George Gershwin died young; that does not mean he died too soon. When he died in July 1937, of a brain tumor that not even today’s doctors could really have fixed, he was 38 years old, but his life already had a natural, seemingly perfect arc to it. He was already acknowledged as the most “American” of all the great songwriters (Kern and Porter were still writing only slightly evolved Viennese operettas; Berlin was still doing vaudeville turns); he had already won a Pulitzer Prize for, of all things, a musical comedy; and he had already brought taxi horns into the concert hall.
It is hard to think what an old George Gershwin would have been like. He belonged on the tennis courts, tanned and sleek and always smiling, or in somebody’s living room, playing his own songswithout anybody ever having to ask himat a cocktail party. It is hard to imagine him hobbling to testimonial dinners and eking out an over-studied melody every now and then. It is virtually impossible to think of him actually failing at anything.
That is why, when he muffed a passage in his own Concerto in F, during a concert in Los Angeles in February 1937, his friends knew something was wrong. Gershwin was in Hollywood writing for the movies, hoping that, with some tutoring from Arnold Schoenberg, he could also turn out a string quartet in his spare time. Instead, even with his brain turning traitor on him, he went on to write songs for Fred Astaire and Burns and Allen (“A Foggy Day,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It”), and, finally, “Love Walked In” for Kenny Baker to sing in Goldwyn Follies. Then, with scarcely a misstep (the critics hadn’t really understood Porgy and Bess, but operatic baritones were already programming “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’ ” in their white-tie recitals), George Gershwin was gone.
Maybe Gershwin liked his life the way he lived it, or maybe not. It is hard nowjust as it was difficult during his lifetimeto know what George Gershwin was really like. His letters, and the memories of his friends, seem to reveal nothing but affableness and easy, amazing craftsmanship. There are no dependable stories of serious romances. It wasn’t that George seemed to be precisely virginal, but there seems always to have been something boyishly unlecherous about him. He never seemed to be on the make; he simply seemed truly happy to have been invited to the party.
No songwriter could have been more of a public figure. (Yes, the Cole Porters were constantly in the society pages, but it would be a while before Irving Berlin would appear in This Is the Army, allowing people to know what he actually looked, and worse yet sounded, like.) But Gershwin himself seemed to be curiously ubiquitous but ungraspable.
A lot of us think we know him because we know the words to his songs. But the words were written by his brother, Ira, who was hardly the party boy his 10-months-younger kid brother was; and Ira was well-known to have a morose, nostalgic streak. We hear, “Soon, my lonely nights will be ended,” or, “They’re writing songs of love, but not for me,” or, “There’s a somebody I’m longing to see. I hope that he turns out to be someone to watch over me,” and we think we know something about George Gershwin. But, just maybe, all we’re hearing is Ira feeling unloved and down about the Great Depression. It’s hard to know the truth because, to the end of his days, Ira kept close watch over George’s memory, guarding it like a reliquary, scrutinizing the line-up of young, stagestruck types who came to worship, and, every so often, selecting one of them to take under his wing and nurture.
Who now can know precisely what Ira’s motivations were? All the accepted keepers of the Gershwin flameRobert Kimball, Edward Jablonski, and Michael Feinstein among themwere Ira protégés. Whether they meant it or not, the George they saw was the one Ira allowed them to see, a creature full of life but not exactly lively, seductive, saintly, charming, chummy, and chaste. Meanwhile, Ira had gone on to write songs with other composers, and, as often as not, he gave them poignant words that ached like the words he wrote for George. He gave Kurt Weill “I do not care if that day arrives / That dream need never be / If the ship I sing/ Doesn’t also bring/ My own true love to me.” He gave Jerome Kern “Just one look and then I knew/ That all I longed for long ago was you.” He gave Harold Arlen “The winds grow colder/ And suddenly you’re older / And all because of the man that got away.” Every one of them yearns with the untrusting hopefulness of “Some day he’ll come along, / The man I love.”
But George did not write, “Maybe I shall meet him Sunday, / Maybe Mondaymaybe not”; he wrote the wistful, brokenhearted tune that went under it, carrying the words perfectly, letting each phrase reach upward, each try a little less successful than the one before, finally settling down to the reality of “maybe not.” He heard these words, and he knew how the song underneath them should go.
Still, whatever else Ira may have told anybody, there was a George Gershwin who was not about sadness like that. There was a George Gershwin who was not about words at all. He was the Gershwin who wrote rhythms for which Ira had to find words that would fit. Faced with the intro to “Fascinating Rhythm,” what could Ira come up with except “Got a little rhythm, a rhythm, a rhythm/ That pit-a-pats through my brain”? Given the refrain of “I Got Rhythm,” what choice did he have but to cut to the chase: “I got my man / Who could ask for anything more?”
Left to his own devices, more often than not, this is the kind of music George Gershwin wrotestreamlined music, piston-driven music that hammered and rattled along like a locomotive, shiny on the tracks. It is the music of the piano concerto, the two rhapsodies, the “Cuban Overture,” and “An American in Paris.” It is the screeching fire alarm with which Porgy and Bess comes bolting out of the gate.
The big tunes are always there, stretching out in a way that still makes over-voiced sopranos want to sing “I’ve Got a Crush on You (Sweetie Pie).” But it is probably wrong to dawdle over even the most poignant Gershwin melody. In 1928, even in 1937, a love song moved a great deal faster than it does now; the three-and-a-half minutes available on a 78 rpm recording gave you no time to waste.
And yet there is a sense that, even if he had had 33 rpm LP’s at his disposal, even if he had known about CD’s, George Gershwin probably would not have stretched out and gone maudlin. Into “An American in Paris” he inserted taxi horns, honking and telling the rest of the orchestra to get out of the way. He opened “Rhapsody in Blue” with the silky, upward squall of a clarinet, wailing like a lovesick cat on an alley fence. Of Thee I Sing was all marches and political rallies.
This was music that did pause and look back on itself. This was music that pummeled forward, clearing its own way. This is music that did not slow down to dwell much on sadness. Maybe it is the music of a man who knew, somehow, that he had no time to waste.