New York City in the 1920's was a musical melting pot and quite possibly the most vibrant city on Earth, the meeting place of a myriad of nationalities and cultures, each with their own musical traditions. The most pervasive of these were European classical and folk coming in with the Atlantic liners and the African influence in the form of blues, ragtime and spirituals coming up from the Deep South. Add to this fertile soil the seeds of genius and you have the music of George and Ira Gershwin.
George and Ira's songs, the vast majority of which were written for Broadway musicals and reviews, capture the heart and soul of early 20th century America, and are as much loved today as they ever were. Their first major success came in 1919 in the shape of Swanee, made famous by Al Jolson. In many ways this is not a typical Gershwin composition, but it marks the beginning of a creative outpouring which culminated for many in their most ambitious project, the 1934 stage musical PORGY AND BESS, written with DuBose Heyward, whose original novel inspired the work. Set in a run-down black tenement, Catfish Row, it gave George the chance to experiment with the African-American musical styles which had fascinated and inspired him for so long. Strange as it seems now, the production was a box office flop, and, in what turned out to be the last few years of his life, George turned his attention to writing for the era's new phenomenon, the Hollywood movie-musical, where this essentially serious composer proved himself more than a match for any of his tunesmith rivals.
In her 1994 biography of George, Jane Erb sums up his musical style as follows :
".......a personal digestion of European, jazz and black styles, characterized by melodies at once catchy and beautiful, accentuated by wonderfully complex rhythmic patterns". ( For her full biography click this link ). I can't better that description, but will simply add that the world lost quite possibly the greatest songwriter of the 20th century when George died tragically young of a brain tumour in 1937, at the age of 39.
George thought that immortality, and possibly respectability, lay in the world of classical music, and he wrote many works in this vein, the most famous of which is the wonderfully evocative 1924 crossover piece RHAPSODY IN BLUE, the unique sound of which encapsulates the dynamic optimism of 1920's urban America. The work established George as a serious composer with the musical establishment, but merely confirms his status as a genius, a status which he and Ira earned many times over through their songs.