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The Fascinating Rhythm of George Gershwin

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg. This week Think Tank looks at the extraordinary life and phenomenal music of American composer, George Gershwin. Joining us is Hershey Felder, composer, actor, playwright, concert pianist and star of the one-man show, George Gershwin Alone. The topic before the house: “The Fascinating Rhythm of George Gershwin.” This week on Think Tank.
(Musical break)
He was a child of the jazz age, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. He grew up on the streets of Brooklyn and served an apprenticeship in Tin Pan Alley. He wrote music for vaudeville acts, the musical comedy, the stage, the concert hall and the Hollywood lot. And in the process, he created something few composers can claim – a new kind of music.
(Musical break)
MR. WATTENBERG: Hershey Felder, thank you for joining us on Think Tank.
MR. HERSHEY FELDER: Thank you for having me here.
MR. WATTENBERG: Tell me about George Gershwin.
MR. FELDER: He was born in Eighteen Ninety-eight, on September twenty-sixth. And he was born in Brooklyn, New York and he was the son of immigrants. He was the son of Russian immigrants who had come over to the United States some ten years prior.
MR. WATTENBERG: So that makes him a first-generation American.
MR. FELDER: First-generation American, absolutely.
MR. WATTENBERG: Turn of the century.
MR. FELDER: Yes, just at the very turn of the century when, you know, America was clicking, so to speak.
MR. WATTENBERG: Right.
MR. WATTENBERG: When does music come into George Gershwin’s life?
MR. FELDER: You know, it’s an interesting question because of course so much of it is related to legend. But the way George told it later in his life, was that he was much…very much so ..a troublemaker, he was a wild street kid, so to speak. He, you know, would break windows of people (laugh) with baseballs or stickballs. And the legend goes that he heard a violin sound coming from within a school…the school auditorium. And the violin sound belonged to one Maxie Rosensweig playing Dvorjak’s Humoresque. You know, (plays piano and sings along). George followed this sound and of course, couldn’t find Maxie after this concert, this sort of, you know, gathering in the school auditorium. And so searched out a way to find this kid and…and it was pouring rain apparently and he was stickball filthy and he went to this kid’s house and he knocked on the door until he…he found this kid. And of course, they became fast friends because George insisted that they become friends and he also insisted that…that this young Maxie Rosensweig teach him everything possible about music. Interestingly enough, what Maxie said was, “You had best give it up because you simply don’t have any talent,” you know.
MR. WATTENBERG: (laugh) He said that he does not have any talent?
MR. FELDER: Well that’s the way the legend goes and it, you know, it’s a very charming story. But there were classical people later on in George’s career who, of course, said the very same thing.
MR. WATTENBERG: Was the musician in the family Ira Gershwin?
MR. FELDER: The musician of desire was Ira Gershwin because, of course, Ira was the serious bookish type and the piano, as the legend has it, was bought for Ira. But George had the kind of character where he walked into a room and took over the room and I think he took over the living room and took over the piano as well. And Ira was relegated to second position in piano playing and George was the pianist.
MR. WATTENBERG: And George Gershwin quit high school?
MR. FELDER: Well, you know, then you took as much high school I guess you needed. But the fact is that he went to work in Tin Pan Alley at, for fifteen dollars a week when he was fifteen years old.
MR. WATTENBERG: And what did he do there? What….what
MR. FELDER: Plugging tunes.
MR. WATTENBERG: What does that mean, plugging tunes and what sort of…what sort of tunes? Give us some tunes.
MR. FELDER: Well, you know, I mean I think the sort of tunes that he would have plugged would have been tunes of the turn of the century kind of music. But today we have, you know, recording and recording artists and demos. Then what would happen was musicians would come, singers would come to these….to these little cubicles where pianists would be playing tunes like you know, (plays piano) which was….which was his Swanee. Swanee was actually introduced as a musical revue number early on at the Capitol Theater. It was only when Jolson had heard it that he had adopted it as his own. (MR. WATTENBERG: I see) And…and put it into a show, I think the show was called Sinbad. And that’s when it became famous and, in fact, was George Gershwin’s highest selling piece of music and earned him the most royalty in the (MR. WATTENBERG: Is that right?) entire of his career, of course, made him a star. He had gotten off the boat some years later in Europe and introduced himself as George Gershwin in Europe and somebody said, “Is…is this the George Gershwin who wrote Swanee?” which is a miraculous thing in a day when communication wasn’t, you know, as it is today.
MR. WATTENBERG: And then he starts changing from a popular tune smith to something that we now regard as a great American musical legend.
MR. FELDER: George was the kind of composer who went from writing things like The Man I Love (plays piano), which is brilliant in structure and very harmonically, clearly George Gershwin’s. But George Gershwin was the kind of character born to this immigrant life who wanted more. It was never enough. He was also a musical genius and a musical genius is never satisfied. So his desire to learn more, his career spanned over a great number of years.
MR. WATTENB ERG: It has been said, you used the word ‘genius,’ that George Gershwin was America’s Mozart. Would you buy that?
MR. FELDER: I absolutely would. Because when Mozart began his career, his music was new, his music was different. Mozart wrote other than great operas, he wrote musical comedy as well, it was musical comedy of the period. And, you know, that’s where George Gershwin started. And of course, the symphonies of George Gershwin’s life, the Porgy and Bess came only later.
MR. WATTENBERG: Is the next leap Porgy and Bess?
MR. FELDER: No, the next leap was musical comedy and the musical comedy developed and, of course, the Rhapsody in Blue. Nineteen twenty-four. Huge international success. I interviewed people who were there at the time. They said when it came on the radio, that wonderful clarinet (plays piano), that they had never heard anything like that before. And suddenly…
MR. WATTENBERG: Sounds like….it sounds like America.
MR. FELDER: And it just—pshew--it…it sent them, their ears listening to this and I – there are people, of course, who are still alive who were sixteen and twenty and twenty-five, it was the first time for them. They said it was magical and that the….the LP or whatever they had, the…the record that they had, they would play over….
MR. WATTENBERG: Gramophone I guess.
MR. WATTENBERG: Gramophone, until it was completely scratched. But a year later, George Gershwin was now a composer for the Classical Concert Hall and embarked on creating a piano concerto.. (plays piano)
MR. WATTENBERG: The name of which is?
MR. FELDER: Concerto in F.
MR. WATTENBERG: Concerto in F.
MR. FELDER: And with these great themes and these wonderful melodies that embrace America once again. Nineteen twenty-eight he goes to Paris and American in Paris. You know, (plays piano and sings along.) This unbelievable Hollywood theme before Hollywood invented the Hollywood theme
MR. WATTENBERG: Well, okay, let’s talk about some of the really big ones. I guess Porgy and Bess is….
MR. FELDER: I think it was Nineteen twenty-seven, perhaps that he was sent the…the book Porgy by his sister-in-law’s sister. And Porgy, of course, became a stage play that was directed by Rouban Mamoulian, the first director – the director of Oklahoma and so on and so forth. And he had this bite to…to turn this into an American folk opera. The story was such that he – and he started a correspondence with DuBose Heyward and Dorothy Heyward who had written the book and then the play. And the correspondence eventually led to a Nineteen thirty-five composition of this, what has now become America’s greatest opera. And in fact, was derided in its day by many of the serious critics to the point where the Herald Tribune said that George Gershwin doesn’t even know what an opera is.
MR. WATTENBERG: Tell me about the tension between black artists and white artists at this time. What….what year are we talking about?
MR. FELDER: Thirties….mid-thirties.
MR. WATTENBERG: Mid-thirties.
MR. FELDER: Well there were…..
MR. WATTENBERG: Are…are the black artists saying, ‘here’s this Jewish kid from New York and he’s stealing our kind of music?’ After all, the….the…the opera is set in South Carolina. The language used is Gullah, which by the way Clarence Thomas was brought up on and…and felt very embarrassed to use with. Tell me about that….that tension.
MR. FELDER: Well there….there, the tension is one again that is…is born of legend. Is it that it was a Jewish kid “stealing,” as you say, black music in order to put it on the stage? Or is it the fact that only somebody who is white and who happens to have been Jewish, could take that good music and put it on the stage? That is what affects me, that it required somebody who was…who was…who was white to do that. However, the times were, I think the times were very, very complicated and Porgy and Bess was written at a time where blacks and Jews were not allowed into all hotel rooms, you know. That’s a fascinating time.
MR. WATTENBERG: Or…or all country clubs.
MR. FELDER: Or all country clubs or all restaurants. But there’s one very fascinating story about….about this that took place, in fact, here in Washington. George had a tour of Porgy and Bess. And as the story goes, one of the cast members said to him, or a collective of cast members said to him, that they couldn’t invite their families to sit and watch Porgy and Bess in the National Theater in Washington because they’d be segregated. So George Gershwin said, “If we don’t mix the audience for the performance here at the National Theater in Washington, we don’t do Porgy and Bess at the National Theater.” And sure enough, for the first time in history, the audience at the National Theater of the United States was not segregated.
MR. WATTENBERG: Hershey, tell me about Gershwin’s influences in South Carolina while he is composing Porgy and Bess and then give us some of it.
MR. FELDER: There’s a wonderful story about how he composed something called “shouting.” He was taken to…to different churches or he had gone to….
MR. WATTENBERG: It’s an actual dialect, “shouting,” isn’t it?
MR. FELDER: Well shouting is….is…is what is done in church; it’s a kind of prayer, so to speak. It’s different rhythms against different words against different melodies and everybody sort of does it together, but it has this unbelievable rhythmic thunderous effect when it works. And the way the story is told is that the friend who he went with to this church said that the only person who could have gotten up and gotten away with shouting with all the other black members of the church was George Gershwin. That’s how embraced he was. And I think the style that George wanted to create was a style that was both in and of itself Porgy and Bess, that echoed, you know, echoed the…the…the South Carolina folks….folk style. But one of the things that is most affecting is the most unbelievable melody. (plays piano)
MR. WATTENBERG: Porgy and Bess.
MR. FELDER: Summertime (plays piano). It evokes time, it evokes story, it evokes color.
MR. WATTENBERG: Tell me what happens when George Gershwin goes to Hollywood. I mean, I’m looking at the list of tunes here. I Got Rhythm, Embraceable You, Somebody Loves Me…
MR. FELDER: (plays piano) What a brilliant tune. (Sings: The memory of all, no, no they can’t take that away from me) (Sings: A foggy day in London Town) These tunes when he went to Hollywood, it seems that what I was able to glean was that you know, he had to earn money after Porgy and Bess and Hollywood was calling. And I think he…he had asked Ira to scare up work in Hollywood because they needed money. They had invested their own money in Porgy and Bess and it didn’t quite go and they had lost everything in fact. So they went out to Hollywood and established Hollywood contracts and Hollywood contacts and started writing some of George Gershwin’s most amazing tunes and Ira’s most fascinating lyrics. And ….
MR. WATTENBERG: He’s a great lyricist.
MR. FELDER: Ira’s a genius. I mean Ira was able to capture…
MR. WATTENBERG: Pretty good genes in that family. How…how did they work together?
MR. FELDER: I think they worked together, together. Once George was on a CBS radio program and he was talking about how they worked together and he was talking about the back and forth. And I don’t know if that…that CBS program was scripted or not but it sounds like George would feed a.…a musical line, Ira would feed a lyric. Ira would say, “Can we add a note,” and George would add a note and say, “Can we add a lyric?” So there was really a ….there was a symbiosis in that relationship that only brothers could create.
MR. WATTENBERG: Why is Gershwin’s music, really alone of American musicians, so hard to categorize? You got jazz, you got pop, you got classical. What is it there that’s…what is it saying about the twentieth century? About the first third of the twentieth century?
MR. FELDER: You know, I wonder how they categorized Beethoven’s music when Beethoven was first creating it. Did they call it “classical”? Did they say, “Ah, here’s the Fifth Symphony,” you know (plays piano). Is that classical music?
MR. WATTENBERG: Sounds classical to me.
MR. FELDER: Now, but what was it then? Was that the newest, you know, wave of hit pop stuff? How do you grasp what new music is? How do you classify it? To me George Gershwin took the sounds of America; he took the sounds of…of the…he said, “Our metropolitan madness, our, the sounds of the train, the clickety-click of the train, the sounds of our contemporaries.”
MR. WATTENBERG: George…George Gershwin died in what year?
MR. FELDER: Nineteen thirty-seven.
MR. WATTENBERG: Nineteen thirty-seven at age?
MR. FELDER: Thirty-eight.
MR. WATTENBERG: Thirty-eight. How much of Gershwin, I mean you hear the…the martyrology of Abraham Lincoln because he was assassinated, John Kennedy because he was assassinated. Would we be doing a show on Gershwin if he lived to a ripe old age?
MR. FELDER: Why not? I mean people do…do shows about Rogers and Hammerstein – they lived, you know. Beethoven lived to be old; Franz List lived to be old. Chopin died young, Mozart died young, but it’s the quality of the work and the output of their life. And absolutely, I don’t think it’s…I don’t think it’s that fascination with his youth specifically, because having done the show some five hundred times as George Gershwin Alone, one of the things that ran through the audience when I would see them after the show was, “I didn’t know he died that young. How was it possible that he amassed so much and touched so many people’s lives.”
MR. WATTENBERG: What…what was he working on when he died?
MR. FELDER: A letter that someone had given me addressed this specific question. Somebody had written to Ira in the fifties, and handed me a copy of the letter of Ira’s response. The response was that George was working on a ballet, he was working on an opera, he was working on a quartet. He was more interested in the development of his serious side, his concert hall side and the last line, because the question was, “What style was George composing in?” Ira’s last line in response was, “I trust that no matter whatever he would have come out with, the result would have been purely Gershwin.”
MR. WATTENBERG: Hershey could…could you give us a…an example of some further Hollywood tunes that even the modern ear understands and…and….and recognizes?
MR. FELDER: Hmm. I think…I think the one we did a little bit earlier, (plays piano). It has tempo, has style, it has brilliant melody and brilliant harmony.
MR. WATTENBERG: And it’s called?
MR. FELDER: (Sings: No, no they can’t take that away from me – plays piano) (Sings: We may never, never meet again on the bumpy road to love – plays piano)
MR. WATTENBERG: How…how about I Got Rhythm?
MR. FELDER: Well that was, of course, you know, way before.
MR. WATTENBERG: Way before.
MR. FELDER: Way before Ethel Merman (plays piano). That was actually the style in which George….George played the tune. And, in fact, the creation of the tune was very funny. You know, it’s “I got rhythm, I got music, I got my man, who could ask for anything more.” Ira had tried a dummy lyric which was (plays piano and sings: Roly-poly, eating solely ravioli, better watch your diet or bust. Once your dinner, you’re a sinner. Please get thinner, losing all that fat is a must.) And that was….that was Ira’s first go at trying to find the rhythmical pattern of the lyric.
MR. WATTENBERG: How about Somebody Loves Me.
MR. FELDER: Of course, (plays piano and sings: Somebody loves me, I wonder who.) That wonderful twist of….of the use of the blues color is just…just beautiful in that song.
MR. WATTENBERG: And Embraceable You.
MR. FELDER: (plays piano and sings: Embrace me, my sweet embraceable you.) My favorite George Gershwin tune.
MR. WATTENBERG: This is your favorite?
MR. FELDER: Like it was written yesterday. (plays piano and sings: Just one look at you my heart grew tipsy and weak. You and you alone bring out the gypsy in me.) Or, (plays piano and sings: Someone to watch over me.)
MR. WATTENBERG: What…what makes a standard? What makes….
MR. FELDER: If I knew, I would write one. (laughs) You know, but what makes a standard? A standard is something that is as fresh as it was sixty-five years after it was written as the day it was written; is as effecting today as it was seventy-five years ago or a hundred years ago; is as musically inventive as nothing before it and nothing after it; and is a story that seeps into the consciousness as being something very real and very personal to everybody. And it was their ability to create things that were personal. Because Ira never wrote the word ‘love.’ You know, you – he never said it in so many words, but was he able to capture the spirit of love.
MR. WATTENBERG: Hershey, do you regard Rhapsody in Blue as his single greatest work?
MR. FELDER: I…I can’t answer that, I can’t answer that on his behalf. On my behalf, I love playing it. It’s a…a marvelous piece that effects the audience every time no matter what goes on. And I think Gershwin himself died way too soon.
MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. We are about ready to wrap up. And if you could close, Hershey, for us with Rhapsody in Blue, maestro.
MR. FELDER: I give you the theme (plays piano).
MR. WATTENBERG: Bravo.
MR. FELDER: Thank you.
MR. WATTENBERG: Thank you Hershey Felder. And thank you. Please remember to send us your comments via e-mail. For Think Tank, I’m Ben Wattenberg. That was just beautiful.
MR FELDER: Thank you very much. (continue talking as credits roll)


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