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Gerswhin’s inspiration to scale new heights

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Hundreds of times I improvised haunting and sometimes sad versions of Gershwin’s "Summertime" on the trumpet that for over twenty years has not touched my lips, and now sits in my garage. The song continues moving me as much today as ever.

"Summertime" comes from Gershwin’s earth-moving Porgy and Bess, which premiered in 1935 after Gershwin spent several weeks on an island off Charleston, South Carolina, to hear and join in the rhythms of life, music and speaking that he would incorporate into this opera with signature Gershwin music, rather than the typical classical music that ordinarily accompanied operas at the time and usually still does.

First performed during the height of rabid and unabashed racism in the United States, the opera would be overwhelmingly cast with Black actors, as provided by Gershwin’s brother Ira, who worked with George as lyricist. Among the many concerned about the opera’s portrayal of Black people were Paul Robeson and Duke Ellington. Although the Socialist Worker is not ordinarily my preferred source for reliable information, the paper’s likely decidedly anti-racist approach makes it particularly noteworthy that one of its writers wrote in 2005: "Some black artists criticized the work, believing it to portray black communities in too negative a light. Duke Ellington stated ‘no Negro could possibly be fooled by Porgy and Bess’. Paul Robeson, who Gershwin asked to play the roll of Porgy, having written the part with his voice in mind, refused the role… In later years however both Ellington and Robeson recorded Gershwin’s music because he had played a role in putting black artists in the mainstream theatres."

A 2006 BBC article says Porgy and Bess "was revived after the war in the United States and attracted performers like Maya Angelou and Todd Duncan.   A filmed version starring Sidney Poitier (after Harry Belafonte turned it down because it demeaned black people) was produced by Samuel Goldwyn in 1959. After that the work encountered the civil rights and black power era." The rest of the brief article is worth a read. In any event, when local public radio covered the opera’s current run at the Kennedy Center, I remained curious and concerned about such issues, starting with grammar errors in such song lines as "I loves you Porgy" and "Bess, you is my woman now." 

What prompted me to write today’s blog was Gershwin’s surprise that he had been able to reach such heights in creating the music to Porgy and Bess. What a wonderful way to exit the planet; he died two years after the opera’s premiere.

Similarly, criminal defense lawyers are challenged every day to surmount the often seemingly insurmountable obstacles of reality and would-be reality. How many times do my fellow criminal defense lawyers and I say "Oh sh-t" in the face of apparently insurmountable odds to win a case and, if there is a conviction, to get the most favorable sentence rather than an utterly draconian one? The amazing SunWolf proclaims that "Reality is no obstacle," which at first blush might seem fanciful, but when examined more closely makes perfect sense when considering that many competing would-be realities are usually involved in a criminal case, and jurors and judges have various ways of deciding what is reality and how to handle that reality, sometimes including convicting the utterly innocent and acquitting the clearly guilty. It reminds me of a story from my trial law guru Steve Rench, about a woman he successfully defended in a theft trial. His client was arrested for allegedly pickpocketing a man she danced with in a bar; perhaps the jury got the idea that the would-be victim was there with unwholesome intentions. At one point while the jury was present but the proceedings were on hold, Steve went to a sheriff’s deputy and pointed towards his client (held on bond during trial but in civilian clothes) during the conversation. Although his client was caught redhanded, the jury acquitted. Steve later saw one of the jurors at a bus stop, and asked the him if he had any comments about the trial. The juror merely said "Your client is okay," meaning to Steve that the jury disregarded the judges’ jury instructions out of a belief that she had served enough time in the pokey while waiting for trial. In Steve’s view, jurors are results-oriented, seeking to fix problems, which can put a real damper on the commands of jury instructions.

Again and again, I encounter staff members, clients, and witnesses (even an expert witness recently) who are fearful of doing something because it takes them out of their comfort or experience zone. Sometimes the fear is as basic as fearing to testify for the first time, or, with staff members, to tackle an assignment they have never done before. When I believe the person is capable of rising to the occasion, I encourage the person, sometimes by sharing some of my own trepidations along the path, including the fear of doing anything to let a client down and thus causing a conviction or a worse sentence than otherwise; it might be less fearful for me to draft wills and contracts, but certainly less meaningful and fulfilling. I remind them that it is okay to be fearful, but that the fear should not prevent them from proceeding forward. The idea is not to ignore the fear, but to know the fear and to send it on its way, similarly to the t’ai chi posture of embrace tiger/return [the tiger] to mountain.

Ordinarily, a musician or composer might not be seen as having a fearful occupation. Then again, George Gershwin broke radically new ground and entered new frontiers without knowing how audiences and critics would receive Porgy and Bess — or even how he might rise to the occasion in creating the opera — when he easily could have rested on the laurels of such preceding masterpieces as "Rhapsody in Blue" and "An American in Paris".

Of course, storytelling is central to persuading jurors and judges. Gershwin was a masterful storyteller, even when only doing it to music, before adding any lyrics. At least with "Rhapsody in Blue", "An American in Paris" and Porgy and Bess, Gershwin’s music takes the listener on a storied journey that takes unexpected turns and captures the five senses and deep feelings along the way.

I stopped playing the trumpet that brought forth my versions of "Summertime" in the fall of 1985, when I moved to a shoebox one-room/no-kitchen ten-foot by ten-foot single resident occupancy apartment in Manhattan when working in the belly of the capitalist beast. Rather than scout out a place to play that would not disturb my neighbors where before I would play at my college’s music practice rooms and at my parents’ home, I stopped playing, and that carried on to law school, even though I probably could have found music practice space at the university; I was not ready to re-learn to get my mouth muscles back to where they were needed to be to play the way I wanted to play.

Not playing a musical instrument has left a creative and musical void in me. It is time to pick the horn back up, regardless of the state of my lip muscles. As a quote on the door of my ethnomusicology professor Jeff Todd Titon said, loosely remembered: "Music does not expect excellence. It welcomes being surprised by it, but does not require it." Consequently, in writing this blog entry, Gershwin has not only continued to inspire me to treat reality as no obstacle in my law practice, but also to open my trumpet case, to see if the valves are not beyond repair to oil them to working function, to vaseline the slides to move them into tuned performance, and to play and play and play, lost in the sheer enjoyment of the music.  Jon Katz.


Here are some additional excellent Gershwin links, in addition to those above, which include YouTube performances of "Summertime", "Rhapsody in Blue", and "An American in Paris":

– Dubose Heyward’s Porgy, which led to Gershwin’s opera.

– PBS on Porgy and Bess. Be bowled over by Maya Angelou’s discussion of the opera and her role as Ruby in a mid-1950’s European tour.

– Film excerpt from Porgy and Bess.

– 2006 NPR coverage of the first time Porgy and Bess’s premiere version was re-presented.

– Sarah Vaughan singing "Summertime", and Janis Joplin substantially altering it.

– Claudia Pierpont on "Why We Still Listen to Gershwin."