Lecturer Nurit Jugend and pianist Ellen Hoffman look ahead to The Gershwin Legacy: A Celebration of His (S’Wonderful) Music and Life Saturday, November 17, from 7:30-9 p.m. at the JCC East Bay in Berkeley. Ronit Widmann-Levy — a soprano singer — will also play a key role at the event.
Go here for program and registration details.
Nurit Jugend, Lecturer and Composer
How will this event be different than other musical events?
This event is unique in its multi-media collaborative nature. It’s an intertwined presentation/live performance of songs and demonstrations of various aspects of Gershwin’s unique style with visuals of rare videos and photos. (rather than the usual format of a pre-concert lecture followed by a concert).
What are some of Gershwin’s less known accomplishments?
His artistic ability in painting; that the famous and well-known first American opera – Porgy and Bess – was received poorly at first by the audience and critics; and how desperately he tried to receive formal education of ‘serious’ classical music but was turned down by everyone.
How did the program at the JCC East Bay come together — quite a talented group of performers/presenters?
Ronit (the singer) and I were in the same class in high school Wizo – in Haifa in a special music program (for three years). In school, Ronit performed one of my very first compositions before I knew I would become a composer. We each went our separate ways and pursued a music career. After over 20 years, we bumped into one another on a plane returning from Israel to California. We discovered that we live 15 minutes from one another. It was only natural for us to collaborate again. It feels like ‘home’.
Ellen Hoffman, Pianist
How does Gershwin’s music influence us today?
As a working jazz musician, as a music teacher, and as a pianist who plays for jazz singers and with jazz ensembles frequently, it’s a fact that Gershwin influences me – and many other musicians, teachers, and students of jazz – continually!
Here are a few specific examples:
(1) For years, I have been directing open mics. In a typical Open mic evening (usually 20 to 30 performers), at least two or three people step up to the mic and want to do a Gershwin tune. Usually the well-known tunes, like “Summertime,” and some of the lovely ballads or swing tunes – but sometimes even the lesser known tunes are heard at open mic. For example, ”Little Jazz Bird.” I would say that George Gershwin is definitely one of the most frequently heard composers at my open mics (perhaps along with Irving Berlin as #2).
(2) I teach jazz piano. At a certain point, serious jazz students need to learn “rhythm changes”. “Rhythm changes” are a specific progression of chords that form the basis of Gershwin’s famous tune ”I Got Rhythm.” Jazz musicians improvise on these all the time. When one becomes fluent, “playing rhythm changes,” it’s somewhat akin to a rite of passage – similar to playing “the blues”.
(3) How do you describe Gershwin tunes? Perhaps like this: terrific melodies, charming harmonies, clever classic lyrics, and a “great marriage” between lyrics and music. When one talks about quality, then it’s easy to understand why Gershwin songs endure and are still performed so often! Go to any nightclub, any cabaret, any music festival or house concert where jazz is performed – and chances are, some Gershwin music is being played, either an instrumental or vocal version. Plus – go to any pop choral concert – college, high school, etc. – and it’s a good bet that some Gershwin will be heard.
Why does Tony Bennett (timeless singer of the Great American SongBook - who is still making hit records today when he in his 80s) produce duet albums including Gershwin songs with artists like Lady Gaga and Dianna Krall ? Because he loves these songs, and he knows his audience – a mixture of older and younger people - will also.
(4) About 15 years ago, I heard an album that excited me so much that I sent it as a present to my folks. It was an album called ”Gershwin’s World,” and the album’s artist was Herbie Hancock, the brilliant innovative jazz pianist and composer. Herbie took several well-known Gershwin tunes and re-invented them, putting his own marvelous interpretations both as an arranger and a pianist. He invited some terrific artists to participate who are well known and highly respected in other genres of music – (including Stevie Wonder, pop singer/composer, and Joanie Mitchell, folk singer and writer) and together they presented some memorable new versions of Gershwin tunes.
(5) I’ll mention just one more example: Porgy & Bess. Of course this “American folk opera” is considered to be one of Gershwin’s great masterpieces. Not only musically, but as a force for social and cultural change in the U.S. as well. I’m sure that Norit can explain what happened when the Met first turned down Gershwin’s request to produce this, for various reasons. Economic reasons, sociological, and racial issues too all played a part in what happened. Gershwin was way ahead of his time, and stuck to his concept that this had to be an all African-American cast. The rest is history, and I don’t need to recreate it here.
However, it’s also important to mention that aside from the important cultural and sociological implications of this ground-breaking American opera, the music itself – and the story – is so magnificent that other musicians have also felt compelled to do their own versions too. The great jazz composer and arranger Gil Evans wrote a superb version of Porgy & Bess, featuring Miles Davis as the solo. This music is terrific – and breathtaking in its originality.
When one considers how many years ago Gershwin was alive writing music, and then hears Herbie Hancock’s “Gershwin’s World” and Gil Evan’s “Porgy,” it’s impressive to realize that all these years later, this great music is still having a strong influence on the writers of today. Even people who do not ordinarily listen to jazz will be amazed and impressed at the influence (and evolution) of Gershwin’s music!