George Gershwin: A Portrait in Sound and Music

A celebration of the genius of George Gershwin - one of the the great American composers- with a documentary full of music and stories from those who knew him best.

George Gershwin (1898 - 1937) is famous for his compositions 'Rhapsody in Blue' and 'An American in Paris'. (Getty Images)
George Gershwin,1898-1937. (Getty Images)
London production of George Gershwin's opera "Porgy and Bess", 1952. (Getty Images)
Houston Opera production of Porgy and Bess, 1978. (Getty Images)
Porgy and Bess, I've Got Rhythm, An American in Paris, Embraceable You, Rhapsody in Blue. Even just a partial list of the music written by composer George Gershwin is both long and exceptional. He changed the sound of American popular music with an output that was truly astonishing. He would write a song in minutes, and said, "I have more tunes in my head than I could put down on paper in a hundred years." His influence on modern popular songwriters has been so profound that in 2007 the Library of Congress created the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, an award given annually to a composer or performer for lifetime contributions to popular music. Recipients of the award since its inception include Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder and Carole King.

George Gershwin was a musical force waiting to happen. At age 17 he had his first song published; three years later, he composed his first Broadway show. His career started to pick up momentum at the start of the 1920's, and by the end of that decade he was the undisputed king of the Broadway musical. He represented something new: a composer with superstar status. By 1930, he was the hottest name on Broadway, at Carnegie Hall and on Tin Pan Alley. He had the world at his feet. 

But tragedy lay ahead. He started getting headaches and would sometimes black out. By the time it was discovered that he had a brain tumour, it was too late and he died in July 1937. He was only 38 years old. This program celebrates Gershwin's life and genius with a documentary that features his music, along with plenty of stories about him from his friends and colleagues, and his brother and collaborator, Ira Gershwin. Tony Thomas first brought this documentary to CBC Radio in 1967 on the program Project 67.

Alfred Newman was a close friend of Gershwin's and worked with him on several Broadway shows. He eventually became an important music director in Hollywood, but in the documentary, he recounts his early days of collaborating with Gershwin on The Goldwyn Follies. That film ended up being Gershwin's final project. Newman recalls how they met at Gershwin's home to hear the composer perform the entire just-completed score for the film. Days later, he received the news of Gershwin's tragic and sudden death. 

Arthur Schwartz was inspired from an early age by George Gershwin. He went on to become a film producer and composer of musical comedies, but remembers that Gershwin offered up musical flavours never before heard. He recalls Gershwin as generous, encouraging and charming and called Gershwin the most fascinating talent in his field.  Gershwin might have been the typical 'life of the party' guy, but was also prone to worry and sadness had an intense fear of being alone. Schwartz found him to be a deeply complex man who definitely had a healthy ego, and yet had such charm and naiveté that it wasn't possible to be offended. 

 "Gershwin loved the limelight, and he got there on merit. He took the contemporary song form and enlarged it. No one else has equalled him." 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Fellow composer and conductor Paul Whiteman was Gershwin's friend and collaborator and considered him a kindred spirit. Both believed jazz had a legitimate place in the symphonic world. In today's documentary, Whiteman tells the real story of the writing of Rhapsody in Blue. 

"He may not have had the schooling, but he had the genius. George Gershwin's contributions as far as influence on other countries - well, every symphony in the world will play Rhapsody in Blue." 
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    No one understood George Gershwin better than his brother Ira. Ira might have been the opposite to George in many ways, but perhaps he provided an important balance. According to Ira, George "moved fast, lived fast, studied hard, and learned fast. He was vibrant, dynamic, honest, and charming -- just like his music."
Composers George and Ira Gershwin were honored posthumously in 1998 with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (REUTERS)

George Gershwin's legacy lives on. We spoke with Ron Davis, a celebrated jazz pianist in Toronto. He was classically trained, and like Gershwin, he's a composer/pianist who moves effortlessly between genres. His CD Symphronica is part of an innovative jazz-symphony project that fuses pop, world, classical and jazz music. When asked about George Gershwin, Davis says: "He is one of the master builders and architects of modern popular music. It's not just that he was an astonishingly gifted composer and pianist. Rather, with songs like I've Got Rhythm and Summertime, it's that he heard melodies, patterns, and rhythms that caught the world's ear then, yet still inform the music of all styles that we hear today."