Summertime, and the livin’ is easy

I’ve been learning “Summertime” on guitar of late. I’ll post an arrangement when I’m through with it. But, for now, I’d like to share a few gems I’ve discovered in the course of getting familiar with the song. One of the things I really like about learning jazz standards is delving into the history of the songs themselves (i.e. how they came to be composed) and discovering some of the best–for me, at least–performances of them. As “Summertime” is one of the most covered songs in history, there’s a wealth to choose from, and I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface.

The music was composed by George Gershwin (1898-1937), who first came up with the idea after reading Porgy, a 1925 novel by southern poet, novelist, and playwright DuBose Heyward (1865-1940). Heyward, a native of Charleston, South Carolina, set his novel among the poor, black residents of “Cabbage Row,” and based it, at least in part, on the life of a local beggar known as “Goat Cart Sam,” whose real name was Samuel Smalls. The novel was a success, leading Heyward and his wife Dorothy to create an eponymous stage adaptation which had a successful run on Broadway in 1927.

Heyward’s biographer, James M. Hutchisson, touts Porgy as “the first major southern novel to present blacks realistically, rather than in the stereotyped roles of happy darkies or loyal body servants” (xiii) and Heyward as “a man who moved from social conservatism to a liberal, although nonrevolutionary, advocacy of black rights . . .” (xix, source).

Gershwin, a Brooklyn native, visited Heyward in the summer of 1934, renting a house on Folly Beach house near Heyward’s own. Gershwin seems to have enjoyed his stay. It gave him a chance to soak up the sun and explore Gullah culture, while he and Heyward collaborated on the lyrics for what would become Porgy and Bess (1935), including, of course, “Summertime.”

So, let’s take a look at three performances of the tune. If you’ve never heard it before, Charlie Parker’s 1949 version, if you can get past the schmaltzy strings, has a nice, simple statement of the melody with a few tasteful flourishes here and there:

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Ella Fitzgerald’s 1968 version takes the tempo down and, of course, showcases her magnificent voice:

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Miles Davis devoted an entire album to Gershwin and Heyward’s work. HIs version of “Summertime,” from his 1958 album Porgy and Bess, is my current favorite:

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Next time, I’ll have an arrangement for you. So put a new set of flats on your archtop and dial in a nice fat tone.

4 comments

  1. I sort of object to the characterization of the strings as “schmaltzy” in Bird’s instance. Charlie Parker with Strings is actually somewhat groundbreaking in the way it showcases his improvisations against the string orchestra. I love that version of “Summertime,” though it ranks behind my all-time favorite: Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong on their production of Porgy and Bess on Verve.

    Great coverage here. I can’t wait to hear the Wheatbread arrangement.

  2. The Ella and Armstrong version deserved a mention here. And sorry for dissing Charlie Parker with Strings. It really is a good album. It just takes, for me at least, a little getting used to.

  3. That said, you’re correct in that a better arranger — Nelson Riddle comes to mind — would’ve crushed those strings. But then they probably would’ve encroached upon Bird’s spotlight.

  4. It’s true. The simplicity of the arrangements gives Bird something simple to play against. A more elaborate arrangement would detract from the beauty of his tone.

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