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In Riga, Russia, roots, and Gershwin all come to mind.

Jeffrey Gedmin


Jeffrey Gedmin's weekly newsletter on politics, culture, and music is made possible by American Purpose's generous members. Join today to receive his newsletter and other great benefits.

George Gershwin’s grandfather was born in Odesa. His father and mother, both from St. Petersburg, met in Vilnius and moved to New York City. That’s where they married, Morris Gershovitz and Rose Bruskin, on July 21, 1895. Morris started his America journey in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, but he then made poor Rose move twenty-eight times. He liked to walk to work and work kept changing—a shoe business, a cigar shop, a billiard room, a bakery, a chain of restaurants.

Gershwin is remembered for his embrace and integration of classical music, popular music, and jazz, and for his ability to express sounds that were uniquely American. Maurice Ravel thought so much of the young Gershwin that he wrote to the legendary teacher of composition Nadia Boulanger, urging her to take him on as a student. She declined, explaining to the great French composer that in the case of such a deep and original talent she might do more harm than good. Boulanger did accept Copland, and Bernstein, and Barenboim.

Gershwin is well remembered. There are at least two dozen biographies. “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess, the first great American opera, has been recorded more than twenty-five thousand times. Forgotten is the fact that Gershwin accomplished so much in such a short amount of time. George Gershwin died at the age of thirty-eight on July 11, 1937, in Los Angeles after surgeons performed surgery to remove a brain tumor.

His music has traveled everywhere, of course, and the Baltic nations are no exception. I’m currently in Riga, where American jazz and pop music first showed up in the 1920s. By summer 1927, the first African-American band was playing in Latvia; the group Happy Broadway appeared at a festival in the coastal resort city of Jūrmala. In 1929, “Sonny Boy” became a hit here. In spring 1932, “Rhapsody in Blue” followed, the piece Gershwin had been commissioned in 1923 to write in honor of Lincoln’s birthday. It was, he said, “a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.”

It’s summertime here, with sunset at 10:19 p.m. Next week, there’ll be music across the countryside for the most Latvian of holidays Jāni, or Līgo, the night of June 23 into June 24. That’s summer solstice. It’s a necessary respite this year from what seems to be on many people’s minds. “The war on Ukraine is a fight for our future,” a senior Latvian official tells me. Indeed across much of the region, support for Ukraine is inspired by experience, and proximity. “Hands off Ukraine, Putin,” reads the large banner (in Ukrainian colors) draped across the facade of St. Salvator’s, the early Baroque church built by the Jesuits that is situated at one end of the Charles Bridge where Prague’s Old Town begins (I’ve just started a temporary assignment with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in the Czech capital).

Gershwin’s “Summertime” is an American amalgamation. The song comes from the novel Porgy and Bessby DuBose Heyward, whose wife Dorothy adapted the 1925 book for the stage in 1927, which in turn inspired the masterpiece Gershwin called “an American folk opera.” Heyward and Ira Gershwin teamed up on the libretto, traveling to Charleston, South Carolina, to research African-American music. The tune for “Summertime” draws on a Black spiritual. The synthesis and collaboration got everything right. Here’s Stephen Sondheim on the result, on the very first line:

That ‘and’ is worth a great deal. I would write ‘Summertime when’ but that ‘and’ sets up a tone, a whole poetic tone, not to mention a whole kind of diction that is going to be used. . . . It’s the exact right word, and that word is worth its weight in gold. . . . The choices of ‘ands’ and ‘buts’ become almost traumatic as you are writing a lyric.

Everyone will have their favorite rendition. Here are my top five:

5. Janis Joplin

4. Ella Fitzgerald

3. Billie Holiday

2. Sarah Vaughan

1. Miles Davis

Gershwin’s dedication in Porgy and Bess was “To My Parents.” Here’s to memory, freedom, sovereignty, independence—and summertime.

Jeffrey Gedmin is co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose.

Image: Birthday party honoring Maurice Ravel, New York City, March 8, 1928. From left: Oscar Fried, conductor; Eva Gauthier, singer; Ravel at piano; Manoah Leide-Tedesco, composer-conductor; and composer George Gershwin. Photo by Manoah Leide-Tedesco. (World Wide Photos)