A Worldwide Rhapsody In Gershwin

'We are living in an age of staccato, not legato," George Gershwin once said. "This we must accept. But this does not mean that out of this very staccato utterance something beautiful might not be evolved."

Gershwin's evolving music proved very beautiful indeed. For years, music scholars argued the merits of Gershwin's work. But there seems no doubt now, on the brink of the maestro's centennial on Sept. 26, that the American composer spoke for his age (the 1920s and '30s), and maybe even the century. His features are indelibly stamped on American music. His greatest songs still play powerfully. And his concert music like "Rhapsody in Blue" and "An American in Paris" reflect so much of American optimism, vivacity, and, well, cool, they still help define Americans.

Throughout this year, celebrations are planned all over North America and Europe. And tomorrow, from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., cable station TCM (Turner Classic Movies) will show films that Gershwin scored or otherwise contributed to. Listen for a tribute to Gershwin from the Chicago Theatre on National Public Radio in tape delay (check local listings) Saturday night, too. The tribute includes a segment with Michael Feinstein, a Gershwin scholar and singer-musician who, in his early 20s, was secretary and archivist for George's brother and librettist, Ira Gershwin.

Mr. Feinstein will be telling anecdotes and playing Gershwin tunes on TCM throughout the day. Feinstein's new album, "Michael and George," is a timely contribution to Gershwinia - some of George's most popular and lesser-known tunes sung with authentic feeling.

"I never went to a college to study music, let alone Gershwin," Feinstein says. "However, my passion for Gershwin's concert works at first, and then the songs he wrote with Ira, became an all-consuming pursuit at an early age. I spent many years collecting Gershwin's recordings and different performances of the songs and concert works."

Gershwin's music owes a great deal to African-American jazz, says Feinstein. "He loved to go to Harlem to listen to all these musicians play, and he hung out with the guys. He would go to what they called 'cutting contests,' where James P. Johnson and Fats Waller and Luckey Roberts would try to outdo each other. He was a privileged white who was allowed to participate because of his talent. He was immersed in the melting pot of New York."

George and Ira were two halves of a whole, Feinstein says. "Ira was a genius, too.... It is the perfect combination of music and lyric that makes a great song. He worked so closely with George. They adored each other. They were such opposites: George was outgoing and gregarious, and Ira was shy and self-effacing. If he were at a party, you'd never know he was there. Whereas George was always at the piano."

George very easily wrote melodies, says Feinstein. "They flowed out of him. He once left a notebook that contained one-line melodies for possible future songs in a hotel room. When he returned for it and found it was gone, he just shrugged and said, 'There's more where that came from.' But when Ira started to work on a project with George, he would do crossword puzzles and word games to get himself ready for the task. It was hard work for him."

Hard work, easy tunes: The combination made up an oeuvre that has proved perpetually appealing. As Ira once put it: "The memory of all that/ No, no, they can't take that away from me."

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