by Sam Juliano
Bernstein. Barber. Copland. Glass. Ives. Schonberg. Stravinsky. Floyd. Though there can never be a definitive ranking among the most noteworthy of American classical composers, these eight are perhaps the most accomplished, when you add opera to the equation. But the country’s tradition is short-lived when measured up against the Europeans, whose musical titans have composed for hundreds of years. For many America’s classical music is really the genre that flourished within its borders, and which more than any other defined a culture and produced a bevy of geniuses whose work continues to hold sway to the present, and no doubt well into the future. The form of course is jazz, which originated in New Orleans near the end of the nineteenth century, and when you add this unique form of musical expression and its cousins ragtime and blues to the composing career of a single person, the answer is not a difficult one to identify. Born Jacob Gershwine in Brooklyn on July 11, 1937, the legendary George Gershwin lived a scant thirty-eight years after being felled by a malignant brain tumor, but he left behind a world struggling to categorize his achievements, which before and since have not been remotely replicated. Like Chaplin, who was the cinema’s most versatile genius, Gershwin more than any other single American composer held the mantle of diversity, producing several masterpieces that are regularly cited as the most brilliant in the musical repertory. Near the end of his life Gershwin composed Porgy and Bess, which is now counted as an operatic work, and as such contends with Floyd’s Susannah as the pinnacle in that genre by an American, and his orchestral work An American in Paris, written during a period he spent in France is regularly revived in all types of musical revues. He later penned many songs, which are now jazz standards, and have been covered by innumerable artists. Then there is a little composition called Rhapsody in Blue, which may well be the most renowned piece of music in any genre written in the land that I love. The creation of this staggering work is the centerpiece of a fabulous biography The Music in George’s Head: George Gershwin Creates Rhapsody in Blue by Suzanne Slade, with illustrations by Stacy Innerst.
As one would expect and welcome in a picture book life story of this complex musical titan a great deal of the focus is on George’s early years, when music makes its first pitch as his primary muse in the house, at the school and as he skates down Brooklyn streets. Music as an all-encompassing force did not leave room for such mundane issues like getting to school on time, especially since young George was developing a propensity for holding a melody in his head permanently after hearing it in anywhere, including a local penny arcade. His parents didn’t learn of his gift for retention until he performed a solo recital in the family’s living room on a piano his mother had obtained on a whim. His brother Ira, who would later become a significant collaborator and co-composer living himself to a ripe old age began to head up to his room, but joined his mom in marked astonishment. Slade offers her own descriptive accompaniment to the scenario: When he felt those smooth keys beneath his fingers, his face lit up like the lights on Broadway. George immediately negotiates a popular ragtime tune he has committed to memory. A child prodigy, George began studying with some of the Big Apple’s finest piano instructors, while nurturing a passion for some of classical music’s towering figures like the Hungarian Franz Liszt and the Russian-American Leo Ornstein, who lived till he was 106. The maturation of a musical maven continued when the teenager secured a job in a music store and played sheet music for customers. He penned his first composition when he turned seventeen.
Three years later came newer melodies captured from the streets of the city, and the young George composed “Swanee” which annoyed his father but made him an instant sensation, selling millions of copies. Biddly-bop blues was added to his expanding musical itinerary and by the year 1920 Gershwin was a household name. He was hell bent to incorporate jazz elements into his songs having spent time in the clubs and restaurants in Harlem, where he heard “smooth, syncopated jazz rhythms.” But the musical establishment has not yet bought into it, thinking it wasn’t serious and perhaps wouldn’t stick around too long. George however was committed to the form, though his first opportunity to make a formidable contribution for a modern music experiment with jazz included was forfeited when he had no choice but to leave town to attend the opening of his new musical Sweet Little Devil. Innerst’s fabulous blue and brown acrylic art, which in the earlier tapestries summoned the early century sepia tone feel documenting the family owned companies and key shops, etches Gershwin’s floor-pacing in an elegant muted blue on beige paper and follows it up with a fantastic train spread, where George again hears music from the rolling wheels – Rattle-ty Bang! Rattle – ty Bang! Rattle -ty Bang! and presto this inventive master again found material to mix in like a smoothie seller adding in adding another fruit to the blender. As he rode away notes began to form in his mind and they included his prior affairs with classical, ragtime, jazz and blues. Back home George finished his concerto, which he named Rhapsody in Blue for which Innerst crafts a melting pot montage including the rat-tat-tat of construction equipment, the ‘squeeking’ train, shuffling tap dancers, Duke Ellington himself and a long circle scroll. It was a musical kaleidoscope of America’s melting pot.
Innerst’s pictorial depiction of a joke that turns into a classic revision -the clarinet player’s long wail- tells the age-old story of a group of people laughing but one, knowing what the others don’t connecting with a stroke of genius is a striking visualization of counterpoint. The WuaaaAAAAAAAAA! enters the immortal pantheon of musical history. The illustrator’s February, 1924 snow spread on a concert evening at Aeolian Hall includes a panel of soft turquoise on a wintry night as musical history was being made inside. The opening acts nearly caused a mass exodus, but once George, who was scheduled next to last, sat down at the piano as the clarinet player waxed lyrical before offering up the eighteen note wail, people made an about face. Like those who headed for the exits after the “Springtime for Hitler” number in The Producers, only to hear the flower-child humor of Dick Shawn’s Hitler to turn them around, concertgoers were quickly captivated by magician Gershwin who didn’t have any sheet music. George played the notes in his head. Innerst’s blue curtain laden canvas depicts Gershwin on the piano, March. Skip. Dance. as the brass and strings hold up their side of the bargain.
Slade reports: The room was electrified. Energized. People were surprised to hear new melodies mixed with classical, ragtime, jazz and the blues – George’s Rhapsody in Blue. The sound of this seminal work is “smooth and sultry, brash and bouncy.” An up-tempo march melody followed. Finally we see George Gershwin’s New York City in the Roaring 20’s, a place where music and construction are ruling the roost. Innerst’s end papers are impressionist evocations of city buildings, snowflakes and musical notes, a place the illustrator seems to assert is quintessentially Gershwin.
The Music in George’s Head: George Gershwin Creates Rhapsody in Blue is an ideal introduction to an American icon. Slade emphasizes terms and language in enlarged fonts, arranged in a musical flow, that recalls this past year’s Miracle Man: The Story of Jesus, where dialogue and declarative phrases interacted with the standard typography and the illustrations. Innerst’s atmospheric art superbly establishes the setting and maintains close observational watch on an iconic child prodigy’s ascendancy. There are bursts of soaring lyricism both in the well-chosen language and in the spirited art. Innerst’s triumph is capturing the pulse of a city during a time of artistic revelation with intoxicating stream of consciousness tapestries that are strikingly embellished with a font scale that sings. The Caldecott committee should be taking en extended look at this loving artistic homage to an American musical legend.
Note: This is the forty-seventh entry in the ongoing 2016 Caldecott Medal Contender series. The series does not purport to predict what the committee will choose, rather it attempts to gauge what the writer feels should be in the running. In most instances the books that are featured in the series have been touted as contenders in various online round-ups, but for the ones that are not, the inclusions are a humble plea to the committee for consideration. It is anticipated the series will include in the neighborhood of around 50 titles; the order which they are being presented in is arbitrary, as every book in this series is a contender. Some of my top favorites of the lot will be done near the end. The awards will be announced on January 23rd, hence the reviews will continue till two days before that date.