George Gershwin and his older brother, Ira, elevated the Broadway musical to new and distinctive heights. George Gershwin also composed popular music and jazz for classical concert halls.
Gershwin was the son of Morris and Rosa, nee Bruskin, Gershwin. He was born on September 26, 1898, in Brooklyn, New York. When the Gershwins bought a piano for Ira, George monopolized it. He took piano lessons and was introduced to classical music.
Gershwin wrote his first song in 1913. At the age of 15, he quit school to become a song plugger. In 1919, he completed his first score for the Broadway musical La, La Lucille. During the same year, he teamed up with Irving Caesar to write Swanee. Al Jolson heard Gershwin play Swanee at a party and put it into his Broadway show. It became an overnight hit and rocketed Gershwin to a new status in the musical world.
Gershwin worked with his brother to create the Broadway musical Lady be Good in 1924. In the same year, he composed the concerto Rhapsody in Blue for bandleader Paul Whiteman to use in a concert to demonstrate the versatility of contemporary, popular music. Rhapsody in Blue was a hit that remained most associated with the Gershwin name.
George and Ira Gershwin wrote many successful Broadway musicals, including Oh, Kay! (1926), Funny Face (1927), Strike Up the Band (1930), Girl Crazy, (1930), and Of Thee I Sing (1931).
The Gershwin brothers wrote successful individual songs that are still popular today. Some of these hits are Embraceable You, I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise, The Man I Love, Summertime, I Got Rhythm and A Foggy Day. When not writing for the stage, George and Ira Gershwin were busy writing music for the movies. Some of their many hits were Shall We Dance and Damsel in Distress (both in 1937).
George Gershwin was always thinking about his serious compositions. One of his successes was Concerto in F (1925). After traveling through Europe, he wrote An American in Paris (1928). He was disappointed when his Second Rhapsody and Cuban Overture (both in 1932) were not well received.
Gershwin's ambition was to compose a jazz opera about black Americans. When he read DuBose Heyward's best-selling novel Porgy he knew that the story was the ideal vehicle to use to write his opera. Gershwin felt that all modern jazz was built upon the rhythms and melodic turns and twists that came directly from Africa. Porgy and Bess opened in New York to mixed reviews on October 10, 1935. Sponsored by the State Department, the American National Theater and Academy performed the opera on tour in Europe and Africa between 1954 and 1955. After the tour, the opera was performed in the Eastern Bloc countries and received rave reviews.
While performing his Concerto in F in concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in February 1937, Gershwin had a momentary mental lapse. This was the beginning of a series of headaches and feelings of dizziness. On July 11, 1937, he was operated on for a brain tumor and died.
Gershwin, the son of Jewish immigrants, left America a legacy of rich, melodic music.
Sources: Jewish Heroes and Heroines in America.
This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish Heroes & Heroines of America : 150 True Stories of American Jewish Heroism, © 1996, written by Seymour "Sy" Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.