RHYTHM CHANGES - The Story of George Gershwin   by Paul Hares


In 1985 the New York Metropolitan Opera staged its first full-length production of "Porgy and Bess" by George Gershwin.

It had taken 50 years for this masterpiece of American opera to achieve international status.

In 1935, the year of its creation, George Gershwin achieved what no other American had achieved before him - he took diverse elements from America's mélange of cultural origins and turned them into cohesive art-music…
American art-music.

This is the story of that achievement - and of the two sides of the man who achieved it.



In Reading Gaol, Oscar Wide ponders the price of being homosexual.

In the Battle of Santiago Bay, 180 sailors dying in flames ponder the price of being Spanish.

And on Devil's Island, Richard Dreyfus ponders the price of being innocent…and Jewish.

In Brooklyn, Rose Gershovitz, née Bruskin, is also pondering the price of being Jewish as she gives birth to her second son, Jacob…

And as she ponders, her husband, Morris, sets about the business of change…

Soon Jacob becomes George, and Gershovitz becomes Gershwin…


It was the way of change…

It was the way that Russian Jews from St. Petersburg became American Jews from Brooklyn…

In the case of Morris Gershovitz, founding father of the Gershwin dynasty, it was also the way that relocation was embraced and confirmed.

He quickly became an American - of the Jewish variety. It was, after all, the way his tribe had changed through years of displacement. "Tzoanim", they were called, "the wanderers".

In the case of the second son, Jacob, soon to become George, it was the way that an American genius first saw the inauspicious light of day…Because it is change that makes all things possible, and it is possibility that makes all things change.


Change: the essence of evolution; the taskmaster of creativity; the lubricant of growth.

George Gershwin's father never ceased to change. He changed apartments 25 times in those first formative years. He changed professions with the ease and regularity with which he changed cousin Greenstein's suits. He changed his business - and went
on changing his business for the rest of his life.

For Jacob, now George, the only changes in those early years were the changing street signs in the Lower East Side of New York. It was a tough neighbourhood; but George had inherited something of the Cossack, and fought his way from street to street. He was tough and resourceful as he pilfered and plundered to make nickels and dimes. He was, in the words if Isaac Goldberg, "a bad boy". Yes. Mrs Gershwin had trouble with that son, George… "With a little less luck he could have become a gangster rather than a musician…"

'Til one day he popped one of his stolen nickels into a pianola, and set in motion the process of change. It was Anton Rubinstein's Melody in F that George Gershwin first heard on that mechanical piano. In his own words, it was "the most entrancing thing I had ever heard in my life"…

Three years later, his friend Maxie Rosen, the violinist, played Dvorak's humoresque, and the change was confirmed. "Until then", said George "the only thing
I'd ever played was hookey."

When the piano arrived at the Gershwin household it was originally meant for his older brother, Ira, but it was George who greedily took possession of it - or maybe it was the piano that took possession of George.



And the world continues on its inexorable path of change. In Portugal monarchy was exchanged for republic; in England, an old king for a new; and in South Africa, a dominion for independence.


In Brooklyn, New York, George Gershwin changed one piano teacher for another - from the homely Miss Green, who had assiduously taught him the wrong place to put his fingers, to Charles Hambitzer, another Russian - and another Jew.

"Okay", said Hambitzer, after George had performed his chaotic rendition of the William Tell Overture. "First we shoot the piano teacher - but this time without the apple on his head…"

It wasn't long before Hambitzer learned that when George Gershwin changed musical direction it was a process of addition, never of abandonment. "The boy is a genius," said Hambitzer. "But he wants to go in for this modern stuff, jazz and whatnot. I'll teach him the standard music first."

So while George learned about Chopin, Liszt and Debussy, he never forgot his early exposure to piano rags and the popular 'jazz-cum-klezmer' of his home streets…

What he
did forget was his mother's Jewish dream for her two sons - one son a doctor, one son a lawyer. At 15 he dropped out of school and went to work as a song-plugger at the firm of Remick's on Tin Pan Alley. He played all day, every day, selling the popular songs of the day to bandleaders eager for new material. According to Henry Osgood, "The professional music department of a popular publishing house was like an extra-noisy hour on the psychopathic ward at Bellevue hospital…Extra-noisy, mind you." It was here that George became the youngest song-plugger ever…And soon he was to become the best.


1918. Changes

Europe, it seems, is changing from war to peace. But if science has taught us anything, it is that change is measured only in relation to a constant, and, in matters of mankind, it seems that peace is seldom a constant…

In Madrid, Blasco Ibañez publishes "the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" which bears poetic justice to man's inhumanity to man.

Meanwhile, in New York, Cass Gilbert has built the highest building in the world…And George Gershwin has begun to climb his own high-rise to fame. He is still plugging songs in Tin Pan Alley…But now they are songs by George Gershwin. The money, it seems, is in the song sheets themselves, and George is no longer content to plug other people's songs. To achieve fame he must write his own.

And so, on February 10th he takes a job as a writer with T.B. Harms. In the words of his brother "This entails no other effort than composing. No more song-plugging…and $35 dollars a week. Some snap, huh?"

It is at this time that George tells his girlfriend "I can't see you no more. I'm a composer now, and you're just a hat-check girl."
And it is at this time that George begins to record piano rolls for $5 dollars a time. "I got $25 dollars for my first six rolls," George tells his brother excitedly. "At $5 dollars a roll?" asks Ira. "You're a hell of a piano player, George, but none too good at maths."

George recorded 100 piano rolls, wrote a multitude of songs with a multitude of lyricists…most of them undistinguished.

Then, as Mrs Gershwin watches her second son and then her daughter, Frances, succumb to the musical dream, she turns hopefully to her firstborn, Israel. Doctor?..Lawyer?…

But Israel, now Ira, turns to George, and the partnership of George and Ira Gershwin is born…

Many years later, when asked which came first, the words or the music, Ira smiled and replied "The contract." And the first contract was for a song, which unequivocally stated George's changing convictions about American music, for, after all, nobody knew better than he that "The Real American Folksong is a Rag".


1920, and in Europe fragile peace had finally frayed and the changes of war had returned. In the Middle East, change brought about rebellion which brought about yet more change. And in Russia the Bolsheviks had gained complete change and thus changed forever the face of world politics…

In Paris, Amadeo Modigliani had died young and poor, while in Brooklyn, New York, George Gershwin was about to become young and rich.

A new era was about to begin…and for George Gershwin, 1920 was to be the seminal year, the year when the unpredictable wheel of change began the transformation of a Jewish piano-pounder into an American genius…

For 1920 ushered in the Jazz Age in America, and the new age was celebrated to the strains of "Swanee".
Written by George Gershwin and Irving Caesar in 1917, and recorded by Al Jolson in 1920, it became one of America's greatest ever hit songs. In truth, it was little more than an American one-step, a dance tune following hot on the heels of "Hindustan", that contained all the elements of the popular American music of the day…But it also contained the unmistakable strains of Russian-Jewish folk song…It could equally well have been a lament sung about the River Volga rather than the Swanee.

As it was, it became a celebration of the recognition of a new American song-writing supremo. George became a rich man overnight.

With fortune came freedom. And freedom for George meant freedom to explore his musical heritage. And to create a new one wrought by change and the combination of all the forms he had learned.

If Irving Berlin had taken from Stephen Foster, had zionised the music and then blackened it until it became "Alexander's Ragtime Band", then George Gershwin had synthesised that process and created "Swanee".

And in the process he had begun the creation of the first
real tradition of real American music.