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Jerome Kern (1885-1945)
Jerome Kern
From THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK: "Kern's compositions are the product of traditional European musical discipline adapted to a relaxed American sensibility."

"Oh Lady! Lady!!" sheet music cover
Sheet music cover page for Kern's 1918 musical hit "Oh Lady! Lady!!"

When Jerome Kern died in 1945, America lost one of its greatest and most beloved composers. Harry Truman, who was the U.S. president at the time of Kern's death, was quoted as saying in David Ewen's book, COMPOSERS FOR THE AMERICAN MUSICAL THEATRE: "[Kern's] melodies will live in our voices and warm our hearts for many years to come.... The man who gave them to us earned a lasting place in his nation's history."
Kern wrote his most important work, "Show Boat," in 1927 with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II.
In 1946 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released a lavish musical film biography of Kern, TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY, with appearances by Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, and other stars. The centennial of Kern's birth was celebrated in 1985, which saw the issuing of a U.S. postage stamp in his honor, as well as the release of more recordings and performances of his music. "Show Boat," the most enduring of his works, continues to enjoy Broadway revivals. There is no sign that Kern's legacy is in danger of fading.

Jerome David Kern was born in New York City. He studied piano with his mother and in high school was often asked to play piano and organ and compose music for school theatrical productions. In 1902, at the age of 17, he tried his hand at a business career working for his father, who owned a merchandizing house. But the young Kern's enthusiasm for music led to his ordering 200 pianos from an Italian dealer instead of two -- the number he was supposed to purchase. This action almost cost his father his business, and to Kern's relief, it was agreed that he should pursue a career in music.

Kern enrolled in the New York College of Music in 1902 and in 1903 went abroad to study music in Germany. He took up permanent residence in London, where he began writing songs for British musical hall productions. A year later, he returned to New York, taking jobs with music publishers -- first the Lyceum Publishing Company and then Shapiro-Remick. At this time, British productions dominated Broadway. Kern was hired in 1904 to adapt one of these shows, Mr. Wix of Wickham, for the Broadway stage by "Americanizing" some of the numbers and by writing some additional songs of his own.

Photo credit: "Oh Lady! Lady!!, 1918." (Historic American Sheet Music, "Oh Lady! Lady!!, 1918." Music #628, Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library)

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