Known as the American composer who bridged the gap between popular and classical musics, George Gershwin is an award winning composer and musician who got his start playing in a resort during his free time and as a song plugger for Tin Pan Alley.

George Gershwin was born Jacob Gershovitz in Brooklyn, New York, to Jewish, Russian immigrants Morris Gershovitz and Rose Bruskin on September 26, 1898. As the second of four children, he had two brothers and one sister. He went on to become the most well-known member of his family even though his older brother, Ira (born Israel Gershovitz), was a successful lyricist.

Some of Gershwin’s initial musical inspirations were a mechanical piano that played Rubenstein’s “Melody in F” and Maxie Rosenzweig, a violin-playing peer attending his school. Gershwin kept a musical scrapbook in which he glued music related things into as a child. In 1910, the Gershwin family brought a piano original intended for Ira. Instead, it was George who began to seriously study music. He soon began lessons with neighbor, and then, he was later referred to Charles Hambitzer. Simultaneously, he began taking theory lessons from Edward Kileny. George Gershwin attended the High School of Commerce. At school, he would play piano during the morning assemblies.

Gershwin worked in one of his father’s restaurants while playing popular songs at a mountain resort in his free time. His mother was not supportive of his musical path because she had intended for him to become a bookkeeper or lawyer.

Moses Gumble at Jerome H. Remick and Company (a music publishing company) eventually offered Gershwin a job as a song plugger. He was paid fifteen dollars a week, and after convincing his mother of the benefits, he dropped out of school at fifteen. The organization he “plugged” songs for was Tin Pan Alley. As a song plugger, he played a tune, hoping to convince performers that they wanted to buy the sheet music to perform it at home. While doing this, he also began to write his own music. These compositions were kept in a folder titled “GT,” an abbreviation for “Good Tunes.”
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In 1913, George Gershwin wrote “Since I Found You,” a ragtime song which was later followed by “When You Want ‘Em You Can’t Get ‘Em, When You’ve Got ‘Em You Don’t Want ‘Em” in 1916 which was not initially a success, but attracted a few Broadway composers. Also in 1916, another Gershwin song was used by Sigmund Romberg; Gershwin also began to make piano rolls.

In 1917, he wrote “Rial to Ripples,” “Beautiful Bird,” and “You Are Not the Girl.” In this year, he also stopped working as a song plugger and began to travel the Vaudeville Circuit as a pianist. He was then hired to write songs for Max Dreyfus at T.B. Harms, another music publishing company. In addition, he also toured as Nora Bayes’ pianist.

On October 24, 1918, “The Real American Folk Song (Is a Rag),” the first song on which Iran and George collaborated, premiered on Broadway, sung by Nora Bayes. The same year, Gershwin also wrote “Kitchenette,” “If Only You Knew,” “There’s Magic in the Air,” and “When There’s a Chance to Dance.”

In 1919, “Swanee” premiered at Capital Revue. It later became a hit when Al Jolson interpolated the song into his revue at the Winter Garden Theater. It was performed in the musical “Sinbad.” That year, Gershwin also wrote “La, La Lucille,” “Morris Gest Midnight Whirl,” “Lullaby,” “The Lady in Red,” and “Good Morning, Judge.” “La, La Lucille” was Gershwin’s first Broadway show.

In 1920, he began to write for George White’s Scandals. This series of compositions lasted for five years. He also wrote “Piccadilly to Broadway,” “For No Reason at All,” “Mischa, Jascha, Toscha, Soscha,” “Waiting for the Sun to Come Out,” “Back Home,” “I Want to Be Wanted by You,” “Ed Wynn’s Carnival,” and “Broadway Brevities of 1920.”

In 1921 he wrote “The Perfect Fool,” “Blue Eyes,” “Selwyn’s Snapshots of 1921,” “A Dangerous Maid,” and “Phoebe.”

In 1922, Gershwin composed the one act opera “Blue Monday.” He also composed “Molly on the Shore,” “For Goodness Sake,” “A New Step Ev’ry Day (Stairway to Paradise),” “Our Nell,” “The French Doll,” and “The Spice of 1922.”

In 1923, Gershwin composed “The Rainbow,” “The Dancing Girl,” “Nifties of 1923,” “I Won’t Say I Will But I Won’t Say I Won’t,” and “The Sunshine Trail.”

February 12, 1924, “Rhapsody in Blue” was premiered in Aeolian Concert Hal with Paul Whiteman and his Palais Royal Orchestra.

Later in 1924, Gershwin wrote “Lady, Be Good” in collaboration with his brother which premiered on December 24 on Broadway at Liberty Theatre. This cemented the partnership between George and Ira.

“Concerto in F,” “Song of the Flames,” “Short Story,” “Tell Me More,” and “Tiptoes” were composed in 1925. Then in 1926, “Preludes for Piano,” “Americana,” and “Oh, Kay!” were written.

In 1928, “An American in Paris” premiered at Carnegie Hall with Walter Damrosch conducting the New York Symphony Orchestra. “Treasure Girl” and “Rosalie” were also written.

“Show Girl,” “Impromptu in Two Keys,” “Three-Quarter Blues,” and “East is West” were composed in 1929.

In 1930, Ira and George began to write musicals together and moved to Hollywood for seven years. One of these musical upon which they collaborated was “Strike Up the Band.” Written in 1927, the musical was a satire and it became a huge success. The later collaborated on “Funny Face” and “Girl Crazy” which featured Ethel Merman who introduced “I Got Rhythm” in this musical. It also featured Ginger Rogers at Alvin Theatre. This same year, George Gershwin composed his first film score, “Delicious” in Hollywood. He also composed for the film “The King of Jazz.” This year, “9:15 Review” was composed as well as a revision of “Strike Up the Band.”

In 1931, the Second Rhapsody and The Cuban Overture premiered but the public did not enjoy them. In 1932, on December 26, Ira and George wrote “Of Thee I Sing” with George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind which premiered at the Music Box Theatre. It was the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama, but George was not recognized for this until 1998.

“Pardon My English” and “Let ‘Em Eat Cake” were composed in 1933. Then, in 1934, “Variations on I Got Rhythm” appeared. In 1935, George wrote his first opera, “Porgy and Bess” which was released to mixed reviews and didn’t really become popular until Gershwin’s death. Then in 1936, Gershwin composed “The Show is On” and “Suite from Porgy and Bess.” In 1937, “Shall We Dance” and “A Damsel in Distress” were also composed.

George Gershwin began to experience headaches, dizzy spells and blackouts in 1937. His spells became so bad that he was sometimes found crouched down between hotel room beds with all light blocked out, holding his head with no idea of how long he had been sitting there. On July 9, he collapsed into a coma and a brain tumor was diagnosed. The situation was found hopeless when surgeons went to operate. He never awoke from his coma and he passed away on July 1, 1937.

Gershwin was one of the first American premier composers. He also did visual arts. After his death, thirty-seven of his works were exhibited in a one-man show at the Harriman Gallery in New York.

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Published by Shannon Kennedy

Shannon Kennedy is a vocalist and saxophonist living in Southern California. She is author of "The Album Checklist" and the founder of Teen Jazz. She has been contributing articles to music magaizines and websites since 2004.