Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Leonard Bernstein: Fancy Free and On the Town

Leonard Bernstein in 1955
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) in 1955

Leonard Bernstein is very like the most talented, all-around musician ever born in the United States.

I prevaricated a bit by adding “very likely” (above), if only to assuage those who might consider Charles Schulz’s Schroeder or Snoop Dog (Calvin Cordozar Broadus Jr., born 1971) to be, instead, the greatest all-around musicians this nation has yet produced. But really, in terms of his prodigious musical range and versatility and tremendous cultural impact, Leonard (born Louis) Bernstein is indeed the most gifted musician ever born in the U.S.: America’s Mozart.

Bernstein at age 4 with his mother Jennie and father Samuel
Bernstein at age 4 with his mother Jennie and father Samuel

He was born on August 18, 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the son of Ukrainian Jews. Bernstein’s hard-working immigrant parents had indeed found America’s streets paved with gold; his father, Samuel Joseph Bernstein, was the owner of “The Samuel Bernstein Hair and Beauty Supply Company”, which held the New England franchise for the immensely popular “Frederick’s Permanent Wave Machine.”

When he was 10, Bernstein’s Aunt Clara parked her upright piano at his house. He began teaching himself to play and then, we are told, he began “clamoring for lessons.” However, Samuel Bernstein had no intention of encouraging Lenny’s musical foolishness; as his eldest son, he was going to follow his father into the ladies’ hair and beauty supply business, period, exclamation-freaking-mark. Consequently, the elder Bernstein refused to pay for piano lessons. Undaunted, Lenny instead began giving piano lessons to neighborhood kids.

That previous sentence tells us two things. One, that the young Leonard Bernstein was a resourceful young dude and an astonishing auto-didact. Two, that his learning curve as a musician was crazy-off-the-charts and is best described as being “vertical” rather than as a “curve.” … continue reading, only on Patreon!

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