Historical Essays
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Jazz Adaptations of "Porgy and Bess" (Part 1)
by Thomas Cunniffe

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George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” lives in two separate worlds. It is an opera, yet it premiered in a Broadway theatre (and at this writing, is playing again on Broadway in an artistically controversial adaptation). Its premiere run was for 124 performances—a flop by Broadway standards, but an impressive record for a contemporary American opera. Gershwin composed the work in the established style of European grand opera, but the music reflected the American genres he loved: jazz, blues, ragtime, folk songs, and black sacred music. He was criticized for including “hit songs” into a serious opera, but those songs became the work’s greatest legacy. In addition to creating an indigenous sound for American opera, the music from “Porgy and Bess” was performed by jazz and pop musicians all over the world, and it was loved by audiences who had never seen the opera in its stage or film versions.


George Gershwin first read DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel “Porgy” in a single sitting. Heyward was a novelist from Charleston, South Carolina, who based his title character on Sammy Smalls, a crippled black beggar known as “Goat Cart Sammy” for his primary mode of transportation. Smalls had died or disappeared by the time Heyward wrote his book, but Heyward knew Smalls’ neighborhood well: it was called Cabbage Row and it was not far away from Heyward’s home. Heyward and his mother had studied the Gullah culture practiced in Cabbage Row (renamed Catfish Row for the novel and all later adaptations). After Heyward had successfully captured the atmosphere in his novel, his new wife, Dorothy, adapted the novel into a stage play. Gershwin approached Heyward with the idea of an opera around 1928, but he didn’t start composing the opera for another five years. At Heyward’s insistence, Gershwin spent several months in South Carolina learning and absorbing the Gullah culture for himself, becoming quite skilled at “shouting” in black church services.

The opera’s libretto was written jointly by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, with significant lyric contributions by Ira Gershwin. The Gershwins and their estate have always insisted on all-black casts in English-language productions of “Porgy and Bess”, and with the lack of integrated opera companies at the time, Broadway seemed a logical place to stage the new work. The first performance in Boston ran nearly four hours, and Gershwin started the arduous process of cutting the work down. However, a vocal score was created during this period, preserving pieces of music that never played on the Broadway stage. The New York premiere was on October 10, 1935 at the Alvin Theatre and the show closed on January 26, 1936. A month later, Bob Crosby’s band was using “Summertime” as its theme song, and in July, Billie Holiday became the first jazz vocalist to record it.

Tom Lord lists over 1700 recorded versions of “Summertime” in his online “Jazz Discography”, but this study does not deal with the isolated jazz recordings of that song or any others from “Porgy and Bess”. Rather, we will examine several concept albums which present “Porgy and Bess” as a total entity. Some of these recordings follow the original song sequence from the score, but even the most complete jazz version does not include all of the music. The synopsis here provides the opera’s original storyline, characters and song sequence. The synopsis will open in a separate window, and we highly recommend keeping it open for reference while reading the essay.

The first album-length jazz adaptation of “Porgy and Bess” was also the most elaborate. Bethlehem’s all-star recording was originally issued as a 3-LP set, and presented the opera with nearly all of its themes and dramatic action intact. Only the recitatives and a few minor arias were cut, and the gaps were filled with narration. It was an audacious project for an independent label to undertake, but Bethlehem’s roster had a deep talent pool and nearly all of their artists took part in this album. Mel Tormé was the biggest star on the label and his interpretation of Porgy holds this production together. He sings the part with great feeling and superb musicianship. His version of “They Pass by Singin’” imbues all of the loneliness contained in his character. Playing opposite Tormé is Frances Faye as Bess. Faye is nearly forgotten today, but she was one of the first flamboyantly bisexual performers in show business. She performed in cabarets and her vocal style was a loud mixture of shouting and singing. She was chosen to play Bess because she shared the character’s tough demeanor. However, Bess’ character goes through a great transformation in the course of the opera, and Faye was unable to communicate those dramatic changes. When Faye bellows “Porgy, I’s Your Woman Now”, it sounds more like a threat than a declaration of love.

Clara is played by Betty Roché, a former vocalist for the Duke Ellington band. Roché had a seductive vocal style and her version of “Summertime” sounds like its being directed to a man instead of a baby, but her scat solos later in the set are delightful and inventive. Frank Rosolino sings the part of Jake. His quirky vocal style works well on the light-hearted “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing”, but a little hard to believe on the work song “It Takes a Long Pull to Get There”. Impressionist George Kirby is serviceable as Sportin’ Life, and Sallie Blair sings a throbbing version of “My Man’s Gone Now” as Serena, but the big surprise is Johnny Hartman as Crown. Best known as a romantic singer, Hartman adds a rough edge to his sound and makes the part his own. He carries the dramatic tension in his duet with Faye, “What You Want Wid Bess” and struts his way through the blues-inspired “A Red-Headed Woman”. The choral parts throughout are sung by the Pat Moran Quartet, and while they sing well as a group, their style sounds hopelessly dated today.

The connecting narration was penned by a CBS script writer Al Moritz, and read by disc jockey Al “Jazzbeaux” Collins. Collins does his best to infuse enthusiasm into the script, but he doesn’t have much to work with, and the liner notes imply that Moritz’ script was pruned to fit within the time limits of the recording. Russ Garcia adapted and conducted the music, and his arrangements included spots for the Australian Jazz Quintet and a small jazz group led by Stan Levey, as well as full orchestra (There was a previously recorded version of “Summertime” by Duke Ellington inserted into the album, and that was the only arrangement not written by Garcia). As with several arrangers discussed in this study, Garcia took many liberties with Gershwin’s score, but included several of the original countermelodies in his settings.

In his autobiography, Tormé wrote that he hated the Bethlehem recording because the “polyglot” approach belittled the original material. To be sure, the Bethlehem version has many flaws, but in its attempt to present the entire work (albeit in abbreviated form), it inspired many other jazz artists to explore Gershwin’s rich score. The flood of jazz “Porgy and Bess” albums in the late 50s can also be traced to two other sources: the popularity of jazz adaptations of Broadway shows, starting with Shelly Manne's hit album of songs from “My Fair Lady”, and the highly-publicized film version of “Porgy and Bess”, produced by Samuel Goldwyn, and starring Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Pearl Bailey. In 1959, as the film was being prepared for release, nearly every existing record company had a version of “Porgy and Bess” for sale. The film itself was criticized for adapting the original material into a standard movie musical style. When the film’s copyright expired, the Gershwin estate had the film withdrawn, and they have attempted to destroy all existing prints.

One of the most popular approaches in creating album-length versions of “Porgy and Bess” was to match a male and female vocalist, and have each singer perform all of the parts of their respective gender. The backing arrangements would be for big band or full orchestra, and tailored for the featured artists. Such was the case with the Norman Granz-produced recording featuring Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. Granz gave the album the “deluxe treatment” with extensive liner notes and striking cover art. However, most of the music on the 2-LP set was recorded in a single marathon session, with little time for second takes or rehearsals. Of course, Armstrong, Fitzgerald and the studio orchestra, led—once again—by Russ Garcia, were used to working with Granz, and were up for the challenge. Armstrong and Fitzgerald’s beautifully-nuanced version of “Summertime” reportedly brought tears to the eyes of Ira Gershwin, and if Fitzgerald’s rendition of “My Man’s Gone Now” lacks a sense of repressed anger, it is a heartfelt evocation of melancholy. Armstrong relishes the lyric of “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing” and makes us want to join him on a “Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York”. The spirit is there for “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’”, but Armstrong botched a key lyric—“the folks with plenty of plenty” have “nuttin’” in his reading—and the resulting confusion of the message should have signaled a retake. Fitzgerald asked to sing “It Ain’t Necessarily So” with Armstrong, and her reading of the lyric is delightfully slinky and a great contrast to Armstrong’s majestic trumpet and straight (for him) singing. Both get the chance to scat in the interludes, and later, when Fitzgerald sings about Methuselah, Armstrong improvises the hilarious response “Ol’ ‘Thusie”. One of the most beloved versions of “Porgy and Bess”, the Armstrong/Fitzgerald album finds the two principals in top form. While the album might have benefited from more rehearsal and recording time (I wish that Armstrong would have sung the counter melody on “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” instead of scatting his own line), the natural chemistry between Ella and Louis makes this album a classic.

Two further examples of the dual-vocalist approach should be mentioned here. Sammy Davis, Jr. played Sportin’ Life in the Goldwyn film. He was under contract to Decca, who did not allow Columbia to use Davis’ film tracks for the soundtrack album, so Cab Calloway subbed for Davis on Columbia, and Decca made their own “Porgy and Bess” album with Davis and Carmen McRae. McRae’s solo versions of “Summertime” and “My Man’s Gone Now” are faithful to the opera, even including the original arrangements. Davis’ solos, which constitute the majority of the album, sound like Vegas-cum-Hollywood versions of the songs, with flashy arrangements, and Davis’ pseudo-hipster finger snaps and vocal asides.  “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” is the only McRae/Davis duet, and the sound of the recording makes me suspect that the vocals were recorded separately. Better overall was RCA’s album featuring Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne. Belafonte refused the role of Porgy in the Goldwyn film, and Horne was never asked—by Goldwyn or anyone else—to play Bess. Horne’s thrilling performances on “My Man’s Gone Now” and “I Loves You, Porgy” show that she would have been an exceptional Bess, and judging from her sly version of “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, she could have played Sportin’ Life, too! Belafonte sings his selections in a wonderfully relaxed manner, working exceptionally well with the big band settings. He is also suitably intense on the medley of street vendor calls. Belafonte and Horne sing together on the side closers, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and “There’s A Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York”. Unfortunately, the placement of “Boat” at the end of the album might lead listeners unfamiliar with the opera to believe that at the finale, Porgy and Bess travel together to New York to find greater fortunes. While the opera’s third act is dramatically weak as it is, this imagined ending is far worse!

Gil Evans once called Miles Davis “a great singer of songs”. The vocal quality of Davis’ trumpet style had been glimpsed in several earlier recordings (including the Evans-arranged version of “My Ship” on "Miles Ahead"), and it was the focus of the Davis/Evans collaboration on “Porgy and Bess”. Like a great opera singer, Davis is at center stage, surrounded by Evans’ richly colored orchestrations. There is little that can prepare the listener for the screaming intensity of the trumpets on the opening track, “Buzzard Song”, or the sheer power at the climax of “My Man’s Gone Now”. And while Evans has jettisoned Gershwin’s original orchestrations and tune sequence, he has created splendid original music of his own, including the jaunty tuba/bass line on “Buzzard”, the nearly-iconic counter melody on “Summertime” and the fast, straight-ahead variant on the funeral theme “Gone”. And could anyone but Miles Davis offer such a wide range of emotions without uttering a single word? He makes these songs personal, and that engages us as listeners.  There are many other wonders to this recording: Evans’ acute dramatic sense (notice that the climax of “My Man’s Gone Now” is only a few bars, but its effect carries on much longer), Davis’ unique approach to modal improvisation (still a new concept in jazz at the time), and the glimpses of other “Porgy” arias inserted into the improvisations and arrangements (The notes mention the interpolation of “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’” at the beginning of “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, but I doubt that many recognize “They Pass By Singin’” as the intro to “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” or the reprise of the “Gone” motive near the end of “Boat”). An album that truly rewards repeated listening, the Davis/Evans version of “Porgy and Bess” is a brilliant transformation of Gershwin’s score, and a stunning musical achievement in its own right.

An interesting variation on the instrumentalist-as-character theme comes in the 1959 Warner Brothers LP, “Porgy and Bess Revisited”. Backed by arrangements by Jim Timmens, the main characters of the opera are played by a cast of Ellington alumni, who portray their characters through their unique instrumental voices. The majestic trumpet of Cootie Williams brings strength to the character of Porgy, and the tender warmth of Hilton Jefferson’s alto sax enriches his portrayal of Bess. The impish half-valve and muted effects of cornetist Rex Stewart makes him a natural as Sportin’ Life, and Lawrence Brown brings his smooth trombone style to the dual roles of Clara and Serena. The only non-Ellingtonian soloist was baritone saxophonist Pinky Williams, whose rough-hewed style was perfect for the fisherman Jake. Timmens is virtually forgotten today, but during this period, he created similar jazz treatments of Gilbert and Sullivan, and Jerome Kern’s “Show Boat”. His arranging style is quite uneven, with some settings offering fresh, re-imagined versions of the originals, while others seem unduly syrupy or needlessly hyperactive. Still, it is the soloists that make this album a success, and Stewart, Brown, and Cootie Williams are in spectacular form. The album was reissued by DRG Swing in the early 80s, and sealed copies of that vinyl edition can still be purchased online.

                                                                                                                                                                                                Go to Part 2
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