I played a lot of Gershwin’s music in high school. It seemed like a rite of passage for any puberty-blues orchestra bigger than twenty people, really, to tackle medleys of the great man’s work. Every band competition we entered and every camp we attended, where the trumpeters chapped their lips and the flautists got sore shoulders, you could almost guarantee there’d be a selection of movements from Rhapsody In Blue and some other highlights. Not that I’m complaining; as a drummer, playing Gershwin, who arguably was one of the first American composers to combine classical music with jazz so expertly that nobody could tell the difference anymore, was a hell of a lot of fun. And the compositions themselves were so dynamically and harmonically rich that it was impossible to be bored. Given the other options, which were primarily modern Australian arrangers who seemed to forget that people like tapping their feet to things even when there are violins, Gershwin was a godsend. But the full appeal of his work, in my humble opinion, was only realised some two decades after he died, when his jazz opera was reinterpreted by the peerless Miles Davis.
That Gershwin was immensely popular is a no-brainer, but it’s difficult for modern audiences to appreciate that the man was also very controversial at the height of his influence. That’s been articulated far better than I ever can in this incredible book by Alex Ross I’ve been ploughing through, entitled The Rest Is Noise. Extraordinarily detailed and well-researched, it explores popular music throughout the twentieth century, and one of the most interesting insights is that Gershwin, a European Jew, was publicly criticised for exploiting ‘negro music’ and the African American experience without actually being one, particularly by piano master and bandleader, Duke Ellington. Gershwin championed the idea of black musicians at a time when very few other composers would; indeed the first performance of Porgy & Bess had an exclusively black cast. It was also, at the time of its premiere, a resounding flop, which seems ridiculous to me given how much adulation it has subsequently received. So should Gershwin have taken about the African-American struggle and turned it into a gentrified, possibly racist masterpiece? And does Miles Davis’ re-appropriation, with white band leader Gil Evans, finally bringing it into the right hands? I don’t know, but God, does it sound sweet.
Porgy & Bess is home to one of the most famous jazz standards of all time, the sombre or beautiful ballad (depending on who’s singing it) ‘Summertime’, which really took off with Miles Davis appropriation. Everyone seems to love hearing someobdy sing this beyond-famous – it’s been covered nearly thirty thousand times – melody, but I honestly think it’s never sounded better than through the muted barrel of Davis’ horn. His rework of Porgy came one year before his era-defining Kind Of Blue, and is steeped in the kind of cool jazz, modal sound that he’d make his own. He takes the lead line and just runs with it, soaring above the quietly tip-toeing orchestra with sonorous high notes and extended blue notes that are just beautiful. There really is no better way to describe it. This recording hits all three sweet spots at once with the high of the trumpet, the middle of the backing brass and the rich lows of the double bass. It came out in 1958 and it sounds better than anything on the radio. The radical freedom of improvisation, the hat-tip to the original and the sensual swing to it all really makes it a piece that belongs in the popular Canon. It’s also one of the rarest; orchestral jazz helmed by an actual jazz musician which, unlike Gershwin’s first go, became a bestseller. Politics aside, some works of genius simply require another genius to bring them to life. This is such an example.
Miles Davis – ‘Summertime’