What is the soul of America? It’s a question that engaged the composer George Gershwin nearly a century before it became a part of the 2020 American election, as we learn in this fascinating and lovely hour of biography and song, part of the 50th anniversary season of the 92nd Street Y’s Lyrics and Lyricists series.
To Gershwin, the voice of the American soul was jazz – although he acknowledged that everybody seemed to have a different definition for jazz, and “jazz” was not the only thing on which Americans could not agree. Even “serious” and “classical” music were ill-defined (as they continue to be, judging from a text book on composers that I recently reviewed.)
“From any sound critical standpoint, labels mean nothing at all,” Gershwin wrote. “Good music is good music, even if you call it ‘oysters.’”
I may have started watching “George Gershwin: Bidin’ My Time,” which is available online through November 25th, as a way of, well, biding my time…a form of escape. I was hoping simply for some transporting music. The music certainly transports, but the program wound up being something of a reaffirmation of American culture; yes, maybe even of American soul.
Paul Masse, the artistic director, script writer, and pianist for the series, gathered together six glorious singers to breeze through the quintessential American composer’s music, but also his life, his attitudes, his thoughts.
We hear a song identified (all the songs are labeled with title and date of composition) as “Melody in F. Anton Rubinstein, 1912.” And then we hear a memory from Gershwin about how much that melody mesmerized him as a child (in a passage recited by Zachary Prince, in-between Prince’s singing): “To this very day I can’t hear the tune without picturing myself outside that arcade on 125th Street standing there barefoot and in overalls drinking it all in avidly.”
We learn from his brother Ira (again recited by Prince) that although George spent most of his day at the piano, “he lived a full day….it was a continual source of amazement to me that he found time to engage in so many other activities. He was a fine painter, a good golfer, a discerning and courageous art collector, an excellent photographer, a wonderful dancer, whether at a ballroom or taking a moment out of a show rehearsal to break into a tap dance, and socially, he was one of the most sought after young men in New York or whatever city he happened to be in. George lived fast, moved fast, and learned fast.”
As if to underscore the suggestion of sexual allure, the passage is immediately followed by Allison Blackwell’s singing the 1923 “I won’t say I will, but I won’t say I won’t,” with its suggestive lyrics:
Kissing of any kind
Never was on my mind.
Maybe I can arrange it
It’s my mind, and I can change it.
Ira also offers an anecdote about serving in a jury and finding for the defendant, after which one of the lawyers for the plaintiff approached him. He expected a lecture; instead he got a question: Which comes first, the words or the music?
Ira answered him (and us) it depends, sometimes it’s words, sometimes it’s music, sometimes they arrive simultaneously. “What comes first,” Ira concludes, “is the contract.”
This segues into Farah Alvin singing the clever, 1931 song “Blah, Blah, Blah,” a kind of self-parody
Blah blah blah blah moon
Blah blah blah above
Blah blah blah blah croon
Blah blah blah blah love
We learn the backstage story of “Porgy and Bess” from the opera stars who originated the lead roles Todd Duncan and Anne Brown (in passages recited by James T. Lane and Allison Blackwell – who also sing some of the glorious arias, including “Summertime.”) Gershwin insisted on an all-Black cast, rejecting one of the biggest (white) stars of the day, Al Jolson, who had expressed interest.
We learn where George Gershwin got his ideas – and it sounds very American.
“Though I am a great lover of nature, none of my music comes from viewing detached scenes, no matter how beautiful or inspiring they may be. Most of my ideas come with contact with people, from personalities and emotions of men and women I meet.”
Many of the songs in “George Gershwin: Bidin’ My Time” are familiar (many are not), but even the lyrics of a familiar song like I Got Rhythm seemed to take on new resonance to me, thanks to current events
Old man trouble, I don’t mind him
You won’t find him ’round my door
“Gershwin: Bidin’ My Time” is the first of a series of five Lyric and Lyricists concerts this season, each for $15, each available for a month after its debut
Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt: Simple Little Things
Premiering Mon, Nov 9, 2020,
Rodgers, Rodgers and Guettel: Statues and Stories
Premiering Mon, Nov 23, 2020
Jules Styne and his many lyricists: Distant Melody
Premiering Mon, Dec 7, 2020,
The Theme From….Songs Written for Film
Premiering Mon, Dec 14, 2020,