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Evolution Of A Song: 'I Got Rhythm'

by Simon Rentner
Feb 9, 2011 (WBGO-FM)

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When George Gershwin wrote "I Got Rhythm" for the 1930s musical Girl Crazy, he created one of the most catchy melodies in American history. But little did he know that his lovable song — apart from becoming a hugely popular jazz standard — would evolve into something far greater.

The song itself, on the most basic level, became the perfect vehicle for jazz improvisers. Swing and bebop musicians thrived on its formula: a memorable 32-bar AABA structure and irresistible chord progression. This structure served as a model for many other successful jazz tunes, some say hundreds, like Duke Ellington's "Cotton Tail," Sonny Rollins' "Oleo" and Nat King Cole's "Straighten Up and Fly Right." Remarkably, the "I Got Rhythm" form rivals only the blues structure as the most adapted, mimicked or ripped-off, depending how you look at it.

George Gershwin's later symphonic work, "Variations on I Got Rhythm," was dedicated to the song's original lyricist, his brother Ira Gershwin. But even his brother couldn't have imagined the endless variations on this winning composition. Who could ask for anything more?

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