In 1975, the elderly, reclusive Ira Gershwin made the unusual gesture of inviting a 12-year-old fan from Indianapolis to his home. The boy, Richard Glazier, had been bowled over three years before when he'd found a recording of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue among his aunt's 78s. George had died young in 1937, but his brother and lyricist, Ira, was still an easy target for Glazier's fan mail.
Although Glazier is now a classically trained pianist, he has devoted the past 10 years to playing the music of Gershwin, his pop-music contemporaries and his influences. Now, sponsored by the Invisible Theatre, Glazier is coming to Tucson's Berger Center for the Performing Arts with a one-man, one-piano, one-Mac show called The Gershwins and Their World.
Glazier will chat about George and Ira Gershwin, play (but not sing) several Gershwin songs on a special Gershwin-inspired piano, project still photos and old newsreel footage he's assembled himself with his trusty Mac, devote much of the second half of the show to melodies by Harold Arlen (representing "Their World") and wrap everything up with the finger-twisting solo version of Rhapsody in Blue.
Although Glazier made that childhood pilgrimage to the last vestige of Gershwin genius--Ira--he's never been a Gershwin purist. After all, that old Rhapsody in Blue 78 that first turned him on featured the strange but brilliant Oscar Levant with Eugene Ormandy, rather than Gershwin himself with Paul Whiteman. And in recent years, he's specialized not in meticulous transcriptions of Gershwin's blistering improvisations, but in arrangements of Gershwin songs by such 1940s and '50s piano stalwarts as Stan Freeman and Maurice C. Whitney. And he's commissioned several arrangers today to create for him versions of such Arlen standards as "Over the Rainbow," "Stormy Weather" and, yes, "Lydia the Tattooed Lady."
"Gershwin was a brilliant improviser, and I play very, very differently from his recordings," says Glazier. "I'm a trained classical concert pianist, and I inject that discipline into my interpretations of his music. I see it from a very romantic standpoint. But that's the great thing about this music--it works in a lot of different arenas."
While it was Gershwin's music itself that first turned Glazier on, it was the composer's brother who really set him on his current path. "Just through meeting him," he says, "I developed this raw, innocent, youthful love for the music that has only grown through the years. And a lot of this had to do with Ira's personality. He was a very quiet, kind and gentle, shy human being. Sitting in the room with him, you'd have no idea he was one of the great lyricists of the 20th century. And he adored and worshipped his brother, and never fully recovered from the tragedy of his death."
Indeed, Glazier later learned that by the time he visited Ira, the elderly Gershwin was so depressed and reclusive that he rarely ventured out of his bedroom. But Ira made an effort for Glazier, and perhaps that's what helped young Glazier understand from the beginning that there's something very unpretentious, honest and wistful behind the Tin Pan Alley razzle-dazzle of much of the Gershwins' work.
This year, Glazier is playing a lot of Harold Arlen, too, in celebration of the Arlen centennial; he's also releasing a CD of Arlen transcriptions early next year. But it's not just timing and the CD tie-in that lead Glazier to include Arlen in his Gershwin show these days.
"Arlen and Gershwin adored each other," he says. "Arlen idolized Gershwin as the man who married popular music and classical music; he brought the highbrows and the lowbrows together. And Arlen and Gershwin came from similar backgrounds. They were both first-generation Americans; they were both Jewish; and they were both influenced by Jewish liturgical music and black music. The fusion of those two styles defined their unique American voices."
Glazier will be playing all this on a limited-edition Steinway piano called the "Rhapsody." It's one of only 24 brilliant, blue, 9-foot concert grand pianos with more than 400 inlaid mother-of-pearl stars, conceived by the well-known furniture designer Frank Pollaro and built by Steinway and Sons in tribute to the 100th anniversary of George Gershwin's birth. The local Steinway Gallery is bringing it in especially for Glazier's concerts.
The last touch will be the video and photo montages Glazier has assembled; although he'll have fairly sophisticated video gear at his disposal in Tucson, he always travels with his own video projector and nearly palm-sized DVD player, so he can perform his multimedia concerts even in modest meeting rooms and high school gyms (which he has, having done shows in 45 states so far). Some people may deride the video work as a trendy distraction, but Glazier says he uses it only to enhance the music, which remains at the center of the shows.
"These songs have woven their way into the fabric of our culture," he says. "They're not fads. These are songs that have stood the test of time and will be remembered and performed for generations to come."