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September 26: the 119th Anniversary of George Gershwin’s birthday

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If there was ever a composer who perfectly married the world of classical music and jazz music, it was George Gershwin. Despite his natural jazz chops, he spent much of his career wanting to be “legit” by classical standards. He hung around the Tin Pan Alley district, in New York City, where a cluster of sheet music publishers and vaudeville performers hung out, all hustling songs to sell. George demonstrated a serious flair for music early on. He composed songs and jazz melodies at an early age, teaming up with his brother Ira, a lyricist. His big break happened when famous Broadway singer Al Jolson heard “Swanee” and sang it at one of his shows. The song became a classic, later sung by Judy Garland.

George’s career was doing well, but he wanted to get a solid foundation in technique and music theory, and sought instruction from the leading classical composers and teachers of the time like Nadia Boulanger, Igor Stravinsky, and Maurice Ravel. The first two declined, not wanting to “sully” George’s creative genius with firm classical music rules. Rumour has it one of the last two asked George how much he made, and upon hearing the amount, quipped “then I should be taking lessons from you.” Yet another rumour persists that George circulated the anecdotes himself!

The call of the movies had George moving to Hollywood where he composed the score for the film “Shall We Dance”, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, among many film projects. He suddenly took ill and died tragically young, age 38, of a brain tumour. His musical legacy is immense: songs, film scores, orchestra works, solo piano works, and musicals. “Rhapsody in Blue” is one of his most popular works, but the slightly lesser-known “Concerto in F” is like its alter ego – a bit darker, edgier, with a relentless drive to the finish. Incredibly, there is footage of George himself performing snippets of it.

George, always wanting to be better, definitely “made a lady out of jazz”.

George Gershwin was born September 26, 1898 in New York City, and died July 11, 1937, in Los Angeles.

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