Celebrating July 4th with the Gerswhins

In honor of the 4th of July, I thought I would pay tribute to two of my favorite composers: George and Ira Gerswhin.

These musical brothers epitomized the musical style of the American Jazz Age and the Golden Age of Broadway, combining traditional orchestral arrangements with popular lyrics.   The Gershwins wrote almost exclusively for each other for most of their career, composing more than two dozen scores for Broadway and Hollywood.  Ira Gershwin, like Cole Porter, had an ingenuity for playful, catchy, and poetic lyrics that matched perfectly with George’s melodies.  They have left behind a legacy of music that is still performed and enjoyed by younger generations, myself included.

Believe it or not, I was actually first introduced to their music from the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus , (a film with an outstanding soundtrack – for a complete song list, click here) when Mr. Holland’s music students perform a George and Ira Gershwin musical review.  From there, I was hooked, and purchased The Great Songs of George Gershwin CD, which has been part of my regular rotation of albums for the last seventeen years (holy cow…)

I have been listening to the Gerswhins a lot lately, partly because their music is so much fun to listen to in the spring and summer, but also because I am preparing myself for the new film adaptation of The Great Gatsby – and who better represents the musical voice of the turbulent 1920s than them?   As Raymond White, curator of the George and Ira Gerswhin collection at the Library of Congress writes,

“Even the mention of the name “Gershwin” brings to mind the glamour and sophistication of the 1920s and 1930s, personified by the brothers who helped to give a musical voice to the time.”

Below are my favorite Gershwin songs, in no particular order:

They All Laughed, from the musical Shall We Dance (1937) *song begins at 2:00*

When I bought my first Gershwin CD, this was the title track, sung by Fred Astaire.  I just love this song, because it’s so classically Gershwin – playful, catchy, and heartfelt.

I Got Rhythm, from the musical Girl Crazy (1930)

Perfect Jazz/Swing song.  Who could ask for anything more? And for rare footage of George Gershwin performing this song, click here! 

Clap Yo Hands, from the musical Oh, Kay! (1926) and the film Funny Face (1957)

I love the rhythm and spirit of this song, almost as much as I love watching the brilliant Kay Thompson perform the hell out of it in this scene from Funny Face.  She had such a powerful voice!

Liza (All the Cloud’s Roll Away), from the musical Show Girl (1929). This arrangement by Kay Thompson.

This is the song that Liza Minnelli was named after – when your godfather is Ira Gershwin, that makes a lot of sense!  This is my favorite arrangement of the song, by Kay Thompson.

It Ain’t Necessarily So, from the opera Porgy and Bess (1935)

Summertime, from the opera Porgy and Bess (1935)

Whenever I listen to It Ain’t Necessarily So or Summertime, I am in awe that two Russian/Jewish men from Brooklyn created them.  Like many pieces in Porgy and Bess, the songs were inspired by Negro spirituals, folk songs, blues, work songs, but also contained elements of New York jazz and traditional operatic elements.  There is another superb version of Summertime by Billie Holiday available on Youtube – for me, it’s a toss-up!  Listen to this song, and picture sitting in the Alvin Theatre in New York City in 1935.  It makes the hair on my arms stand up every time.

Someone to Watch Over Me, from the musical Oh, Kay! (1926)

I love this version of this song sung by the great Ella Fitzgerald.  I first heard this song in the film Mr. Holland’s Opus, and wrote down the lyrics as I watched the movie.  Rereading them, I couldn’t believe how powerful were, and how melancholy this song could make you feel. It’s rare that a song can express vulnerability without sounding frail, but this one does. The first two lines alone are enough to give me chills.

They Can’t Take That Away from Me, from the film Shall We Dance (1937) and The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)

If I could only hear one Gershwin song for the rest of my life, I would choose this one.  This song was written for the film Shall We Dance, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and was the first Hollywood musical that the Gershwins scored.  This video clip is not from Shall We Dance, but from the 1949 film The Barkleys of Broadway, in which Astaire and Rogers reprise the song and this time, perform one of their most beautiful and romantic dance sequences.  This film marked the last of ten on-screen partnership for Astaire and Rogers, and I think this makes the inherent nostalgia of the song all the more powerful.  Watch their body language, the effortlessness of their foxtrot, and the way Fred pulls Ginger towards him about 3 minutes in.

Happy 4th of July, everyone! 

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