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George Gershwin

Nationality: American

Born – Brooklyn, NY, September 26, 1898

Died – Los Angeles, CA, July 11, 1937

Period: Contemporary

George Gershwin was an American composer and pianist whose compositions spanned both popular and classical genres. His most popular melodies are widely known. Among his best known works are the orchestral compositions Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and An American in Paris (1928), as well as the opera Porgy and Bess (1935).

As a young boy, George showed little interest in music and spent the first few years of his life running around with his boyhood friends, roller skating and misbehaving in the streets. At the age of 10, he heard a violin recital given by a friend. The sound and the way his friend played captured his imagination and before long, George’s parents had purchased a piano so George and his older brother, Ira, could take lessons.

George quit going to school at the age of 15 and became a “song plugger” for a publishing firm on New York City’s Tin Pan Alley. He earned $15 a week selling newly published songs to passers-by. His first published song was When You Want 'Em, You Can't Get 'Em, When You've Got 'Em, You Don't Want 'Em. It was published in 1916 when Gershwin was only 17 years old and earned him $5. His 1917 novelty rag, Rialto Ripples, was a commercial success, and in 1919 he scored his first big national hit with the song, "Swanee."


The piece we chose for Music Memory this year is a song entitled “Summertime,” from Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess. This song has become a standard for sopranos in both opera and jazz, and illustrates how perfectly Gershwin was able to blend elements of the jazz idiom with the classical operatic form.

Listen first to the following recording by operatic soprano Kathleen Battle, singing with the Montréal Symphony under the direction of Charles Dutoit.



Now listen to one of greatest jazz vocalists the world has ever known, Ella Fitzgerald, accompanied in this recording by the Tee Carson Trio. The recording was made in February of 1968 when Ella was on tour in Berlin.





Tin Pan Alley / lullaby / song plugger


  1. Which of the two versions of Summertime you have just heard would be more likely to help you calm down so you could fall asleep; which would be more likely to wake you up?  Can you explain why?
  2. Do you think the $5 George Gershwin earned for publishing his first song in 1916 was fair payment? See if you can find the 2014 equivalent of $5 in 1916. Here’s an online calculator that will help you:

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