That dream was of increase and plenty: achievement unalloyed. The art of youth appears incarnate in this artist who wrote “Swanee” when not yet 21; it was recorded by Al Jolson some months later, on Jan. 8, 1920. This “first act” sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and it would prove a sturdy rung on the ladder of success. Then, by the time of Rhapsody, something somehow happened that lifted the composer from the creation of the ordinary—jazz and Dixieland and torch songs and dance tunes, no matter how inventive—to the extraordinary. It transpired at that moment in our history when the audience was ready to shift allegiance from the march-along music of the 19th century to the blues-tinged anthem of a new America. Through an alchemical process we recognize after-the-fact but can neither render formulaic nor by sheer will repeat, he was joining his own genius to the nation’s genius. From “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” to the blues of W.C. Handy, from klezmer music and the stride piano of Fats Waller to the jazz of Jelly Roll Morton, from Tin Pan Alley to The Cotton Club in Harlem, contemporary idioms were added to the crucible; the perform-for-hire aspects of Gershwin’s early efforts became an original fusion and—to pursue the trope of alchemy—transmuted into gold. From the son of Russian immigrants, a new American art form emerged.
As songwriter, composer, performer, Gershwin has few if any equals in this nation’s history, and none who came to prominence so young. When I asked William Bolcom—himself no small musical presence—to name a great American opera, he said there were six of them. And their names were “Porgy and Bess,” “Porgy and Bess,” “Porgy and Bess,” “Porgy and Bess,” “Porgy and Bess” and, finally, “Porgy and Bess.”
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The range of Gershwin’s endeavors was wide, the scope of achievement broad. Though single-minded in his focus on a career in music, he had other interests as well. He rode and swam and golfed and boxed with omnivorous enthusiasm, he danced and played tennis with skill. The profession of composer is a sedentary one, and his athletic diversions no doubt served as physical release from long hours at the keyboard: a kind of counterpoint. He read, he liked to travel, he wrote with colloquial flair. He was a serious amateur painter and, soon enough, a collector.
No matter what Gershwin engaged in he engaged it fully. His appetites were large. Such hunger was not literal, however; he was meticulous about his diet and to the end of his brief life stayed slim. (His digestive problems and his “nervous stomach” were well known and much discussed; it’s possible, indeed, that the friends and doctors who failed to pay attention to his complaints of failing health ascribed to hypochondria and even to hysteria what was a mortal condition.) Yet the prevailing recollections of his acquaintances and friends attest to a sweetness of nature, a life-of-the-party brio and love of entertainment. All such accounts speak of his conviviality. If there were a piano in the room, he’d sit and improvise, then launch into a song. Music poured forth from Gershwin in full flood and at the slightest prompting: no hint of reticence here. His was a compulsion to perform.
Here’s a bare-bones summary of the curtain call. On the evening of July 9, 1937, George Gershwin collapsed and lapsed into a coma; he was rushed to Cedars of Lebanon hospital, where he was at long last diagnosed with a brain tumor. There were frantic efforts to secure the most accomplished surgeons and neurologists; special planes were commandeered for transcontinental flights. A medical team assembled and did what then seemed possible, but the patient never regained consciousness. On July 11, 1937, at the age of 38, and after a five-hour operation, the composer died.
There seems no outer limit to what he might have accomplished; the trajectory he dreamed of was always, only up. George Gershwin did pass through the stages of age, yet he did so much more urgently than those whose time encompasses a fifth or ninth decade. Since the desired end point is the same—a masterpiece—the creative artist whose sojourn is brief must work at a more rapid pace. The least Gershwin did was more than most, his best as good as anything the period can claim. "Art is long and life is brief," perhaps, but when the art of youth transacts its blithe transformational magic, both art and life are both.
This essay is adapted from The Art of Youth: Crane, Carrington, Gershwin, and the Nature of First Acts, by Nicholas Delbanco, out now from New Harvest.