One of the highlights of my father’s career as a newspaperman occurred in June 1934 while he was on assignment at Folly Beach. Here he was, at the youthful age of 23, newly arrived in Charleston, having been raised in New Jersey, graduated from the University of Michigan and then having worked a year at the Herald Tribune in New York (for $18 a week), only to realize that the big city life wasn’t suitable for him.
And now, in an alien world immersed in charm, humidity, patois, the buzz of insects, history and old-school manners, he would find himself seated on a piano bench next to George Gershwin getting the inside scoop on the composer’s musical ideas for the upcoming opera “Porgy and Bess.” Can you believe it?
My longstanding friend and city attorney, Charlton deSaussure, stumbled across a byline by Frank B. Gilbreth in the June 19, 1934, edition of The News and Courier while doing independent research on microfilm.
Titled “Gershwin, Prince of Jazz, Pounds Out Rhythm at Folly,” the text appears verbatim below for those interested.
“Ragtime rang out loud and clear along the deserted shore at the west end of Folly Beach late Sunday and mingled with the half-hearted swish of small breakers. George Gershwin, composer of jazz that is music and music that is jazz, was having rhythm — more or less reluctantly.
“The 35-year-old New Yorker, whose ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ probably more than any other single number established American jazz as a definite contribution to the realms of art and music, arrived at Folly Saturday.
“He plans to stay a month at the cottage of Charles T. Tamsberg while he is working on the operetta ‘Porgy,’ a musical version of the book and play by the same name written by DuBose Heyward and dealing with Negro life in Charleston’s ‘Catfish Row.’
“Seated at his piano, Mr. Gershwin, tanned, muscular, dark, wearing a light palm beach coat and an orange tie, was playing jazz as it had never been played at Folly before.
“ ‘I’ve got rhythm; “ ‘You’ve got rhythm.’
“In the kitchen two servants tapped the floor with their feet. Mr. Gershwin swayed from side to side. A reporter, whose request the composer was fulfilling, punched the top of the piano with his fist. It was impossible to stand still.
“Mr. Gershwin went into a minor. The rhythm, which Mr. Gershwin, the servants and the reporter had got, slowed down momentarily and was stepped up furiously as the song reached back into the major and crashed to conclusion.
“ ‘There,’ said the composer. He held up the index finger of his right hand, which was taped. ‘I couldn’t use this much. I cut it trying to make a hole in one of my suitcase strips.’
“Mr. Gershwin thinks that American jazz has improved at least 25 percent in the last ten years.
“ ‘The whole standard has been raised. Our compositions now have tremendous musical interest and great form,’ he said. ‘Of course, I don’t know how much farther we can go, but I have talked to leading European musicians recently and they are astounded at the progress made by our jazz.’
“His favorites among the recent crop are ‘Stormy Weather,’ ‘Dancing in the Dark,’ and ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.’ ‘The Last Roundup” he considers to be one of the funniest hillbilly tunes ever written.
“Despite the fact that Mr. Gershwin has two servants with him and an upright piano, he is the farthest from the metropolitan life at the present time that he has ever been. Born in Brooklyn, he has spent almost all his life in or near New York City.
“ ‘I have never lived in such a back to nature place,’ he said. ‘At home, I get up about noon. Here I will get up every morning at 7 o’clock — well at 7:30 o’clock, anyway.’
“The composer had first been cornered by a reporter while he was speeding along the beach in an open car.
“ ‘Get in and ride and you can ask me questions,’ he said. ‘I’ve never ridden on a beach before. It’s rather exciting.’
“When Mr. Gershwin first read the novel ‘Porgy,’ it ‘thrilled me very much. That was eight or nine years ago and it struck me then as being suited to music. At the time, I thought of opera.’
“The musical production will be a ‘very serious attempt to put in operatic form an American theme. It will be like a combination of “Carmen” and “Meistersinger” but in no way an imitation of either. All of the spirituals will be original — not that I don’t admire the beauty and color of your spirituals — but I want the music to be homogeneous.’
“While visiting the city last December, Mr. Gershwin was particularly impressed by an ‘experience service’ at the Macedonia church. There a woman stood up and sang:
“ ‘Oh, Dr. Jesus — “ ‘Put your hands around my waist
“ ‘And give me a belly-band of faith.’
“ ‘It’s going to take me at least seven months hard work to finish,’ he said. ‘DuBose may come down and help with the words. I’d like to have about seven years instead of seven months.’
“Originally, Mr. Gershwin planned to arrive here June 10. The Carnera-Baer fight caused him to postpone his visit. He is an ardent boxing fan and never misses a bout if he can help it.
“Incidentally, he had a bet of $50 that Baer would knock out Carnera. He wouldn’t say what odds he got.”
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth@ comcast.net.