George Gershwin

A Jazzified Genius


Boyhood and Early Career

Born September 26, 1898 as Jacob Gershvin, Gershwin was the son of immigrants. His family bought an upright piano (see right) secondhand, so that his brother, Ira, who later collaborated with George on multiple works, could learn the instrument. George, however, demonstrated unbelievable musical talent. It was determined that he would study under the instructor Charles Hambizer, who would not take payment for lessons because of his talent.

When Gershwin dropped out of school at 15 years of age, he made money by making piano rolls for player pianos (pianos that can be played without assistance from a human using a rotating roll with a sort of "code" for music). He also played the piano in nightclubs in New York and landed a job as a "song-plugger" (someone who plays songs for publishers) on Tin Pan Alley in New York.

While still a teenager, he played as an accompanist for singers and a rehearsal accompanist for Broadway shows.

Composing Music

George Gershwin published his first piece, "When You Want 'Em You Can't Get 'Em," in 1919. The same year, he published his first piano solo, "Rialto Ripples." Soon, people involved in Broadway productions began to pay attention to Gershwin, and his song "Swanee" was sung by Al Jolson in the musical Sinbad. This song sold over two million recordings and one million sheet music copies!

Gershwin continued to write Broadway songs, and also wrote songs for a yearly television show, Scandals. Here, he was asked by the conductor of the orchestra pit to compose a piece for a concert. According to legend, Gershwin had forgotten about this until a newspaper article that stated he would be writing a piece reminded him! He had about one three weeks to compose the work, and ended up with "Rhapsody in Blue." This piece is one of his most famous works.

After this, George wrote multiple classic Broadway tunes with his brother, Ira, who wrote the lyrics. These songs include "I Got Rhythm," "'S Wonderful," and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off."


George Gershwin (left) was diagnosed with a brain tumor at the age of 38 and died during surgery on July 11, 1937.

Famous Work

"Rhapsody in Blue" may very well be Gershwin's most acclaimed and respected work. If legend is correct, Gershwin wrote this piece in only about three weeks. yet it ended up being arguably one of the greatest classic American compositions of all time! It is used in many things even today! For instance, United Airlines is very famous for using this piece in their commercials. This piece is a very interesting mix of jazz and classical music, with difficult notes and rhythms for musicians. The link below takes you to a segment from this composition.

Gershwin's Significance to America

George Gershwin wrote many phenomenal songs that are extremely notable in Broadway as well as jazz culture. His compositions are included in many classic musicals that practically define America. For example, An American in Paris, a movie featuring entirely his songs, is a very well known musical that shows how a very American painter functions in Paris. The painter, played by Gene Kelly, is a great example of American pride. Everyone loves this fun, smart, happy young artist in the movie.

George Gershwin's more classical pieces, like "Rhapsody in Blue," are a great example of crossings between classical and jazz music. These pieces that are recognized by so many people demonstrated the classical music that has been a part of America since our founding, and the "modern," exciting jazz music that was starting to become very famous in the 1920s.

At the time, Gershwin was very well known and loved by many. He was the composer of many famous pieces. Gershwin became wealthy practically overnight from his hit "Swanee." His music defined their culture of the era.

Today, Gershwin is still remembered and respected by many, especially musicians. His genius pieces that he began publishing as a teenager are still remembered and played constantly. One musical, Nice Work if You Can Get It, premiered on Broadway in 2012 and is still playing today. This musical showcases many of his amazing pieces. If a musical could come out so recently honoring his songs, he must have been very important to America's culture.

George Gershwin Vs Steven Schwartz

Steven Schwartz (left), like George Gershwin, is a composer of music for Broadway. Schwartz has composed the music for many musicals including Wicked and Pippin, and has written songs for movies such as Disney's Pocahontas. These men both are famous for their musical theater compositions. However, there are obvious differences between Schwartz and Gershwin. For instance, Schwartz writes both music and lyrics, whereas Gershwin wrote music. They also both have very different styles of music. Schwartz's compositions have a serious pop base to them, whereas Gershwin's compositions have a serious jazz base. This is likely due to the era in which songs were written. When Gershwin was composing, jazz music was popular, so he wrote pieces with a jazz feel. Now, Schwartz is composing, and pop music is popular, so he writes pieces with a pop feel. In a way, this makes them similar. They both followed the trends of their time, which probably was a major factor in marketing to appeal to the audience.

Schwartz and Gershwin do not have major similarities in terms of musicality in their compositions. However, there are simple nuances that one may be able to pick up on in both of their works. In many pieces, such as Schwartz's "Magic To Do" and Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," the song starts out slow, and progresses to a steady upbeat tempo. In both composer's pieces one can also find serious repetition. For instance, in Schwartz's "No One Mourns the Wicked," one can find a series of constantly repeated phrases underneath the melody. In Gershwin's "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," one can find the same phrases repeated again and again with little variances. Listen to the pieces below to try to pick up on the similarities.

Magic To Do - Pippin (New Broadway Cast Recording)
Rhapsody In Blue: Gershwin