David Brent Johnson
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.