“George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.”
— John O’Hara
George Gershwin is one of my heroes. Not only is his music great, but it’s also full of New York impudence, zest and, above all, fun. There are three or four other composers I admire as much, two others I love as much, but for my money, Gershwin is the most fun. He is, in my opinion, the single greatest composer America has ever produced. I cherish no hope that his equal will ever come again, but this thought doesn’t depress me. I think of Gershwin as something of a miracle — as wonderful and marvellous as he is unexpected and inexplicable. There’s only one of him: he has many peers but no equals. And having been blessed with one miracle (long after the age of miracles had passed), who could ask for anything more?
Here are three pictures of Gershwin at work — or play — take your pick. It was the same thing to him. When he accepted an invitation to a party, he sat down at the piano as soon as he arrived and then played all night long.
George S. Kaufman, one of Gershwin’s greatest Broadway collaborators, is another of my heroes. When the abominable Hollywood biopic of Gershwin’s life, “Rhapsody in Blue,” was released in the summer of 1945, Kaufman wrote a wonderfully funny piece for The New Yorker magazine. (You can look it up in The New Yorker‘s online archive. It’s on page 26 of the issue from August 11, 1945.) Here’s the opening paragraph:
I went to see “Rhapsody in Blue” the other night, and as an intimate friend of George Gershwin’s I was struck by the fidelity with which it followed his life. Ah, the memories it brought back! That night when the Rhapsody had its first hearing, when George rushed from the concert platform straight to the bedside of his dying music teacher, dear Professor Frank! It was I who buttoned his greatcoat about him on that historic occasion, I who whispered into his ear, “Mind the snow, George.” (I was a little hurt that this was left out of the picture.) Too, I recalled so well the sweet Julie Adams — Julie, who sang the leads in all of George’s shows and who fell in love with him so helplessly, so self-sacrificingly. I saw Julie just the other day, and we chatted over old times. She is in the WACs now, still sacrificing. And what a pang went through me when I heard the screen figures of George and Ira once more playfully referring to each other by those pet names that I knew so well, “Mr. Words” and Mr. Music.” It was a bit of life, I tell you.
Here are a three short examples of Gershwin performing. He plays his own music better than anyone else. And on the piano rolls, his unmistakable style can be heard with remarkable clarity and detail, completely unencumbered by hisses and scratches, and unhindered by primitive microphone technology. His personality scintillates in every note he plays.
Gershwin wrote this following piece, his Prelude No. 2 in C Sharp minor, one afternoon while he was with his girlfriend Kay Swift in her apartment (she was married at the time . . . not to him). A good afternoon’s work.
And here he is in 1931, playing “I Got Rhythm.”