George Gershwin (1898 – 1937), arr. Russ Garcia (1916 – 2011)
Porgy and Bess
Gershwin based his opera on a 1925 novel by DuBose Heyward about a crippled Charleston man who got around on a goat-cart. The novel, turned into a play by DuBose and his wife, became a tremendously successful play. In 1934, Gershwin was invited to the Heyward’s summer house at Folly Beach, near Charleston. Catfish Row, the fictional location of Porgy and Bess, is based on a street in nearby James Island mostly inhabited by the Gullahs, descendants of the African coastal towns who made their living as fishermen and stevedores. Gershwin immersed himself in the Gullah’s musical and speech rhythms, and attended their religious revivals, which had their own unique vocal patterns. The result, which Gershwin called a folk opera, blended classical, jazz, gospel, spirituals and blues in a completely new way. The story of between Porgy, a crippled beggar blessed with optimism, and Bess, an outcast woman cursed with a violent jailbird boyfriend, is rich with drama, danger, love, danger and compassion.
Russ Garcia arranged the opera in 1956 for the second complete recording of the opera and the first to use, instead of classically-trained performers, jazz singers (in this case Mel Torme and Frances Faye) and musicians drawn from, among other groups, the Duke Ellington Band. Garcia recorded it again in 1957 with Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong in the lead roles, and a big orchestra of strings, horns and woodwinds. The album won a Grammy Hall of Fame award.