By Larry Starr
Yale University Press, 2011
‘Listening with a fresh ear to the American chorus of sounds, I should say that American life is nervous, hurried, syncopated, ever accelerando, and slightly vulgar.’
So wrote George Gershwin himself in 1927, in an article entitled ‘Jazz is the Voice of the American Soul’; and it’s interesting that he puts the emphasis firmly on speed, on moving forward and not looking back, on openness and inclusion. These are American qualities and virtues, and they are to be found in Howard Hawk’s films, in Raymond Chandler’s novels, in Gershwin’s music.
Shakespeare, too, could be vulgar – and more than slightly so – there is as much slang and bawdiness as poetry to be found in his plays. On completing Larry Starr’s fine study, you realise that Gershwin was an artist of the same order as the Bard. His style arose out of a mix of classical, jazz and blues influences and these were so intermingled in his work that it is virtually impossible to isolate them. He was a composer who wrote successfully for stage and screen and he had numerous hits with popular songs. And his critically acclaimed instrumental works included Rhadpsody in Blue (1924) and An American in Paris (1928). Yet as an artist he was always developing and moving forward, as Of Thee I Sing (1931), Let ‘Em Eat Cake (1933) and Porgy and Bess (1935) bear witness. All of which makes his death at the early age of 38 all the more tragic.
This book is a compelling, constantly engaging read and the second chapter in particular, ‘In Search of Gershwin’s Style’, could hardly be improved upon. Throughout, each page carries an insight or astute remark relating to Gershwin’s work; and every medium and genre he worked in is touched upon, whether it be Broadway musical, opera, film, popular song or classical concert. There is a robust defence of Porgy and Bess, which reminds us that some of Shakespeare’s works – Othello, The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest – have been regarded as problematic too. So there’s yet another parallel here.
If you enjoy Gershwin’s work, in whatever form, and want to deepen your understanding of it, then Starr’s book is an ideal port of call. The final sentence is a just summation of the artist: Yes, he belongs to the ages. That pretty much says it all.