Note: This article was selected as a finalist for The Norman E. Alexander Award for Excellence in Jewish Student Writing Contest. About 100 high school contestants from around the country answered the following question: “Choose a living or deceased person and write about his or her legacy in any musical specialty. Why are his or her accomplishments meaningful to you?” The contest is sponsored by the Jewish-American Hall of Fame and The Jewish Week Media Group.
Jazz has been woven into the fabric of American metropolitan life since its emergence after the end of World War I. Whether one hears jazz in an elevator, digests it from a commercial or dances to its syncopated rhythms at a piano bar, it has become a true American phenomenon. But who would expect such an eccentric genre to become popular American music when 19th-century generations initially condemned it as immoral and threatening to American culture? The growth of jazz can be greatly attributed to the genius of Jewish classical pianist and composer George Gershwin.
Gershwin was the child of Russian Jewish immigrants who came to the United States with the wave of “New Immigration” from Southern and Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. After hearing the euphonious sounds of violin from his friend Maxie Rosenzweig’s recital, Gershwin became entranced, teaching himself piano until he eventually dropped out of high school to pursue a career in music. Gershwin learned to improvise to entertain himself while working as a song plugger, a job in which musicians advertise pieces by playing them endlessly. Little did he know that his improvisational skill would eventually make his compositions inimitable in their melding of jazz and classical elements.
Gershwin’s experimental compositions whisk listeners away to the Oregon trail, evoking the image of a Conestoga wagon traversing an untamed frontier. The melodies of Klezmer, structured rhythms of classical music, and southern jazz swing suffuse the music, imbuing it with the spirit of the Melting Pot. Broadway producers noticed his unique style, incorporating Gershwin’s compositions into shows such as “La La Lucille” and “Lady Be Good!” Gershwin’s career peaked in his composition of “Rhapsody in Blue,” which led to his reputation for bringing jazz into concert halls. On the night of its premiere, “Rhapsody in Blue” awed audiences with its improvisatory piano solos and intriguing jazz melodies, previously unheard of in a symphonic context. That night ultimately changed America’s popular misconception that 1920s jazz was limited to the simple 12-measure ditties of the ragtime band.
As an avid jazz saxophone player myself, Gershwin serves as an inspiration not only to sharpen my improvisational technique but also to participate in the 21st century’s progressive zeitgeist. When I hear the dramatic intro to “Rhapsody in Blue” in the opening of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” I feel empowered to drive world progress by boldly breaking the shackles of tradition as Gershwin did with his compositions. His music is symbolic of the diverse city of New York in which he was raised, that with its ethnic and multilingual neighborhoods beckons the arrival of future unity. I aspire to play a larger role in our country’s continuing struggle to achieve social integration in the same way Gershwin was able to string together different musical genres to create his masterpieces.
Kyle Newman is a rising senior at Milken Community High School in Los Angeles.