“Summertime and the livin’ is easy.” This lyric is not only from one of the most well-known songs ever written, it’s also part of one of what is probably the best-known—if occasionally the most controversial—operas of the 20th-century: George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.
On February 25, Jazz Studies faculty member Bob Stewart will conduct the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra in the legendary arrangement of Porgy by Gil Evans, which was originally released in 1958 in a recording by Miles Davis. The concert performance will feature trumpeter Jon Faddis, a protégé of Dizzy Gillespie. As Davis was also a Gillespie protégé, Faddis’s interpretation is sure to have extra resonance.
Porgy and Bess has had an unusual history from the start. It was based on the novel and later stage play Porgy, both by Dubose Heyward, whose groundbreakingly sympathetic portrayal of the black characters was particularly notable given that he came from a prominent family of former plantation owners. Heyward, his wife, Dorothy Heyward, and the composer’s brother, Ira Gershwin, would write the libretto to George Gershwin’s equally groundbreaking opera. The Heywards had insisted that the play be performed only with all-black casts, and that was (and is) also the case with the opera.
While the piece was packed with songs that have become American standards, it was controversial in part because it crossed genre boundaries. It had an operatic structure, but used American musical idioms, for instance, and even though it was billed as an opera, it was performed on a Broadway stage rather than an opera house. Billed by Gershwin as a folk opera, it opened on Broadway in 1935 at the Alvin Theater with a cast that cast included two Juilliard graduates: Anne Brown as Bess and Ruby Elzy as Serena. (Notable in the audience on opening night were Joan Crawford, Lily Pons, Jascha Heifetz, Enda Ferber, and Condé Nast.) While the new opera lasted a respectable 124 performances, it was not a resounding box office or commercial success.
Porgy’s hybrid quality was one of the reasons that it was sometimes difficult to get it performed. For instance, even though Metropolitan Opera board chairman Otto Kahn had said as early as 1924 that a yet-to-be-written “great American opera” could be a jazz opera, it wasn’t until 1985 that Porgy and Bess was produced at the Met. (That production was conducted by James Levine and featured a stellar cast including Simon Estes, Grace Bumbry, Bruce Hubbard, and Florence Quivar.)
Over the years, there have been a plethora of attempts to produce a jazz rendition of the work, including the iconic Evans/Davis recording, which is the version the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra will perform. “The reasons that we are doing this concert are multifold,” Carl Allen, artistic director of the Jazz Studies program, wrote in a recent e-mail. “When I do programming, I look at music that I feel our students need to be aware of. These arrangements by Gil Evans are so fresh and creative—and [the Evans/Davis Porgy] just happens to be one of my favorite recordings.”
Soloist Jon Faddis recently sat down with The Journal to discuss Dizzy, Miles, and Porgy and Bess. “When I first met Dizzy, most younger trumpet players were not into his style, [but] I had all of his recordings and I knew all of his solos,” Faddis said. The two had met at a jazz festival where Faddis went to hear his idol perform and get his autograph on the more than just a few recordings of Dizzy’s music that he had in his collection. “He then went ahead and autographed every single recording I brought to him. There were at least 50 of them, some of which he had forgotten he’d ever recorded! Ever since then, we were cool.”
Now, with a countless number of recordings under his belt and collaborations with many of the greatest artists in the world, Faddis is sure to bring the depth necessary for a memorable rendition of Porgy and Bess.
In addition to being here for the performance, the world-class trumpeter will share his insights and experience with the Jazz Studies department at two master classes as well as work with the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra prior to the performance. He noted that the standard jazz repertoire provides many challenges for young jazz musicians and “gives them something to strive for.” Porgy and Bess in particular is challenging for even the most proficient musicians to perform convincingly, he said, in part due to its unique ensemble blend, which includes orchestral and jazz instruments.
“Balance is the key,” Faddis noted. It requires focused listening and control of the instrument, blending with the section, always hearing the melody line, intuitively following the section leader, and playing in balance with a variety of different and unusual instruments to convincing play this piece.
When asked if he thought he had to do something to make this version of Porgy and Bess his own, Faddis answered elliptically. “Miles played this piece great, just as Clark Terry did years later. Clark’s version is not the original but it’s Clark’s original. Both are equally beautiful, just different. I will play my version and hopefully bring the sensitivity necessary for the piece.”