This week Riverwalk Jazz offers an encore presentation of the concluding episode in George Gershwin’s folk opera, Porgy and Bess, featuring acting legend William Warfield as narrator. This two-part series features an original jazz transcription of the music from Porgy and Bess, created by The Jim Cullum Jr. Jazz Band and recorded at The Landing in San Antonio in 1992. Among his many accolades, Mr. Warfield is known for his role as Porgy opposite Leontyne Price (see photo).
The program is distributed in the US by Public Radio International, on Sirius/XM satellite radio and can be streamed on-demand from the Riverwalk Jazz website. You can also drop in on a continuous stream of shows at the Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound.
Read Jim Cullum’s entertaining memoir “The Story of Porgy and Bess.”
The setting for the story is Catfish Row, a black fishing village in South Carolina in 1912. Bess, a woman with a past," struggles to free herself from her no-good and violent man, Crown. Porgy is a crippled beggar who gets around on a goat cart. He pledges his love for Bess in the face of incredible obstacles—the disapproval of her friends and family, the threatened return of Crown, and the temptations of a local drug dealer, Sportin’ Life. But by the end of Part One, Bess and Porgy have fallen in love, and Porgy sings to her, ”Bess, You is My Woman Now.”
As the scene opens on Part Two, the people of Catfish Row have traveled to a nearby sea island where a party is going full blast to the sound of, ”I Ain’t Got No Shame.” Sportin’ Life brings a little philosophy to the gathering by singing that “..what you read in the Bible, It Ain’t Necessarily So.”
Bess has a disturbing encounter with Crown who is hiding out on the island, and a week later she comes down with a mysterious illness. Her friend Serena tries to cure her with an incantation to “Doctor Jesus.” Bess recovers and tells Porgy how much she fears Crown and promises her love to him, singing, “I Loves You, Porgy, don’t let him take me.”
A terrible storm blows up and everyone takes refuge in Clara’s room. The wind rattles the shutters and fearing destruction, they sing “Oh, Dere’s Somebody Knocking at De Do’.” Slowly they realize that somebody really is knocking on the door—and it’s Crown! They try to keep him out, but he bursts into the room to seize Bess. He defies them all, laughing and singing, “A Red-Headed Woman Makes the Choo Choo Jump the Track.”
The climax of the story: after a struggle, Porgy kills Crown with his own knife. The police arrive to take Porgy in for questioning, and in his absence Sportin’ Life convinces Bess that Porgy will be in jail for a long, long time. Distraught, she succumbs to Sportin’ Life’s offers of “happy dust” and reluctantly agrees to go with him to New York. “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York,” he sings tantalizingly, and they’re gone.
Porgy returns and fearing that Bess is dead, cries, “Oh, Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess?” When Porgy learns that Bess isn’t dead, he’s ecstatic with the news and calls for his goat cart and sets out to follow her a thousand miles to New York. Porgy’s enormous strength of will comes out in the last speech Mr. Warfield delivers:
“Now it’s a fact that even for a crippled man in a goat cart, a thousand miles isn’t very far where the heart is concerned. And Porgy, one of the greatest characters in music, has enough heart for ten men in love. He cries, 'Oh, Lawd, I’m On My Way.’ And somehow, we know he’s going to make it.”
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