At the age of twenty, I met one of the legends of American popular music, Ira Gershwin. It was the most exciting moment of my life and I recall it in vivid detail. I worshipped what he had created with his brother George and had never dreamed I'd meet him. As he spoke about his lifetime of work I knew everything he was referring to, even though it had all taken place decades before I was born. When he eventually realized that I knew all his stories at least as well as he did, he suddenly stopped and stared at me, taking in my twenty-year-old countenance as if for the first time. In a perplexed voice he said, "How many more of you are there?"
So there it was, the moment I had been unconsciously waiting for my whole life, and a course-altering moment it was. It was the culmination of years of obsession, which I'd spent as a kid finding everything I could on the Gershwins, and now here I was at the feet of the master. These many years later, I'm still at his feet, still feeling the pull of the Gershwin mystique and still telling stories and putting their work out there as best I can. Lord knows I need them more than they need me. And yet, after devoting myself to the learning and love of their work over all these years, I feel we've developed an unexpected symbiosis, and now it is time to share the joy and the excitement of my experience.
This book is a celebration. It's my attempt to capture and preserve the essence of an era of songwriting and creativity that is nearly impossible to fathom today; it was a time when the names George and Ira Gershwin were synonymous with everything that was fresh, exciting, and vital about the creative arts. It was a time when songs and songwriting were an essential part of the fabric of our culture and helped shape attitudes, morals, and beliefs through their inherent power and ability to reach the hearts of the nation, a time when the craft of creation was supreme, existing on a very high level and flowing as freely as air so it was usually taken for granted.
As the world continues to move and change at lightning speed, many things have gotten lost along the way. Arts and culture are ever evolving and reflect our dissonant times, yet the link to the classic era still exists (however oblique it may seem) and can be traced from any contemporary work back to George's first hit, "Swanee." Nothing could exist today without whatever came before it, and with the Web's infinite resources, new generations are discovering this classic music and embracing it.
The Gershwin legacy remains a mighty force that can catch a new initiate off guard through the power it still yields. Its sound was once the voice of the Jazz Age and the Depression, but it has stayed contemporary through the intervening decades, proving that musically too, history can repeat itself. Music always mirrors the time in which it is created and its survival depends on whether it will resonate across the generations.
Gershwin songs still resonate. They are part of the fabric of our society. Many years ago, the legendary writers Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks were working on a television program together when Carl announced he had to visit a doctor for an ailment. When Reiner returned, Mel asked about the diagnosis. "The doctor said I've got arrhythmia," said Carl. "Who could ask for anything more?" was Mel's instant rejoinder. See what I mean about being a part of the fabric of society? Even if such a reference feels more remote now, I am that odd duck whose fascination with musical history makes me feel a close kinship with past generations. There are many others like me — you know who you are.
The idea of preservation has always been very important to me, and I was involved with it long before I understood what it meant. At age five I was already curious about the old records and sheet music my parents and relatives owned, and I wanted to know more about those odd pieces of the past. My love for both older kinds of music and the vanished worlds that produced them has taken forms I had never imagined.
Through the years I have been blessed to meet and know so many of the personalities involved with this music and I have always tried to remember and hold on to what I have learned from them. Their stories are rich and moving. Meeting so many and hearing their stories, watching their body language, and feeling a psychic sympathy with the times that shaped them have impelled me to preserve their legacy.
As I have grown older and in some ways wiser, the desire and need to share what I know about the Gershwin era have only increased. Now with this book, and the CD of songs that accompanies it, I can share some of what I have learned and gleaned. I have used each of the twelve songs to illuminate some aspect of the rich musical world I inhabit. We travel from the smoky, jazz-filled clubs and vibrant concert halls of the twenties through opera houses and piano bars to the present, chronicling the lives of the Gershwins and their extraordinary collective genius as songwriters and how that has intersected with my own experience, beginning with my life-changing friendship with Ira Gershwin. Though I'd rather engage with a song by performing and living it rather than analyzing it, I've tried to say what it is about these songs that fires my imagination, hoping you will share my enthusiasm.
Not too many years ago, there was a time when music played a much more important role in our society, and it was as essential to our lives and as comforting as eating Wheaties in the morning and making family outings to the park on Sunday. As a kid growing up in the sixties and seventies, I caught the tail end of that rose-colored time and am startled at the way the arts have been diminished, to the detriment of our society. The level of communal significance they once played is largely unfathomable to our contemporary world and I literally cry sometimes at what we have lost. Where are the songs that we can all sing together — not just some of us, but all of us?
But that old music has turned out to be longer-lasting and more important to our world than we realized.
All around there are young people whom I meet that love older music not of their time and have been captivated by its unique qualities; those who like me are different from the rest of their generation and respond to the excitement and passion found in the sound of Gershwin. They are discovering it fresh and cherishing it. The magic still works.
Over the last few years I created an organization for the purpose of preserving classic standards, the Michael Feinstein Great American Songbook Initiative. We are headquartered in a beautiful space in Carmel, Indiana, contiguous to Indianapolis, but with our significant Web presence we can be accessed by anyone, anywhere. Our greatest goal is to keep the music alive, through master classes, concerts, visits to schools, competitions, a research center filled with music, recordings, memorabilia, and a soon-to-be-built museum that will house the multitude of artifacts that I have collected and have been donated by so many others. Finally, there will be a physical place to celebrate this music, just as there are halls of fame and museums for rock and roll in Cleveland and country music in Nashville. It's a dream come true and it reflects the promise and potential we can still experience from the heritage of the Gershwins and their compatriots. Lives can still be transformed by these songs.
When I am no longer here I don't care if I am remembered; what the hell difference does it make anyway? Conversely, I deeply care about doing what I can do to help keep the Gershwin name alive. Why? Because my life would be poorer without their legacy and it gives me immense pleasure to look at the face of someone discovering a Gershwin song for the first time. It's like witnessing a birth.
As long as people care about music, they'll care about Gershwin.
Wouldn't that be s' wonderful?
From The Gershwins And Me by Michael Feinstein. Copyright 2012 by Michael Feinstein. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY.