THE BOOK SHELF: John Pizzarelli's "World On a String" and Michael Feinstein's "The Gershwins and Me"

By Steven Suskin
02 Dec 2012

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At the age of 20, a transplanted music-lover from Columbus found himself with the dream job of going through every scrap of paper and music and vinyl in the Gershwin house in Beverly Hills, with the aging and reclusive Ira helping identify and explain 70-odd years worth of Gershwiniana. Michael Feinstein remained there until Ira died, six years later, amassing a better understanding of all things Gershwin than anyone could hope to have. When two members of Ira's small inner circle — next door neighbor Rosemary Clooney and goddaughter Liza Minnelli — discovered that this boy could play the piano, too, a career was launched.

Feinstein has been recounting his years with Ira — and his intimate knowledge of the life of George, through his brother's eyes — ever since. In articles, interviews, liner notes, television programs, and in his dandy 1995 memoir "Nice Work If You Can Get It: My Life in Rhythm and Rhyme."

Now, he turns back to Ira and George for The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs[Simon & Schuster]. The same subject with the same source material, yes; but this is a very different — and more effective — look at George (whose life soared until it burned out at the age of 38) and Ira (who lasted more than twice as long — dying in 1983, at the age of 86 — but effectively withdrew from the public after 1954).

It is almost as if Feinstein — now in his mid-50s — has distilled all his memories and observations into the essential Gershwin. He tells us much less, here, than before; but rather than anecdotes, we seem to be getting a clearer picture, a clearer explanation of who George and Ira were. And how the remarkable George, starting in 1924, was able to literally change the world of American pop culture.

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