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George Gershwin’s 


Gershwin and the Sounds of Jazz 
by Charles Edward Smith 

“The great music of the past,” wrote 
George Gershwin at the time he was working 
on “Porgy and Bess,” . . has always been 
built on folk music. This is the strongest 
source of musical fecundity, . sf .-Jazz I re¬ 
gard as an American folk music, hot the only 
one but a very beautiful one which is in the 
blood and feeling of the American people.” 

It was with particular attention to the 
blues-jazz inspiration inherent in “Porgy and 
Bess” that Miles Davis and Gil Evans ap¬ 
proached the vocal score. As they worked out 
plans for the set—and Miles worked with Gil 
even when it was still at the discussion 
stage—it occurred to Gil that not only were 
Miles and himself contributing to an inter¬ 
pretation of the score in terms of orchestral 
jazz but Gershwin himself was creating anew 
as jazz ideas, always latent in his scores (as 
well as expressed), came to life. Gil said, 
“The three of us, it seems to me, collaborated 
in the album.” 

In the late 1940s, when Gil Evans and 
Gerry Mulligan helped Miles set up an his¬ 
toric nine-piece band that played briefly at 
New York’s Royal Roost, the idea of “the 
new thing” (as some musicians called modern 
jazz) having more accomodation than that 
of a “hitch-hike” in a swing band had barely 
been thought of. Though it was to be almost 
a decade before Gil Evans became well 
known to the jazz public, his original ap¬ 
proach to jazz orchestration was an imme¬ 
diate sensation amongst musicians. In his 
more personal work Gil — whose arranging 
stints with Claude Thornhill had already 
won him respect—was preoccupied with pro¬ 
viding an adequate orchestral setting for 
the new sounds of jazz. He did this not 
merely in introducing new instruments (such 
as French horns) and adding new colors to 
the orchestral palette but in freeing modern 
jazz from big-band swing that, even when 
meretorious in its own right, often had a 
restrictive influence on the projection of the 
new tonal and rhythmic concepts. 

This album is not merely a jazz treatment 
—with “Porgy and Bess” marking the blast¬ 
off area—it is an orchestral approach to the 
score. Perhaps the most suggestive compari¬ 
son would be some of Ellington’s work. But 
that by no means tells the whole story. Gil’s 
originality in orchestral jazz and Miles 
Davis’ powerful talent (that is buttressed by 
an increased grasp of complex musical prob¬ 
lems) suggest that when these two collabor¬ 
ate successfully, the wail will be heard 
’round the world! 

Thus, the album involves a distinguished 
jazz arranger who was largely self-taught, 
an honored composer who worked as a song- 
plugger in Tin Pan Alley and a dynamic 
artist in jazz who wrote Charlie Parker 
phrases on matchbook covers. And just to 
fatten it up, there’s the lyric writer, brother 
Ira—the piano in the Gershwin home was 
meant for him but George was the one who 
used it—and the “book” about life on Cat¬ 
fish Row by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward. 
Though there are no vocals in this presenta¬ 
tion, these last are important because Miles 
and Gil do not merely flirt with show music 
tunes, they do a job on this greatest of 
operettas related to Negro folk music and 
jazz. In working from the vocal score, Gil 
was aware of both literary and musieal re¬ 
lationships. On Prayer (Oh Doctor Jesus) 
he sensed the seriousness with which Gersh¬ 
win had approached the theme and in this 
“healing” prayer, in which the “amens” etc. 
are given to the orchestra, there is an 
urgency, a suppliance of sound. Then there 
is the use made of I Got Plenty of Nothin’ as 
the opening release of It Ain’t Necessarily 
So and the evocative strain in My Man’s 
Gone Now that sounds almost like a reprise 
of Summertime. 

The Buzzard Song 

Bess, You Is My Woman Now — 


Gone, Gone, Gone 
Summertime — 

Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess 

Orchestra under the 

“Porgy and Bess,” it is generally conceded, 
represents the culmination of Gershwin’s 
artistry. On Bess, You Is My Woman Now 
— as, indeed, throughout the score — many 
passages carry the Gershwin signature. One 
of the great melodic writers of our time, 
Gershwin’s work had both variety and vital¬ 
ity—even in the pop tunes he ground out in 
the shank of the night, a cigar clamped to 
his jaw—yet there was usually a distinctive¬ 
ness, something immediately recognizable in 
it. The infusion of blues-jazz elements 
throughout his music made him, from the 
beginning, immensely popular with jazzmen. 
Walter Damrosch—in 1925, when Concerto 
in F had its premiere—opined that, in effect, 
Gershwin had made a lady out of jazz. But 
the following year, to the arbiters of our 
cultural mores, she was still a tramp; even 
The Etude, which hedged in a painful effort 
to be fair-minded, discussed “The Jazz Prob¬ 
lem,” giving it the solemnity due a momen¬ 
tous moral issue! 

However, we are concerned not merely 
with the young Gershwin whose Concerto in 
F was such a memorable contribution to 
American music, but with the still younger 
Gershwin who cut piano rolls in the same 
shop as James P. Johnson, the old master of 
Harlem piano, and with the composer who 
later on listened to- Bessie Smith and the 
blues. At the time the Rhapsody in Blue was 
orchestrated, jazz orchestral writing as we 
know it today was unheard of. Gershwin 
himself did not orchestrate it, being un¬ 
skilled in that sphere, but perhaps this was 
not so much of a lack as he himself thought 
at the time. The classically trained men of 
those days—even those hardy souls who were 
willing—were quite unable to interpret jazz 
scores. Jazzmen, on the other hand, were 
usually incapable of symphonic reading of 
professional calibre. Nowadays, many men 
have equal facility in both fields. 

Yet in the present decade, jazz orchestra¬ 
tion remains more than ever a special field. 
Perhaps this is why it seems to find expres¬ 
sion best, as a rule, through its own writers. 

In a recent conversation, Gil mentioned Miles’ 
beautifully deliberate — controlled, yet sus¬ 
penseful—rhythmic style on slow tempos, re¬ 
minding me of Bill Russo’s statement (in 
The New Yearbook of Jazz Horizon) that 
“the melodic curve, the organic structure, and 
the continuity of a Miles Davis solo . .. cannot 
be perceived very easily by a classically 
trained musician.” But some of the men in 
this band, such as Gunther Schuller, have 
had classical training and are examples of 
what I referred to in a magazine piece as 
“a new breed of cats.” 

Though he can particularize with regard 
to the innumerable facets of orchestral writ¬ 
ing, Gil thinks of the music in its entirety, 
as a painter thinks of a canvas. Indeed, when 
he speaks of depth or density of sound, im¬ 
pingement of instrumental tone, the dynam- 

Prayer (Oh Doctor Jesus) 

Fishermen, Strawberry and Devil Crab 
My Man’s Gone Now —- 
It Ain’t Necessarily So — 

Here Come de Honey Man 
I Loves You, Porgy 
There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon 
for New York 

direction of Gil Evans 

ics of structure and the particular require¬ 
ments of each theme, the resemblance to de¬ 
scriptions of pictorial art is striking. And 
when one recalls Picasso’s dictum that a 
painting is alive, the parallel is complete. 

Gil first met Miles when the latter was 
playing with Charlie Parker on 52nd Street 
and their respect for each other, often ex¬ 
pressed in print, is testified to in the ex¬ 
cellence of their collaborative efforts such as 
“Miles Ahead” (Columbia CL 1041). “I 
think a movement in jazz is beginning away 
from the conventional string of chords, and 
a return to emphasis on melodic rather than 
harmonic variations,” Miles told Nat Hent- 
off in a recent interview (The Jazz Review, 
December, 1958). He also made this inter¬ 
esting statement, “When Gil wrote the ar¬ 
rangement of I Loves You, Porgy, he only 
wrote a scale for me to play. No chords. And 
that other passage with just two chords 
gives you a lot more freedom and space to 
hear things.” (In this set, incidentally, the 
trumpet passages by Miles are usually played 
with mute, the flugelhorn open.) 

In these days of stepped-up jazz produc¬ 
tion, the good things, like the good men, are 
still a rarity. Especially so are deeply mov¬ 
ing performances such as these that seem 
infused with an inner fire that cannot be 
simulated. Miles’ beauty and variety of tone, 
his versatile manipulation of horns, is put 
to excellent use here as he—with the or¬ 
chestral projections of Gil’s arrangements— 
produces incomparable renderings of “Porgy 
and Bess.” In speaking of certain of Miles’ 
solo passages, Gil remarked, “Miles can be 
hot in the true meaning of the word.” 

Every piece has it own interest, orches- 
trally speaking, e.g., the grainy, pungent har¬ 
mony on Bess, You Is My Woman Now, the 
utilization of brasses, tuba and brooding 
French horns on The Buzzard Song. On the 
latter one notes how sureness and strength 
give sinew to the lovely tone of Miles’ horn. 

Gone is a holiday for jazzmen, especially for 
Miles, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, 
who are gone for several choruses. This is 
not from the score but relates to Gone, Gone, 
Gone, a beautifully harmonized spiritual, 
pulsed by a slow, graceful rhythm. As for 
the previous track, taken at a fast tempo, 

Gil said, “This is my improvisation of the 
spiritual. In the middle of it Miles, Paul and 
Joe improvise on the improvisation!” 

With a slow chop on drums and a faint 
swish of cymbals, Miles states the theme of 
an unusually beautiful Summertime. In his 
solo passages he places tone in rhythm like 
a painter who uses color knowingly, aware 
of composition in advance. One of the love¬ 
liest Gershwin melodies, Summertime is 
based on a blues motif. It is followed by the 
lament, Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess, a sweet 
poignance cradled in a rhythm now quies¬ 
cent, now faster and more agitated in tempo. 

After Prayer, mentioned above, Gil com- 


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bines Fishermen (a song) and the calls of 
the Strawberry Woman and Devil Crab ped¬ 
dler. Gershwin heard music in street cries 
and in the matrix of Gil’s sensitive back¬ 
ground writing. Miles’ hauntingly imagina¬ 
tive interpretations are completely devoid of 
easy artistry. My Man’s Gone Now is like a 
tone poem in its evocation of a pathos that 
gives to commonplace grief a deep and 
human dignity. On It Ain’t Necessarily So, 
horns surround and support Miles in a 
phenomenal series of choruses. The rhythm, 
which is very good throughout this demand¬ 
ing set, has an exuberant jazz quality and 
the manner in which Gil employs short 
phrases to accent Miles’ chorus is in itself 

After a sweet interlude—an engaging bit 
of writing and playing (Here Comes de 
Honey Man) —there is the superbly played I 
Loves You, Porgy. Then everyone has a ball 
on There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon For 
New York. This is a happy voicing of in¬ 
struments, using flutes to advantage — the 
subtle use of instruments throughout this set 
is fascinating in itself—and as an example 
of Miles’ craftsmanship, note how he feeds 
the other horns. There are plenty drums, 
plenty Paul Chambers, plenty everything. 
(The listener need hardly be reminded that 
this is a band made up of top-ranking jazz¬ 
men.) This bright and happy theme is given 
a full and exuberant performance, right 
down to the last drum beat. 

“Porgy and Bess”—a folk opera that has 
humor, pathos, the sweetness of the last bit 
of honey in the comb, and moments of musical 
greatness—moves like a dance. Miles and 
Gil have given it a superb performance in 
a new idiom. 

Note: The Gershwin quotation is from his 
article, Relation of Jazz to American Music: 
“American Composers on American Music,” 
ed. Henry Cowell (Palo Alto, 1933). 

Mr. Smith is co-editor of “Jazzmen” (Har- 
court, Brace) and a contributor to “The 
Jazz Makers” (Rinehart). 

Recorded 7/22/58: My Man’s Gone Now; Gone; 
Gone, Gone , Gone. 

Personnel: Miles Davis, trumpet and flugelhorn 
Trumpet: French horn: 

Louis Mucci Willie Ruff 

Ernie Royal Julius B. Watkins 

John Coles Gunther Schuller 

Bernie Glow 


Jimmy Cleveland 
Joseph Bennett 
Dick Hixon 
Frank Rehak 


Phil Bodner 
Romeo Penque 


John (“Bill”) Barber 

Saxophone: Bass: 

Julian Adderly Paul Chambers 

Danny Banks 


Philly Joe Jones 

Recorded 7/29/58: Here Come de Honey Man; 
Bess, You 18 My Woman Now; It Ain’t Necessarily 
So; Fishermen, Strawberry and Devil Crab. 

Personnel changes: Jimmy Cobb (drums) replaces 
Philly Joe Jones. 

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--— a - ww'i u, tovity. 

Personnel changes: Jerome Richardson (flute) re¬ 
places Phil Bodner. 

l^corded 8/18/58: Summertime, There’s a Boat 
lhat 8 Leaving Soon for New York; I Loves You, 

No personnel changes.