Oversimplification of Porgy and Bess

George Gershwin is credited with creating a truly American sound, through the fusion of jazz elements and concert elements. Too often, his works are taken for granted and placed on a pedestal by later listeners who seek to find what is “good” and what is “American”, or are simply repeating the mantra previously espoused. A simple example of this is a quote from the Manitou Messenger from 1950. In describing the music for a St. Olaf Band concert, the author states that “Concluding the program are some familiar selections from “Porgy and Bess” by George Gershwin who is credited with having best expressed the modern American idiom.”

This statement seems to be thrown out lightly, in order to draw in audiences to the concert. While not inherently wrong, this simple statement fails to capture the turmoil of American identity represented by Porgy and Bess. The Manitou Messenger is far from alone in ascribing blanket claims to music. As seen in the history of blues, jazz, and folk music, we have yet (if ever) to define categorical sounds for each of those topics. Gershwin has entered the vernacular as a truly American composer, but historical context is necessary to frame this claim.

Ellen Noonan presents a holistic take on the history of performances of Porgy and Bess, and the politics involved with them. Because the Manitou Messenger  article was written in the 1950, I will look at Noonan’s commentary on the state of Porgy and Bess in the 1950s. Noonan takes a strong stance on the political motives of Porgy and Bess.

“This Cold War Porgy and Bess was not just any opera; it engendered debate on a range of issues about race, representation, and politics. With the State Department briefing cast members to “keep in mind what you’d like your folks at home to read in the press about what you say” and U.S. newspapers covering the tour’s every move, Porgy and Bess was as much an intervention in the domestic politics of race as it was an exercise in creative foreign policy” (187)

Musical elements aside, Porgy and Bess became a driving force in pushing what it meant to be American. As such, the music became accepted into the realm and began to define American music. Noonan goes on to argue that Porgy and Bess mirrors the struggles of black people in the growing era of the Civil Rights movements. The U.S. government’s “propaganda efforts (like the Porgy and Bess tour) intended to convince the world that incidents of racial discrimination and violence were exceptional rather than typical” (189). If this is true, then perhaps Porgy and Bess does represent American music–that which is filled with rich history and suffers from a constant watering down and manipulation to fulfill a national identity.

Wether the identity is organic or fabricated, Porgy and Bess has certainly lent itself to an American musical identity, and it is clear that the message of American greatness trickled down into local college newspapers. A greater understanding of the history of any music is necessary in order to more fully inform a claim for an individual to express “the modern American idiom”.

Bibliography

Gershwin, Bennett, Shaw, Merrill, Stevens, Bennett, Robert Russell, . . . RCA Victor Orchestra, performer. (1950). Porgy and Bess.

Flaten, Anne. “Berglund Directs St. Olaf Band In Winter Concert This Evening”. The Manitou Messenger, No. 15, Vol. 063. February 17, 1950.

Noonan, Ellen. The Strange Career of Porgy and Bess : Race, Culture, and America’s Most Famous Opera. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Accessed October 30, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Jazz: America’s Music

Manitou Messenger article by Allan Townsend 1956

In this article is presented a very enthusiastic and nationalistic view of jazz, which aligns with popular opinions today. The history of jazz has been quite romanticized over the past decades, but it hasn’t always been championed as the emblem of American music.   Jazz was a music that first emphasized the performer over the composer. It featured improvisation over conventional structure and overall was a very rebellious art form, both musically and socially. Racism at the time created a deep-seated opposition to jazz because its racial associations and untraditional aspects. Jazz went from an unacceptable and rebellious art form to America’s music. How did this happen? First there was a time where many people, including Oles thought that Jazz was an inferior and unsophisticated from of music. And a few decades later, it was celebrated as truly American music revering its original composers and performers.

Manitou Messenger  article by Soren Lura 1930

Soren Lura ’31, for example had a pretty popular opinion in his time towards jazz. His opinions reflect the opposition towards Jazz for its supposed barbaric and unconventional characteristics. He states that jazz is primitive and compared it to the music and dance of cavemen.  Oscar Overby, a guest speaker in 1931, also had a similar opinion to Lura with one exception.

Guest Speaker Oscar Overby

“Music develops the whole man physically, mentally and spiritually, and jazz only develops the physical…. However not all jazz is to be condemned. Some of it has good qualities which are being used in the modern school of composition.” ~Oscar Overby

Overby had an exception that jazz was not all that bad because certain qualities were being used in modern composition. This opinion reflected the racial prejudices and divide amongst people. So how did opinions of Jazz change from Overby and Lura to Townsend’s popular view? One explanation is exactly what Overby expressed. Many people might have become more welcoming to jazz as legitimate music when it was adapted for the concert hall. This again suggests that people were only accepting to what they thought of as the most prestigious and cultivated music and that there was a clear hierarchy in music.

George Gershwin composing

George Gershwin was known for his compositions to include jazz and blues idioms, however it was composed for an orchestra, or a small band, both already being established genres of music. Many of his compositions were highly regarded and became the symbol of truly American music. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue received much praise because if it’s unprecedented innovation in combining jazz and traditional styles, making it more palatable for white audiences. He of course received opposition as well, but over time, Rhapsody in Blue came to hold a permanent place in American music. It is interesting that as soon as a white man redefined black music for white audiences, it was celebrated.

Rhapsody Album Cover

In the recording of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, in the album, Rhapsody: Ferrante and Teiche and their Magic Pianos, there are elements of jazz and concert music. Firstly, the parts are written out, ignoring the improvisational aspect of jazz.  It was also meant to performed in a concert hall, instead of settings like speakeasies or rent parties, which ironically, Gershwin frequented. Based on its popularity and number of performances, Rhapsody in Blue popularized jazz for those who otherwise disapproved of it.

 

liner notes from album

Gershwin’s “cultivated” jazz also contributed to what people adopted as America’s sound. Gershwin’s work was so popular because he combined “low” music with modern music and provided America with a sound that was independent of European influence…even though we know it wasn’t.  This shows that even as people were struggling to define truly American music, they still turned to the belief that European styles were superior.  It is important to acknowledge these problematic issues because they contribute to the misrepresentation and erasure of a culture’s art and innovation.

Works Cited

ClassicFM. George Gershwin and the Art of America.

Ferrante and Teicher and their Magic Pianos. Rhapsody, Belleville, NJ. 1955.

Lura, Soren. “The Jazz Mania.” Manitou Messenger , 25 Nov. 1930, pp. 2.

“Oscar R. Overby Speaks on Jazz.” Manitou Messenger , 28 Apr. 1931, pp. 1.

“Rhapsody in Blue.” Nonesuch Records Inc. Nov. 1992.

Townsend, Allan. “An Introduction to Jazz.” Manitou Messenger , 3 Feb. 1956, pp. 3.

Mingus’ Epitaph: Jazz or Classical?

Many people write epitaphs, either for themselves or in honor of the death of another person. They are usually short texts meant to be inscribed on tombstones. Rarely does someone write a jazz composition that is over 4000 measures long and takes more than two hours to perform for their epitaph. To my knowledge, Charles Mingus has been the only person to create a jazz piece of such epic proportions.

Attempting to record the piece for the first time, however, was fraught with problems from the beginning. First developed in 1962, Mingus conceived this project as a “live workshop” with a big band for newly composed music. The plan was for him to write the music and record it with a live audience at The Town Hall in New York City. Thanks to United Artists Records, the deadline for the music was rescheduled five weeks earlier than originally planned. Mingus not only pushed himself to the limit, but the musicians as well, unleashing his notorious wrath upon them if he was not satisfied. As a result, the musicians were tense and fearful and the music was still being passed around during the live show. The Town Hall concert was so disastrous that Mingus never looked at the score again for the rest of his life.

In 1988, almost 10 years after his death, musicologist Andrew Homzy discovered the four foot high score for Epitaph. The first full-length recording was appropriately recorded after Mingus’ death and the 31 piece orchestra was conducted by Gunther Schuller at the Lincoln Center in 1989. Finally, Mingus’ magnum opus was fully realized.

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 19.56.07

[1]

The importance of this work could not be understated. As a review from the New Yorker stated, “It marks the first advance in the composition of large-scale jazz works since Duke Ellington’s 1943 Black, Brown and Beige” [2]. Even more than 50 years after its completion, the piece still stands certainly as one of Mingus’ most difficult works. However, it is difficult to classify it as predominantly jazz or classical. Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige as well as Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue are considered jazz symphonies, primarily classical compositions with jazz influences. Epitaph transcends this and becomes an integration of the jazz and classical forms rather than a work that contains influences of the other. As The Boston Phoenix appropriately states, “It’s uncategorizable. It has nothing to do anymore with ‘jazz’ or ‘classical’ music, or anything. It’s just Mingus” [3].


1. “NPR Presents Charles Mingus’ ‘Epitaph.'” Chicago Metro News, Sept. 30, 1989. http://www.infoweb.newsbank.com (Accessed April 6).
2. Balliett, Whitney. “Jazz: Mingus Regained.” The New Yorker, August 21, 1989. http://mingusmingusmingus.com/mingus-bands/epitaph (Accessed April 6).
3. The Boston Phoenix. http://mingusmingusmingus.com/mingus-bands/epitaph (Accessed April 6.)

Porgy and Bess: Controversy and Slow Progress

Controversy

First, a short history of Porgy and Bess.

The original “Highlights from Porgy and Bess” album, featuring cover art entirely at odds with the featured vocalists, white Met Opera stars Lawrence Tibbett and Helen Jepson.

In fall 1935, the galleries of Carnegie Hall rang for over four hours (including two intermissions) with the music of George Gershwin and the lyrics of DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin. The private concert performance was of a new project, a grand experiment combining jazz, blues, spirituals, arias, and recitatives in a work that Gershwin described as a “folk opera,” Porgy and Bess, based on the novel Porgy by Heyward. The show became problematic for many reasons: though technically an opera featuring trained opera singers, it played according to Broadway’s schedule; the composer Gershwin had never written anything of such magnitude; while the production featured an all-black cast telling an African-American story, the author/librettist Heyward was white; the entire production crew from the director down to the stagehands to the violinists in the pit was white. In fact, the “official cast album” was recorded just days after the opera’s Broadway opening. It featured not the show’s original African-American leads, Todd Duncan and Anne Brown, as the titular Porgy and Bess, but white Metropolitan Opera stars Lawrence Tibbett and Helen Jepson, who sat in on the last few rehearsals before opening night to learn the music. Producers felt the album would be more palatable to wide audiences and therefore sell better. (Sidebar: black performers were not allowed at the Met. Duncan and Brown did finally collaborate on a Porgy and Bess album in 1940/42.)

The original Catfish Row as seen at Broadway’s Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon Theatre) in 1935. Photo from the Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

Controversy continued to surround the show: the performers protested the racial segregation at their Washington, D.C., venue, the National Theatre. Thanks especially to the efforts of Todd Duncan (Porgy), Porgy and Bess played to the National Theatre’s first integrated audience. Many more stories could be told.

Let’s fast-forward a decade to 1943, when Warner Brothers was hard at work on their fictionalized biopic of George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue. Like most biopics, the storyline stretched the truth, creating two fictional romances for George, and served more as an homage to Gershwin than an accurate portrayal of his life, allowing the opportunity for full performances of Rhapsody in BlueConcerto in F, “I Got Rhythm,” “Swanee,” and many more Gershwin hits.

Slow Progress

One of those other hits was “Summertime.” Judging by producers’ earlier resistance to recording an African-American Bess, one might expect the producers to opt again for a white star. But they did not ask Helen Jepson to sing. They called in Anne Brown, the original Bess, to reprise her role.

But progress seems to be a slow journey. As Alyce Key relates in an article for the Los Angeles Tribune in 1943 (this third incarnation of the paper was an African-American paper started by Almena Lomax praised for its fearless reporting), Miss Brown’s appearance in Hollywood was “shrouded in . . . more secrecy” than the WWII meetings of FDR and Churchill in Tehran, Potsdam, and Yalta:

Alyce Key’s article from the Los Angeles Tribune, September 6, 1943.

Fun fact: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, $10,000 in 1943 is equal to $135,677.46 for one song. For comparison, Jennifer Lawrence got $500,000 for starring in The Hunger Games. The whole movie. $10,000 in 1943 was–and is–a lot of money for 3:40 of screen time.

As Alyce Key points out, people care. Gershwin cared enough to spend almost a decade working on Porgy and Bess. Todd Duncan cared enough to protest segregation at the National Theatre. The producers of Rhapsody in Blue cared enough to give Anne Brown a generous salary, but not enough to announce her involvement.

Progress, but slow progress. Maybe we just don’t care enough.

Hop on over to YouTube to check out Anne Brown’s reenacted performance of “Summertime”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WxGMWfC7tm8.


“Key Notes by Alyce Key.” Los Angeles Tribune, Sep 6, 1943. America’s Historical Newspapers, SQN: 12A55C9DAF0E8A10.

Schwartz, Charles. Gershwin: His Life and Music. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1973.

The ‘Practical Idealism’ of “Porgy and Bess”

The day after the premiere of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess at the Colonial Theatre in New York City, a review of the performance appeared in the New York Times that would both articulate the positive aspects of the opera while also aptly summarizing its importance to American music. A portion of the opening paragraph reads:

“An audience which assembled, uncertain whether they should find a heavy operatic work or something more resembling musical comedy, discovered a form of entertainment which stands midway between the two. The immediate response was one of enthusiasm that grew rather than diminished as the evening progressed.” [1]

In other words, Porgy and Bess was an immediate hit because it successfully bridged the gap between the styles of European grand opera and American musical theater in the style of tin-pan alley. By extension, Gershwin was cementing his reputation as the quintessential American composer: a perfect combination of elite artist and regular American. While this synthesis may appear to be a contradiction, there are a number of descriptions in this and other contemporaneous reviews that support this statement.

A scene from the original Broadway projection of “Porgy and Bess”.

 

From the New York Amsterdam News:

“The first act represents George Gershwin’s most serious writing. It is Gershwin struggling for a greater expression, endeavoring to transcend into the world of great music. Contrapuntally speaking, he does. This is evident in the crap game fugue.” [2]

The author (Allen Gilbert) goes on to compare Gershwin to “Brahms, Bach, or Beethoven” for his clarity of theme in symphonic writing, effectively lifting him into a pantheon of greatness. Yet, Gilbert goes on to call the second act a “let down”, describing it as a musical side-show that more resembles a smorgasbord of primitive American music (hot jazz, broadway ballads, negro spirituals) than it does the work of a grand master. He attributes to Gershwin a false quote suggesting that opera is for the “masses” but that they cannot understand it if it’s not dumbed down for them.

But it is the third act that truly shows Gershwin’s greatness, a “gathering together of the parts” that utilizes both ends of the spectrum without compromising on beauty and emotional power. It is with this in mind that the author crowns Gershwin as the “practical idealist”.

While this is a deserving title for the young composer, we can see quite clearly how mind-numbingly kitschy this is, yet another example of American determinism seeking out the next great musical representative for the U.S. of A. This is especially frustrating when we consider the most problematic yet simultaneously inspiring aspect of the work and its initial performances: its nearly all-Black cast. While the New York Times review emphasizes this historic achievement (even including it in the subtitle), the New York Amsterdam review doesn’t even mention it. The first lauds each cast member and the “characterizing detail” given to a normally inhuman and primitive setting; the latter lauds only Gershwin and his ability to humanize to black music without mention of the African Americans involved.

I don’t mean to suggest that Gershwin is responsible for this discrepancy, but it is worth remembering that in the evolving world of American art music in the early 1900s, Porgy and Bess may have been more akin to minstrelsy than to grand opera for many white audiences. Though an article in the Chicago Defender less than a month later claims that “race music is dignified” by Porgy and Bess, this primarily African-American viewpoint doesn’t necessarily reflect a popular perspective of the work. [3] While Gershwin’s “idealistic” genius and his roster of memorable songs is undoubtedly responsible for the works success, it is fascinating to see how the “practical” matters of the performances may have been ignored.


[1] Special to The New York Times. “Gershwin’s Opera Makes Boston Hit.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Oct 01, 1935. http://search.proquest.com/docview/101340968?accountid=351.

[2] Allen, Gilbert. “George Gershwin, Practical Idealist.” The New York Amsterdam News (1922-1938), Nov 16, 1935. http://search.proquest.com/docview/226210087?accountid=351.

[3] McMillan, Alan. “‘Porgy and Bess’ Scores on Broadway.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Oct 19, 1935. http://search.proquest.com/docview/492522466?accountid=351.

Music is My Mistress

“It’s not unlawful to sing or play any kind of music in the United States of America, no matter how good or bad it sounds. Jazz is based on the sound of our native heritage. It is an American idiom with African roots-a trunk of soul with limbs reaching in every direction, to the frigid North, the exotic East, the miserable, swampy South, and the swinging Wild West.”[1]

IMG_1022

Left- Duke Ellington’s autobiography; Right- Mercer Ellington’s memoir of his father

This passage from Duke Ellington’s autobiography, Music is my Mistress, hints at his plain writing style and his lifetime success in jazz. Ellington wrote his biography for the celebration of his 70th birthday in 1973, but its intent is not entirely clear. While he has a few revelations on music, God, and his Sacred conventions, to share, most of the book is spent listing the unique experiences he had and the many people that he worked with or that influenced him, all of whom are described as “good guys.” As Eileen Southern said in her book review in The Black Perspective in Music, “a great deal of essential data is missing…nowhere in the book is a hint of the pain Ellington must have experienced.”[2]

In contrast, his son Mercer Ellington wrote a memoir of his father that painted a much different picture of his life. Perhaps tainted by his experience of not seeing much of his father, Mercer summarizes some of the moments when Ellington was sidelined because of his race, such as when Ellington wrote Black, Beige, and Tan as a parallel and critique to African American history and received a patronizing response from critics or the many moments that Ellington had to prove his bands’ worth in comparison and competition with white jazz bands.

Perhaps the fact that Ellington left out the more bleak and tough moments of his life shows his view on protesting racial issues. Mercer quotes his father, “’I think a statement of social protest in the theater should be made without saying it.’”[3] His piece, Black Beige and Tan, and his 1963 cover of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue have undertones of critique on white appropriation of jazz by the virtuosity, styles, and stories that he implements, but they have to be inferred. Arguably, these conflicting accounts also show Ellington contributing to the white narrative of jazz. Ellington’s success was not only because of his talent as a musician and bandleader, but he did not outwardly fight the racist structures controlling his profession. Since his autobiography was published at a time when Ellington was celebrated by white audiences as a successful American jazz musicians, it makes sense that he chose to leave his African American experience out.

 

[1] Edward Kennedy Ellington, Music is my Mistress, (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1973), 436.

[2] Eileen Southern, “Reviewed Work: Music is My Mistress,” The Black Perspective in Music, 2, no. 2 (1974): 211-212.

[3] Mercer Ellington, Duke Ellington in Person: An Intimate Memoir, (Boston: Hougton Mifflin Company, 1978), 94.