A statement I’ve made before and will gladly make again: George Gershwin is among the handful of greatest composers the United States has produced, and his death at the age of 38 (of a brain tumor) should be considered an artistic tragedy comparable to the premature deaths of Schubert (at 31), Mozart (at 35), and Chopin (at 39).
He was born Jacob Gershovitz (though his birth certificate reads “Jacob Gershwine”), the child of Russian Jewish immigrants, on September 26, 1898 at 242 Snediker Avenue in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. (For our information: in 1963, a bronze plaque commemorating Gershwin’s birth was affixed to the building. By the 1970s, the neighborhood had fallen on very hard times: the plaque was stolen – it is still MIA – and the building vandalized. It burned down in 1987, and all that remains of the neighborhood today is a blighted area of warehouses and junkyards.)
Rarely has a major composer begun his life in an artistically less promising manner. Tall, athletic, and charismatic, Gershwin was the leader of various tenement gangs, played street ball, roller skated everywhere and engaged in petty crime. By his own admission, he cared nothing for music until he was ten, when George’s parents Morris and Rose bought his elder brother Ira a piano. Ira took scant interest in the thing, but George attacked it, with an intensity and precocity that shocked everyone.
While his piano studies included the “classics”, Gershwin was, from the beginning, drawn to ragtime.
He quickly developed into a formidable ragtime piano player. At the age of 15, he nailed down his first job: as a song “plugger” for the New York music publishing house of Jerome H. Remick for $15.00 a week. A “plugger” was a sort of human jukebox, who played a firm’s songs for prospective sheet music buyers. To be a decent plugger you needed stamina and the ability to improvise and play in as many different styles as there were songs. The house of Remick was located, along with most other sheet music publishers, on East 14th Street in lower Manhattan. The street was nicknamed “Tin Pan Alley” by the journalist Monroe Rosenfeld (1861-1918) because of the cacophony created by hundreds of pluggers simultaneously beating the snot out of hundreds of out-of-tune upright pianos.…