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It’s been decades since a Broadway song or even a Hollywood movie musical tune topped the Billboard charts. That last happened in 1964, when Louis Armstrong recorded the title song from Hello, Dolly! and knocked the Beatles from the top slot, and when the 5th Dimension’s mashup of “Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In” from Hair reached No. 1 for six weeks in 1969. 

There have been a few other contenders, including Barbra Streisand’s “People” from Funny Girl, which reached No. 5, and Dionne Warwick’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” from Promises, Promises, which was a No. 6 hit. Then there was Judy Collins’s rendition of “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, “Memory” from Cats, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar, and the title track from Grease. If you count animated Disney musical films, “A Whole New World” from Aladdin reached No. 1 in 1992.

What a shift from the past. In 1933, Fred Astaire’s recording of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” from The Gay Divorcee, reached No. 1, as did Glenn Miller’s version of “Over the Rainbow.” Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” is the best-selling single ever, from Irving Berlin’s musical Holiday Inn. Perry Como’s rendition of “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific hit No. 1 in 1949.

The great American songbook, featuring show tunes and jazz standards by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Richard Rodgers and George Gershwin, was in large measure a Broadway and a Hollywood creation.

Those songs shared certain characteristics in common. They were jazz inflected. They were danceable. They had memorable, hummable melodies; sophisticated harmonies; and clever, poetic lyrics. Most were musically complex and even erudite, especially compared their latter-day successors by Henry Mancini, Nelson Riddle, Lawrence Welk, Guy Lombardo and Mitch Miller.

I recently had the opportunity to see George Gershwin Alone, a one-man showcase for such popular hits as “Fascinating Rhythm,” “I Got Rhythm,” “’S Wonderful” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” as well as excerpts from Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess; his symphonic poem for orchestra, An American In Paris; and his melding of jazz and classical music, “Rhapsody in Blue.”

For 26 years, Hershey Felder, the Canadian concert pianist, playwright and storyteller, has portrayed Gershwin on stages small and large. The New York Times heralded his performance as “A Solo Requiem for America’s Mozart.” It’s hard to believe that The New York Herald dismissed George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” which was first performed 99 years ago, with these words of disdain:

“How trite, feeble and conventional the tunes are. How sentimental and vapid the harmonic treatment, under its disguise of fussy and futile counterpoint. Weep over the lifelessness of the melody and harmony, so derivative, so stale, so inexpressive.”

Gershwin’s music is here to stay, but his singular reputation and popularity have, alas, faded. Since his death of an undiagnosed brain tumor in 1937 at the age of 38—which was followed by simultaneous memorial services in New York and Los Angeles—several developments have clouded his standing as the figure who did the most to create a distinctive American musical style.

First, there was the unresolved claim that he fathered a child out of wedlock. More significant are issues surrounding Gershwin and race. It’s noteworthy that his first big hit, “Swanee” (1921), was sung by Al Jolson in blackface, as was “Blue Monday Blues,” his failed one-act “jazz opera” (1922).

Then, there is the fact that his compositions, which seemed to herald something new —a synthesis of jazz, blues, Hispanic and Asian sources, and (in his words) “bits of opera, Russian folk songs, Spanish ballads, chanson’s [sic], rag-time ditties”—turned out to be a kind of musical dead end. His approach was displaced on the popular end by rock and roll and, on the classical side by pieces that featured chromatic and atonal melodies, dissonant harmonies, percussiveness, complex time signatures, and a lack of musical structure.

Nothing lasts forever—a trope that’s particularly true in the realm of popular music, where the craving for novelty is especially intense. Yet popular music is also the domain in which we can see the dynamics of American culture in their purest form.

In the words of Howard Pollack, Gershwin’s greatest biographer, the composer’s greatest strength lay in his:

“extraordinary ability to absorb a wide spectrum of seemingly incongruous styles and materials, including the masterpieces of the classical repertoire from the English madrigalists through Stravinsky, American popular song and light opera and vernacular musics associated with Jewish, Irish, British, Asian, Spanish, Latin and black communities. Gershwin’s assimilation of so many varied sources gave his music some of its urbane charm. But his work rose above mere pastiche; it always reflected his personality and distinctive point of view.”

Pollack goes on:

“his output in its entirety contained an identifiable stylistic profile featuring expressive melodies (often marked by pentatonic gestures and blue notes); vibrant, syncopated rhythms; rich and piquant harmonies; sharply etched textures and brilliant colors; and compelling forms with thrilling climaxes.”

Gershwin said that his goal (in “Rhapsody in Blue”) was to create “a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America—of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.”

Earlier this year, John McWhorter, the great Columbia University linguist and New York Times columnist, published an important piece entitled “The Musical That May Have Inspired Gershwin.” The essay is in part a review of Caseen Gaines’s When Broadway Was Black, an account of the landmark 1921 Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle musical Shuffle Along, the seminal show that introduced jazz songs and lively dance numbers to the Broadway stage.

McWhorter is quite right to reassert the pivotal importance of Blake and Sissle—not to mention James Reese Europe, the Black band leader, arranger and composer who played a critical role in popularizing jazz before his 1919 murder by a disgruntled drummer. But in my view his piece doesn’t sufficiently grapple with the complexity of musical influences, which flow in multiple directions.

One of the great strengths of Pollack’s Gershwin lies in its ability to recognize the centrality of Black composers—such as Luckey Roberts, W. C. Handy, Duke Ellington, J. Rosamond Johnson, Harry T. Burleigh, Scott Joplin—and performers including trumpeter Freddie Keppard, pianist Jelly Roll Morton and the Creole Band, and dancers like Ethel Williams, in radically reshaping American music and dance from the 1910s through the 1930s, without downplaying other influences: Yiddish show tunes, Russian music, Italian opera, the Argentine tango, the Brazilian maxixe, which combined polka and Afro-Latin dance steps and a host of other sources.

There can be no doubt that Black musical pioneers who helped to create new musical forms failed to receive the credit that they deserved. In many, many cases, heir innovations were appropriated, exploited and ripped off. To take just one example: Irving Berlin’s failure to adequately acknowledge his debt to Black composers is a stain on his reputation.

Gershwin, in many respects, took big steps toward fulfilling Antonín Dvořák’s dream of creating an American music that would fuse the numerous elements that comprise American culture, beginning with its African American contributions, as did his creative counterparts, including Duke Ellington and Count Basie, Shelton Brooks and Maceo Pinkard. Academic and nonacademic scholarship needs to do more to understand how a complex process of borrowing, blending, remixing and refining took place.

But let me end on a very different note. Gershwin believed that “Studying the piano made a good boy out of a bad one” and that “It took the piano to tone me down.” In an aside, Pollack cites the psychiatrist and pianist Richard Kogan, who “wondered how the composer’s life and career might have unfolded had he been treated rather, as common with hyperactive youngsters today, with psychotropic medications.”

One effort of the triumph of vocationalism, specialization and utilitarianism in K-12 and higher education has been to marginalize the arts. I consider this society’s decision to downplay arts education a crime. We mustn’t forget that music, dance, dramatic performance, painting, sculpture and music and song yield extraordinary therapeutic benefits. Artistic appreciation is a big part of cultural literacy. But it can serve other essential psychological functions as well.

It’s not an accident that art therapy, music therapy, dance and movement therapy, and drama therapy use the creative process to promote healing, self-awareness and personal growth.

Through the arts, students can learn how to express complex emotions, convey thorny thoughts and feelings and articulate feelings that are difficult to articulate with words. Engaging in an artistic process can also be meditative, helping students maintain focus, while diverting their attention away from various sources of stress. Then, too, completing an artwork, learning a dance move or playing a musical piece can deliver a sense of accomplishment, while providing a cathartic release of pent-up emotions and reducing feelings of isolation by fostering a sharing of experiences.

Arts education is intrinsically valuable. It can reveal the complicated societal interactions that have made American culture such a powerful force internationally. As arts educators like to claim, it can enhance memory, attention and spatial-temporal skills. It can also be a gateway to joy.

At a moment when so many of our students are suffering from anxiety and stress, let’s also recognize that engagement with the arts is an invaluable way to process anxiety and trauma and confront fears, insecurities and conflicts.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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