The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Brooklyn-born George Gershwin began his musical career as a Tin Pan Alley pianist and songwriter, quickly rising to prominence as a writer for the Broadway stage and composer of orchestral works. Gershwin began taking formal piano lessons at the age of twelve, and as a teenager worked as a house pianist in a musical publishing house in Midtown’s legendary Tin Pan Alley. There he absorbed the sounds of musical theater, Broadway popular songs, and ragtime. His first hit song, “Swanee” (written in 1919 with lyrics by B. G. DeSylvia) sold over a million copies when popularized by the famous singer Al Jolson, and propelled Gershwin onto the Broadway Stage where he would write some of America’s most notable musicals. His most successful shows, including Lady, Be Good (1924), Oh Kay (1926), Funny Face (1927), and Girl Crazy (1930), were written in collaboration with his lyricist brother Ira Gershwin (1896 – 1983) and featured songs heavily influenced by the syncopated rhythms and blues tonality of ragtime and early jazz. Gershwin’s musicals helped define the modern American musical that moved beyond the vaudeville-derived review to a show with an integrated plot and sophisticated musical score.
Although he lacked formal conservatory training in music theory, composition, and orchestration, Gershwin nonetheless was determined to write serious music. In 1924 his first extended orchestral composition, Rhapsody in Blue, premiered in a concert of new works billed as “An Experiment in Modern Music.” Gershwin’s Rhapsody was built around five distinctive themes that reflected his genius as writer of memorable melodies, and incorporated syncopated rhythms, blues tonalities, and jazzy instrumental shadings (such as the use of muted brass). The success of Rhapsody and his subsequent compositions Concerto in F (1925) and An American in Paris (1928) established him as a leading figure in the emerging symphonic jazz movement that sought to create extended compositions by fusing European orchestral forms and instrumentation with jazz-inflected rhythms and tonalities.
Gershwin’s achievements with symphonic jazz in the 1920s and the sophisticated operettas of the 1930s — Strike Up the Band (1930), Of Thee I Sing (1931, the first musical comedy to win the Pulitzer Prize), and Let’m Eat Cake (1933) — led critics of both decades to cast him as a contender for the honor of creating the first distinctly American opera. In 1935 he premiered Porgy and Bess, based on the 1926 novel Porgy — DuBose Heyward’s wistful tale of life, love, and death in Catfish Row, a semi-fictitious black slum situated adjacent to the bustling docks of Charleston, South Carolina, the author’s hometown. Part opera and part Broadway musical,Porgy and Bess remains one of America’s most enduring staged works, and produced several of Gershwin’s most memorable songs including “Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “I Loves You Porgy.”
In 1936 Gershwin relocated in Los Angeles and the following year wrote the soundtrack for the popular movie Shall We Dance staring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. But that year Gershwin unexpectedly fell ill and died of a brain tumor at the age of 38. Today his songs, musicals, and opera endure and he remains one of America’s most beloved songwriters and perhaps its most popular composer.