Gershwin As Pianist

We’re familiar with Gershwin as a composer, of hundreds of songs, of a handful of remarkable concert works, and of a groundbreaking opera.  But few alive today heard him firsthand as a pianist. 

The reports of his playing are legion.  Many stories tell of his seemingly endless party-going.  If there was a piano at the party, George would find his way to the piano bench and remain there, as the center of attention, for the rest of the evening.  He played numerous public concerts, touring first with the Whiteman band following the Rhapsody in Blue premiere.  He later toured much wider, playing with many US orchestras during the ten years following the Rhapsody – often playing two or three of his own compositions in the same program.  And, fortunately, there’s a set of audio recordings of his piano playing – from newsreels, 78rpm records, and radio programs, all made between 1924 and 1934 – that let us put some perspective behind the stories.

By 1916, Gershwin was already one of the best “song pluggers” on Tin Pan Alley – meaning, he could readily sight-read the sheet music for a song, and really make it sound like something you’d want to buy.  He’d “sell” the melody line in the verse and chorus, but he’d also add lots of extra notes, essentially orchestrating the song at the piano.  He played fast and with almost no pedal.  To use his own word, he conveyed “snap” when he played.  When he recorded solo performances of his own songs – songs we consider today as ballads, such as The Man I Love or Someone to Watch Over Me – he flew through them, probably as sizzlingly fast as you’ll ever hear.

He didn’t play like a classical concert pianist.  And, he never played like a nuanced jazz improviser, such as his younger contemporary, Art Tatum.  The “George Gershwin Song Book,” published in 1932, contains Gershwin’s own intricate arrangements of 18 of his own songs.  Each is as worked-out as a Chopin Prelude; the sheet music is elaborately instructive, with staccato, slurs, pedaling, and so on.  They’re lovely to hear played by a concert pianist – but when you hear George himself play the same arrangements, you hear his snap and rhythm, but less of the sophistication indicated in the music.

The playing in the June, 1924 Rhapsody in Blue is George Gershwin at his most raw and brash.  It’s vigor, it’s optimism, can the orchestra keep up?  Gershwin’s playing is as singular – and thrilling – on stage today as it was to the audiences of his time.

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