Jazz Birthday: George Gershwin (1898)

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I check definitions constantly, and sometimes I depart from them intentionally in order to express a concept. In this case, I don’t have to. One web definition of entrepreneur says: “A promoter in the entertainment industry.” That makes George Gershwin and many other jazz musicians who promote themselves entrepreneurs. Gershwin left school at age 15 and got a job as a song plugger at $15 a week. That was good pay. It was the national average salary at the time. There was, by the way, no minimum wage. The national debt was about $12.50 per person. That’s twelve dollars and fifty cents. Today, it’s $51,000 a person, and that excludes off-balance sheet debt. I prefer a broader definition of entrepreneur: “An entrepreneur is an enterprising individual who builds capital through risk and/or initiative.” This accurately describes one aspect of most jazz musicians.

“I like a Gershwin tune, how about you?” In his book on American Popular Song, Alec Wilder has single chapters on only six composers. Gershwin is one of them. Many of his songs have become jazz standards. Numerous jazz artists have recorded and performed versions of “I Got Rhythm”, “Someone to Watch Over Me”, “Summertime”, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”, “‘S Wonderful”, “Embraceable You”, “But Not For Me”, “Who Cares”, “Fascinating Rhythm”, (with brother Ira) “A Foggy Day”, “Lady Be Good”, (with brother Ira), “The Man I Love”, “Nice Work If You Can Get It”, “Somebody Loves Me”,  and “I’ve Got a Crush on You”. Numerous jazz songs utilize the chord changes in “I Got Rhythm” wholly or partly. There are at least half a dozen recorded jazz versions of “Porgy and Bess”, including those by Mel Tormé, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis and Gil Evans, Mundell Lowe, Oscar Peterson, and Joe Henderson. Jazz musicians know how to take Gershwin. Not everyone does.  Gershwin himself plays in this rare video clip from 1931, with great verve, virtuosity and improvisation.

7:30 am on September 26, 2012
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