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Rhythm Changes: Expanded Scope and Educational Mission for the Gershwin Initiative

As students, musicians, professionals, scholars, and human beings, we at the Gershwin Initiative / American Music Institute are committed to engaging and honoring marginalized voices within American musical cultures. To that end, we will enlarge our educational mission and platform to use our work as a vehicle for learning about, amplifying, and celebrating diverse musical voices. This will be reflected through expanded digital content here on our research blog and social media feeds, with a focus on the work of BIPOC creators and performers.

The Gershwin Initiative’s focus is on preserving and celebrating the legacy of George and Ira Gershwin both through the creation of critical editions of the Gershwins’ works and through educational content related to those works. We acknowledge that George Gershwin’s music has a complex relationship with Black American music and other music of the Americas, such as that of Cuba. Engaging with Gershwin’s music entails confronting issues of appropriation, advocacy, and representation, in both the music’s creation and reception. To cite just one example, American popular music and culture have foundations in blackface minstrelsy, and we are committed to addressing this history in the context of the Gershwins’ work.

George Gershwin took great inspiration from jazz and blues traditions, reflected in the musical language of works like Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (1935), as well as in his own piano playing. From seeking out advice early in his career from arranger and composer Will Vodery (1885–1951), to trading ideas about piano composition with the Harlem Stride master James P. Johnson (1894–1955), to working with the Juilliard-trained soprano Anne Wiggins Brown (1912–2009) on creating the role of Bess, the composer was influenced by Black musical artists throughout his career. He and Ira partnered with DuBose (1885–1940) and Dorothy Heyward (1890–1961) to create Porgy and Bess, which they insisted must be performed by Black singers. In addition to the resources we have made available below, we will continue to address the opera’s complicated racial issues, as well as those in others of Gershwin’s works such as his one-act opera Blue Monday (1922). Likewise, future social media content will emphasize Black performers’ engagement with Gershwin’s music, including prominent interpretations of Porgy and Bess by artists such as Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and the Modern Jazz Quartet; recordings of Gershwin standards throughout the history of jazz; and stories of Black artists who inspired Gershwin and shaped America’s musical culture generally.


To learn more about Porgy and Bess, visit these resources from our 2018 test performance of Wayne Shirley’s definitive performance edition in Ann Arbor, MI:

Videos from the “Confronting Porgy and Bess” symposium, February 2018:

Kai West, “Confronting Porgy and Bess,” UMich Arts and Culture, January 29, 2018:


Further reading:

Naomi André, “Contextualizing Race and Gender in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess,” in Black Opera: History, Performance, Engagement (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2018).

———, “Complexities in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess: Historical and Performing Contexts,” in The Cambridge Companion to Gershwin, ed. Anna Harwell Celenza (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 182–196.

———, “From Otello to Porgy: Blackness, Masculinity, and Morality in Opera,” in Blackness in Opera, ed. Naomi André, Karen M. Bryan, and Eric Saylor (Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 11–31.

Richard Crawford, “Where Did Porgy and Bess Come From?” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 36, no. 4 (2006): 697–734.

Ellen Noonan, The Strange Career of Porgy and Bess: Race, Culture, and America’s Most Famous Opera (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

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