is important to note that the “second” or background clarinet part was played from the saxophone section. The different placements of the two clarinets during this soli created the “echo” or “reverb” effect much more vividly than if the two clarinets had been played by musicians standing side-by-side.The CJO musicians played this arrangement, including the eerie two clarinet soli, with great feeling at the concert the next afternoon, to the delight of the audience. (Pianist Dodo Marmarosa below left.)
I returned home, and immediately listened to the classic Shaw record of “Summertime” repeatedly, shaking my head after each hearing. My admiration for Shaw, Eddie Sauter, and the first alto player in Shaw’s band at the time,”Summertime” was recorded (Lou Prisby) grew. [iii] Still, I wondered about all of this. I had been an inveterate Shaw watcher from the early 1960s until his death on December 30, 2004. Why had no one ever asked him about this? Why hadn’t the voluble Mr. Shaw ever spoken about it?
[i] Jeff Lindberg was and remains the conductor and artistic director of The Chicago Jazz Orchestra. He is also a professor of music at The College of Wooster (Ohio), and music director of The Wooster Symphony Orchestra.
[ii] Another selection that was played by the CJO was Ray Conniff’s swinging “Just Kiddin’ Around.” I was surprised, and delighted, that the original introduction, played by the strings, which had to be cut so the tune could fit on a 78 rpm record, was restored for this performance. I never knew it existed. The “classical” piece they performed was Leme, composed by Darius Milhaud. Once again, I was unaware of the existence of this piece in the Shaw library because he had never recorded it. It was delightful.
[iii] It is my educated guess that the first alto player in Shaw’s band when “Summertime” was recorded was Lou Prisby. Apparently, the unison clarinet part was written on the first alto book by Eddie Sauter. If that was so, then Prisby would have played it in unison with Shaw. The other alto player in the band then was Rudy Tanza. It is also possible that he could have played the soli clarinet part with Shaw. It would have taken enormous self-confidence (and practice) for any saxophone player who doubled on clarinet to have played this difficult clarinet music.But to have played and recorded it while Artie Shaw was also playing it would have made the challenge ten times greater.
This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.