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Note: this is an extended version of a feature article George Gershwin's 1934 visit to Madison, published in the Wisconsin State Journal on February 2, 2002 under the title "Strike Up the Band."

George Gershwin in Madison

            by Michael Allsen

It was January 1934. The top news stories of the day were the recent repeal of Prohibition, the still-unsolved Lindbergh kidnapping, and--hitting closest to home--a violent strike by dairy farmers. On January 7, The Capital Times broke the story that George Gershwin would perform at West High School on January 24. This was sensational news--Gershwin was probably the most famous musical performer to appear in Madison in the 1930s. He was already a familiar name by the early 1920s, with a string of successful Broadway shows, and hit songs like Swanee. But it was a collaboration with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in early 1924 that made him a national star. His "Jazz Concerto" Rhapsody in Blue was an unprecedented success, and one of the first truly successful fusions of Jazz style and Classical orchestration. Gershwin became increasingly confident writing for orchestra, and in succeeding years followed up the Rhapsody with orchestral works like An American in Paris and the Concerto in F. By 1933, he had begun work on his most ambitious project, an operatic adaptation of DuBose Heyward's novel Porgy.

In late 1933, Harry Askins, a promoter and longtime associate of Gershwin's, arranged an ambitious concert tour: 28 concerts in 28 cities in 28 days; some 12,000 miles, from Boston to as far west as Omaha, and finally to its conclusion in Brooklyn. The tour was to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Rhapsody in Blue, but Gershwin seems to have seen this as a welcome chance to perform at a time when work on Porgy and Bess and other shows was keeping him away the stage. The tour was a top-drawer affair: Askins booked one of the great radio stars of the day, tenor James Melton, and the 35-member Leo Reisman Orchestra. Gershwin produced a brand-new orchestral work just in time for the tourís opening date. His "I Got Rhythm" Variations, based on his 1930 hit song, was a virtuoso solo piece designed to showcase the composer's prodigious keyboard skills. In the end, the tour was a great success in getting Gershwin before a much broader audience, and the composer obviously enjoyed himself. But it was a financial disaster, ending several thousand dollars in the red. Gershwin later estimated the expenses at over $14,000 per day, and Askins unwisely booked the tour into several venues (including West High School) that were just too small to turn a profit.

As Gershwin's arrival approached, the local papers carried stories about him, and about Melton, even describing the stops on the tour's gradual westward approach. When the private train arrived in Madison, Gershwin made himself available for interviews, and met many local fans. Those who met with Gershwin found him friendly and approachable: one reporter pronounced that he "...acts like a regular fellow, instead of a great American composer and a Pulitzer Prize-winner." He chatted about work on Porgy and Bess, popular and classical music, the growing importance of radio (he was just about to launch a successful radio program of his own), and even the Great Repeal. Gershwin declared: "Now that we can take our wines and liquors like gentlemen, our music will be tempered by the mellowness of pre-Prohibition days." On musical subjects, Gershwin confidently predicted that Jazz "...might just last a while."

The concert was a sensation, with some 1800 people packing into West High School's new auditorium. Madison resident Jerry Borsuk, who had a sixty-year career as a local Jazz pianist and piano teacher, remembers attending the concert as a teenager. Borsuk noted that Gershwin's playing was "fabulous" and that the event was "an exciting time for the whole town." The patrons paid premium prices--the best seats went for $2.75--but clearly got their money's worth. Gershwin, a phenomenal pianist, was the soloist in three of his own works, and accompanied Melton in several songs. The big works on the program were the Concerto in F, Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris, and the new "I Got Rhythm" Variations. Gershwin's piano playing was thrilling, though he joked afterwards about having to deal with a piano that was missing a note. (It was reportedly an "F", which would have been particularly noticeable in the Concerto and the Variations.) Gershwin and Melton livened up the evening with quips and comic asides about the songs and orchestral pieces. The audience demanded several encores, and Melton reportedly got the biggest laugh of the evening when he appeared on stage at last and drawled "Aint y'all ever goin' home?" Gershwin finally used the demands of the tour's schedule - they needed to be in St. Paul by Thursday morning - to end the engagement.

One of the fascinating things about Gershwin, then and now, is the fact that he had feet firmly planted in two different musical worlds. He made his fortune as a composer of Broadway musicals and popular songs, but from very early in his career he also wrote works in what he considered a more "serious" vein. Classical music critics of the day gave decidedly mixed reviews to works like the Rhapsody and the Concerto in F, but audiences generally loved them. The Wisconsin State Journal took the unusual step of publishing two reviews of Gershwin's Madison concert, one by the paper's usual Classical music reviewer, Katharine Hartman Axley, and one by a local Jazz pianist and bandleader, Owen "Bunny" Lyons. Axley's review was glowing in its praise for Gershwin, Melton, and the Reisman Orchestra, but Lyons's writing was positively incandescent, concluding that "...those of you who missed it ask a friend who heard the concert. You'll hear plenty more... And if Mr. Gershwin's astute management books a return engagement here, ten to one you'll be sitting in the audience. And so will your friend, And so will this Jazz devotee, who thanks the sponsors of this event for one of the most enjoyable evenings he's known, since Jazz came of age."

Michael Allsen is Professor of Music at UW-Whitewater and a longtime member of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

©2002 by J. Michael Allsen