One Song: Summertime

In music, particularly in jazz and popular music, there are songs and then there are Standards. Standards have such universal appeal that they are quickly embraced and recorded by a number of artists. In fact, for vocalists, these songs can become almost “required” in the singer’s repertoire if they are to prove their chops. Now, in order to achieve the Standards appellation, a song has to be more than popular. It has to do more that touch some emotional center. There needs to be something universal about it–something to which most people can relate. And the song itself tends to be wound around a simple, elegant melody, one that is both appealing and adaptable enough that singers and musicians can alter the arrangement into something all their own.

One such song is George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” an aria written for the 1st act of his 1935 opera, Porgy and Bess. Dubose Heyward, who wrote the novel on which the opera was based, penned the lyrics. Capturing one of the more upbeat themes of the story, the song blossomed, eventually becoming larger than the opera itself. The song and opera are both special to me for a number of reasons. One is that this has long been my favorite song. The other is meeting my life partner, and discovering she had a similar relationship with the tune. Given Heyward wrote the lyrics from his novel, which was converted to a play by his playwright wife, that’s meaningful. (I guess you need a Bess to find your inner Porgy.)

In addition to having been heralded by such greats as Stephen Sondheim as being among the best musical theater lyrics ever composed, according to The Summertime Connection, as of 2011, “Summertime” had been performed in public almost 42,000 times, and recorded over 33,000 times. The Collection claims to have nearly 26,000 such recordings as proof. At between three and five minutes per recording, we can safely estimate that musicians have spent 2,200 hours in the studio just on the final recordings of the song. Imagine how many hours of setup, practice, and out-takes have been spent on Gershwin and Heyward’s song.

To show the commonality and diversity of the songs, here is a sampling of some of my favorites.

I’m not sure whom to start the set off with better than Ella Fiztgerald. Ella recorded the song solo, which highlighted her improvisational style, but I chose her version recorded with Louis (not Louie) Armstrong, because this one captures the song’s foundation better. It also captures one of Pops’s better vocal performances.

Now, Porgy and Bess is an opera, although we tend to dismiss it because it’s in English instead of Italian or German. So it’s been recorded by a myriad of divas. Here are my faves:

Kathleen Battle:

Think it’s a black song? An American song? Maria Callas didn’t think so:

By the time the Jazz Age was in full blood, musicians had begun to twist the song, playing with its flexibility without losing its core.

Billie Holliday would bend it till it breaks:

And of course, Trane would break it and put it back together again. This is an 11-minute version, so you may want to take just a taste:

It’s reached the point that modern renditions have strayed considerably from its operatic roots. The only commonality for producing a credible version of the song seems to be that the musicians are capable of capturing the song’s optimistic lyrics on top of the oppressive reality of the live that Porgy and Bess lived.

Janis Joplin:

Al Jarreau ironed it out into a smooth jazz version popular on jazz radio in the late 90s. Not bad, but here he strays from the song’s bluesy core, focusing more on the instrumentation that surrounds the simple melody Gershwin penned.

Perhaps the best atypical version was done by The Doors. I wonder how Gershwin would have reacted. I suspect he might have tried to join in the jam.

And finally, there’s the version that Jeanne Dark listened to in my latest novel, cleverly named after her. Here’s Oscar Peterson:

For a fuller sampling of versions of this song, featuring performances by R.E.M., Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra, Billy Stewart, Tori Amos, and others, you can check out the YouTube playlist below, although some of the videos have been deleted. For a real treat, listen to Paul Robeson’s version here or Leontyne Price’s opera meets the Old Black South version there.



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