When Gershwin wrote “I Got Rhythm” for the 1930’s musical Girl Crazy, he couldn’t have known what effect he had on the direction of jazz for years to come. The chord progressions and simple rhythm changes presented in “I Got Rhythm” have become second nature in the most common harmonic structure of jazz.
It was 1930, and the Gershwin brothers were working on the score of Girl Crazy, their next Broadway show. The chorus of the song, based on a syncopated four-note figure, was cast in standard 32-bar AABA form with a two-bar tag. Of the seventeen lines in the lyrics of its chorus, thirteen are set to the same four-note figure, a rhythmic cell that hits only one of the four strong beats in the two bars it covers.
For Ira (George’s brother and lyricist), “rhythm” in this song was tied up with aggressive, accented, syncopated groupings of beats. Together the music and lyrics would create a catchy tune that would become something so great in very little time.
Within ten days of the opening of Girl Crazy on the 14th, three significant recordings of “I Got Rhythm” were made.
“On the 20th, Freddie Rich, conductor of the CBS Radio Orchestra, recorded it with a group under his own name. On the 23d, Red Nichols and His Five Pennies—all thirteen of them, and including Goodman, Krupa, Miller, and other members of the Girl Crazy pit band, plus vocalist Dick Robertson—made their own version. And on the 24th, one of New York’s best black bands, Luis Russell and His Orchestra, recorded another version. Each can be taken to represent the beginning of a different approach to Gershwin’s number: (1) “I Got Rhythm” as a song played and sung by popular performers; (2) “I Got Rhythm” as a jazz standard , a piece known and frequently played by musicians, black and white, in the jazz tradition; and (3) “I Got Rhythm” as a musical structure , a harmonic framework upon which jazz instrumentalists, especially blacks, have built new compositions.”
The endurance and progression of popularity in the jazz tradition expanded largely due to its extensive use by early bebop musicians. The chords were first used in 1930s and developed into a popular jazz standard. “I Got Rhythm” became extremely common in the ’40s and ’50s when composers listened to the song and wrote a new melody over its chord changes, thereby creating a contrafact- a new melody overlaid on a familiar harmonic structure. Gershwin’s influence in jazz music is now ubiquitous. In Robert Wyatt’s book The George Gershwin Reader,
Popular musicians like Sidney Bechet, Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker started to imitate Gershwin’s style.
1 Crawford, Richard. “George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” (1930).” The American Musical Landscape. University of California Press. 1993. Web. 23 Mar. 2015. <http://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft0z09n7gx&chunk.id=d0e6504&toc.id=d0e14086&brand=ucpress>.
2 Wyatt, Robert. “George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” (1930).” The George Gershwin Reader. New York: Oxford UP, 2004. 156-172. Print.