George Gershwin is the archetypal American composer, a widely recognized genius who has left his mark equally on the worlds of classical, jazz and popular music. He is best known for his composing work for Broadway with his brother Ira as lyricist, and for his classical pieces.
Gershwin was born in Brooklyn, New York to a family of Russian-Jewish immigrants. Upon receiving a piano at the age of 11 he impressed his parents with his ability to play many popular songs by ear. They quickly found him a teacher, Charles Hambitzer, who introduced the young Gershwin to the music of Debussy, Ravel, and Schoenberg and proved to be and immense influence on his musical style. Gershwin’s skills progressed so quickly that he dropped out of high school at the age of 15 to devote more time to music. During this period he did many odd jobs including performing in nightclubs, working as a “song-plugger” in Tin Pan Alley and playing in the theatres of Broadway as a rehearsal pianist. While none of these were his ultimate goal they gave him a substantial amount of experience so that by the time he reached his 20s, Gershwin was already a formidable pianist and composer.
As he continued to hone his craft, Gershwin began to finally delve into the true work he was passionate about: writing for Broadway. In 1919 his song Swanee made it into the musical Sinbad. Singer Al Jolson’s famous rendition of this song was enough to make Gershwin an instant celebrity. Later that year Gershwin composed the entire score for the musical La, La Lucille, cementing his place in the upper echelon of Broadway composers. For the rest of his life Gershwin would weave in and out of Broadway, composing for numerous shows including Scandals (1922) and Girl Crazy (1930).