Five Classic Jazz Takes On 'Porgy And Bess'
Andrea Shea's recent Weekend Edition story about a new and controversial production of Porgy and Bess — George and Ira Gershwin and novelist DuBose Heyward's 1935 opera about life in an African-American neighborhood known as Catfish Row — is just the latest sign that the Gershwins' attempt to fuse European classical forms with an American musical vernacular has endured far beyond its initially disappointing reception.
Porgy and Bess wasn't a hit when it opened in 1935, closing after only 124 performances, and its debut was not without controversy, either; it drew criticism for what some saw as stereotyped racial depictions. Duke Ellington, who'd recently composed an extended musical portrait of African-American culture called "Symphony in Black," criticized the Gershwins' opera for not using "the Negro musical idiom," and contended that his work "was true to and of the life of the people it depicted. The same thing cannot be said for Porgy and Bess."
Whatever the show's perceived attendant issues, some jazz musicians took to a few of its songs almost immediately, seizing especially upon the hypnotic "Summertime." After a handful of late-1930s and 1940s revivals, the advent of the LP — and a successful early-1950s production starring William Warfield, Leontyne Price and Cab Calloway — set the stage for a slew of 1950s Porgy and Bess jazz tributes. Samuel Goldwyn's announcement that he intended to make a movie of the opera, and the jazz-goes-Broadway trend spurred by Shelly Manne and Andre Previn's hit recording of the music from My Fair Lady, also sparked jazz-world interest in the Gershwins' score.
Over the next few years, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Hank Jones, Mundell Lowe and others recorded full-length Porgy and Bess albums, and Bethlehem Records mounted an eyebrow-raising three-LP all-star extravaganza, with Mel Torme and Frances Faye voicing the roles of the title characters. Porgy and Bess proved to be a rich mining ground for post-1950 jazz artists: As Gershwin biographer Howard Pollack has noted, the music is full of harmonic sophistication and a variety of modal passages. Here are five classic jazz interpretations of the music from Porgy and Bess.
Billie Holiday and Sidney Bechet had already recorded remarkable versions of Porgy and Bess' opening number before arranger Eddie Sauter got his hands on it. Sauter's treatment, recorded in 1945 by Artie Shaw (who'd played on the earlier Holiday record), sets things simmering with Dodo Marmarosa's piano tremolos and swells with an epic sense of drama. The orchestra provides a teeming backdrop of hot light and sheltering shadows, while Shaw and trumpeter Roy Eldridge state brashly suggestive realizations of what the season's landscape and life in general might have to offer. "Summertime" went on to become one of the most widely recorded popular songs of the 20th century, and jazz artists continue to be drawn to its harmonic and pentatonic structural elements.
I Loves You, Porgy
Another Porgy and Bess song that Billie Holiday helped bring to the public's attention, "I Loves You, Porgy," functioned in the opera as a duet between the two title characters. Nina Simone's 1957 version ripples with her own brand of genuine poignancy, carried in part by her stately piano playing, which evokes the tender nobility and pain of the two lovers.
Prayer (Oh Doctor Jesus)
In 1958, Miles Davis and Gil Evans were coming off their first collaboration for Columbia Records, Miles Ahead, which had met with good sales and critical success. Media hype for producer Samuel Goldwyn's announced movie of Porgy and Bess was building, which made the idea of a Davis-Evans follow-up based around it even more attractive to Columbia. As jazz writer and arranger Bob Belden notes, Davis and Evans' Porgy and Bess showed more signs of the stripped-down, modal approach Davis had employed on his Milestones LP, and that would achieve full fruition the next year on Kind of Blue. Evans' brooding arrangement of this song, with the orchestra's worrying figures behind Davis' keening trumpet work, moves with a kind of deadly grandeur. Porgy and Bess would prove to be one of Davis' best-selling albums; years later, Davis would grouse that its success had inspired Columbia executives to lobby him for a similar jazz treatment of the Doctor Doolittle soundtrack. No dice. "After listening to that s--- I said, 'No way, Jose'" was the Dark Prince's verdict.
It Ain't Necessarily So
Fueled by drummer Art Blakey's Latinized percussive kick and pianist Sonny Clark's diamond-hard bop comping and soloing, Grant Green and company turn the sly and devilish insinuation of, say, Ahmad Jamal's marvelous 1955 recording of this song into a rollicking, don't-stop-'til-you-get-your-groove-on defiance of church and state. Blakey's vocal exhortations punctuate chorus after chorus of high-octane Green guitar and snaky-hipped Clark piano, and keep the listener hoping that this ain't necessarily the end.
Bess, You Is My Woman Now
Here's something from the sleeper of jazz Porgy and Bess albums: an oft-overlooked 1959 recording by under-the-radar Washington, D.C., pianist and arranger Bill Potts that drew on a host of stellar talents, ranging from Bill Evans and Zoot Sims to Art Farmer and Al Cohn. Alto saxophonist Phil Woods soars over a chart filled with the subtle intensity and organic flourishes that Potts brought to all of the music on this album; the saxophone sections in particular seem to breathe with vitality.