< a href="http://riverwalkjazz.org/the-story-of-porgy-and-bess-by-jim-cullum/" target="_blank">Click here to read Jim Cullum’s entertaining memoir “The Story of Porgy and Bess.”
DuBose Heyward, a native of Charleston, South Carolina, wrote the novel Porgy in the early '20s, weaving a tale of love and honor based on characters from the Charleston waterfront scene. Gershwin read Porgy in 1926, fell in love with the story and immediately wrote to Heyward inviting him to collaborate on an opera based on the novel.
Gershwin received a commission from the Metropolitan Opera to write a grand opera in 1930 and was free to select the libretto. While Gershwin was impressed with the Met’s offer, he knew that the venue would present formidable problems to his mounting an opera based on Porgy. At the time, the Met’s doors were closed to African-American performers and Gershwin was firm on using an all-black cast.
For a few years, Gershwin searched for another story. Nothing appealed to his interest like Porgy, and he refused to present it in blackface as was the practice of the time. Meanwhile, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, still basking in the success of their landmark musical Show Boat, made an attractive offer to Heyward for the musical rights The popular entertainer Al Jolson was to play Porgy and the producers planned to turn the book into a musical comedy with a cast in blackface. The pressure forced Gershwin and Heyward to move forward and announce their intention to compose a folk opera based on Heyward’s novel—and the groundbreaking news that it would be performed on Broadway with an African-American cast.
Late in 1933 Gershwin began to work on Porgy and Bess. He visited Carolina churches, nightclubs and prayer meetings, immersing himself in the culture. Meanwhile, Heyward and Ira Gershwin wrote the lyrics. Gershwin’s score brilliantly combines popular and classical forms, bringing together elements of opera, jazz and folk music. The harmonic language of the score was quite advanced for its day, formally incorporating the blue notes" of African American music into a large concert work.
Gershwin was quoted in the New York Times in 1935:
“Because Porgy and Bess deals with Negro life in America it brings to the operatic form elements that have never before appeared in the opera and I have adapted my method to utilize the drama, the humor, the superstition, the religious fervor, the dancing and the irrepressible high spirits of the race. If doing this, I have created a new form, which combines opera with theater, this new form has come quite naturally out of the material.”
To Gershwin’s great disappointment, Porgy and Bess opened at New York’s Alvin Theatre on October 10, 1935 to mixed reviews and closed in less than six months. Gershwin died in 1937 at the age of 38, before Porgy and Bess became recognized as one of the great artistic accomplishments of American culture in the 20th century.
The Jim Cullum Jazz Band began to create an original jazz transcription of Porgy and Bess in late 1984 with arrangements by pianist John Sheridan and cornetist Randy Reinhart. The work premiered with highly favorable reviews at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio in October, 1985, and was released on compact disc by CBS Masterworks in 1987.