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The parents of George Gershwin were probably tempted to immigrate to the United States in the late 1800’s to avoid the possibility of the father being conscripted into the Russian army. As it was they had established themselves in New York when Jacob Gershowitz (George Gershwin’s original name) was born on 1898.
It was not immediately obvious that George Gershwin would become one of the twentieth centuries greatest composers. He was of athletic build, and partial to fighting, at which he was very adept. His grades at school were all poor, apart from Math, in which he achieved moderate results. However, when the family invested in a piano, intended for George’s brother Ira, George showed his natural feel for music by playing a few popular tunes by ear. He impressed so much that by the age of twelve, piano lessons were being given to him for no charge by Charles Hambitzer, who was a great influence.
George Gershwin began his professional career as a song plugger in Tin Pan Alley, earning $15 per week. This involved playing popular songs to a paying public. He was recruited as a composer in 1918 and began composing for Broadway. His first Broadway show ‘La La Lucille’ hit the stage in 1919 and ran for one hundred performances. Of greater success, perhaps, was a song he penned in 1917, Swanee. In the early 1920’s he played it to Al Jolson, who incorporated it into the musical ‘Sinbad’. The song went on to sell more than two million copies. He regularly contributed music for digestion by the Broadway audiences, often teaming up with his brother Ira, who had become a quality lyricist. At the same time he was still composing pieces for piano and orchestras.
From 1930 to 1937 George and Ira concentrated their efforts on Hollywood films. They worked as before with George the composer and Ira the lyricist. They worked with many film stars of the time such as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In 1935 George Gershwin’s serious full-length opera was performed, but received only a mixed reception.
In 1937 tragedy struck, when it was discovered that George had a brain tumour. He died soon afterwards and the world lost one of the best jazz composers prematurely. His work lives on though, and in years after his death his music is used in TV advertisements and motion pictures.