Jerome Kern: 1885-1945

by Joel Bernstein

Jerome David Kern (born January 27, 1885, New York, New York., Died November 11, 1945, New York, N. Y.) American Composer. First hit, "How'd You Like To Spoon With Me", 1905. Composed nearly 700 songs for 117 shows and films between 1905 and 1945.

Those are the bare bones-the statistics that cover the career of one of America's great composers of popular song. But the numbers can never sum up the contribution that Jerome Kern made to the American musical style. For Kern's romance with the musical theatre and film was to produce something new, a type of song unlike any theatre music before it.

When Jerome Kern started writing and plugging his songs at the turn of the century the majority of American Theatre music was strongly influenced by the European, or "Viennese" style. Victor Herbert was the master of this kind of writing. Kern's songs, on the other hand, used a fresh, uncontrolled approach to melody which was to modernize the American musical theatre. That's not to say that Kern's music was simple. On the contrary, he was always developing, always experimenting but there were always, as Alec Wilder has said, "those melodies, straight and healthy, and ever green."

Jerome Kern moved quickly from a rehearsal pianist and Tin Pan Alley song plugger to a writer whose music, by 1915, was represented in as many as seven or eight Broadway shows a season! Melody seemed to pour out of him and he was known to compose whole scores in a weeks time.

The 1920's score for the show SALLY represents a step forward in Kern's writing which incorporated much of the new dance music of the time. That show gave us Marilyn Miller singing "Look For The Silver Lining" which is as perfect an example of Kern's melodic purity as can be found. Like all truly great show music, the tune sings to us completely without the need for outside frills or fillers.

In 1925 Kern teamed up with lyricists Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II for the show SUNNY and gave us another great score which included the hit song "Who?" This early collaboration with Hammerstein was to lead to a lifelong friendship and professional relationship and, in 1927, to the best known Kern score, "Show Boat."

SHOW BOAT is a remarkable achievement. The show is based on an unlikely source for a musical, a novel by Edna Ferber, but Kern was a master at creating musical settings for the unusual. Of the shows eight songs, six have become all-time standards and three film versions of the show have been made. The songs have become associated with unforgettable stars like Helen Morgan, who appeared in the original production, Irene Dunne, Howard Keel, Lena Horne, and Paul Robeson, who will always be identified with "Old Man River."

Up till SHOW BOAT most musicals were judged not by their originality and quality but by how much the audience laughed and whistled along. So imagine the risk involved for all those concerned with the creation of SHOW BOAT when instead of the curtain rising on a happy chorus line of dancing boys and girls in colorful costumes the audience was greeted instead by a chorus of Blacks, hauling huge bales of cotton and wearily chanting a song of their frustration. But SHOW BOAT was a hit thanks to the brilliance of the music and the literacy and humanity of its book and lyrics. The show was a turning point in musical theatre that in 2 1/2 moving hours crumbled the stereotypes of the American musical stage.

Kern's melodies continued to flow and in 1934 he went to Hollywood to work on the filming of his Broadway show ROBERTA. From this time on he devoted himself to the film musical though he did return to Broadway every so often. His last Broadway show in 1939, VERY WARM FOR MAY, was a dismal flop due to the inferior book, but it produced a fine score which included the song "All The Things You Are." It is said that there were only 22 people in the audience for the second nights performance and the fact that Kern's song survived such a debacle only attests to the greatness of his music.

In Hollywood he met nothing but success. Working with talents like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and lyricists Otto Harbach and Dorothy Fields, Kern produced some of his most haunting and memorable songs.

"Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" from ROBERTA was originally written as an up tempo, instrumental tap dance routine. Lyricist Otto Harbach found the tune among some of Kern's unrevised scores and suggested with some alteration it might work as a ballad and the result is the song we know today-one of Kern's biggest hits.

You know that the score of SWING TIME had to have been written with Fred Astaire in mind. The music captures all the movement and grace of Astaire's style. "A Fine Romance", with its marvelously witty Iyric by Dorothy Fields, is a delight and lends itself to a jazz feeling better than most Kern tunes. "The Way You Look Tonight", also introduced by Astaire, won the Oscar for best song in 1936.

In 1941, Kern and Hammerstein teamed up to write a song for a city which had just been occupied by Nazi Germany. "The Last Time I Saw Paris" was dedicated to Noel Coward and introduced by Ann Southern in the film LADY BE GOOD.

Jerome Kern's romance with the American musical and melody has surely brought us some of our finest songs. He, more than any other composer, has influenced the direction and inspired the creation of the first truly American musical theatre. Oscar Hammerstein II summed it up best when he wrote of Kern ". . . he devoted all his lifetime to giving the world something it needs and knows it needs-beauty."

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