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Summertime (1935)

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Origin and Chart Information
“...its ‘lyrics are rife with religious imagery...’”

- Will Friedwald

Rank 3
Music George Gershwin
Lyrics DuBose Heyward

On October 10, 1935, the American folk opera Porgy and Bess opened at the Alvin Theatre in New York. During the opening act Clara, portrayed by singer/actress Abbie Mitchell, sang “Summertime” as a lullaby to her baby.


More on Abbie Mitchell at JazzBiographies.com

Other members of the original Porgy and Bess cast included Todd Duncan, Anne Brown, Warren Coleman, John W. Bubbles, and Ruby Elzy. In addition to “Summertime” there were over 50 songs in the score including, “My Man’s Gone Now,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,” “Bess, You Is My Woman,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “I Loves You, Porgy.”

In September of 1936 Billie Holiday’s recording of “Summertime” went onto the charts and rose to number twelve. Thirty years later Billy Stewart recorded an R&B rendition which rose to number ten in 1966.


Chart information used by permission from
Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954

In February of 1934 George Gershwin had completed the first of the Porgy and Bess songs, a DuBose Heyward poem set to music called “Summertime.” He then spent the next 20 months completing and orchestrating the score. In the summer of 1934 the Gershwin brothers joined the Heywards at Folly Beach near Charleston to observe the local people and their customs and to continue work on their collaboration. After several weeks, the Gershwins returned to New York to uphold George’s previous commitments, one of which was a weekly radio broadcast entitled “Music by Gershwin.” By August of 1935 George had completed Porgy and Bess. After producing nearly 700 pages of music he is said to have exclaimed, “I think the music is so marvelous I don’t believe I wrote it.”


More on George Gershwin at JazzBiographies.com

More on DuBose Heyward at JazzBiographies.com

On September 30, 1935, the opera opened in Boston to generally positive reviews.

Critics at the New York opening were divided, however, and the show was not profitable, closing in December after 124 performances. On tour, Porgy and Bess was also a financial disappointment, exhausting the entire balance of the original $70,000 investment.

Despite such a dismal start Porgy and Bess went on to become the most performed American opera. There have been numerous revivals over the years, the most notable being January 22, 1942, at the Majestic Theater which ran for 286 performances, and the March 10, 1953, show at the Ziegfeld Theatre ran for 305 performances.

Adding to the distinctions, Will Friedwald (Stardust Melodies)describes, “Summertime” as “the best-known piece of music in the opera.” He goes on to comment that its “lyrics are rife with religious imagery...” and it “is not only a lullaby but a spiritual as well.”

The 1959 screen adaptation of Porgy and Bess starred Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis Jr., Pearl Bailey, Brock Peters, and Diahann Carroll, with everybody dubbed except Davis and Bailey. Directed by Otto Preminger and produced by Samuel Goldwyn, the film won the 1959 Golden Globe Award for Best Picture -Musical and the 1959 Academy Award for Best Musical Score (Andre Previn and Ken Darby). Despite, or possibly because of, the lavish production values and the handsome cast, a common critical opinion is that the Broadway musical did not translate well to film.

More information on this tune...

Will Friedwald
Stardust Melodies
Pantheon; 1st edition
Hardcover: 416 pages

(This book devotes 38 pages to “Summertime” and includes the song’s history, lyric and music analyses, short biographies of the songwriters, and information on performers and recordings. The book also examines eleven other popular songs in depth.)
See the Reading and Research links on this page for additional references.

- Jeremy Wilson

Recommendations for This Tune
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Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
Porgy and Bess
1990 Verve 27475
Original recording 1957

On this slow version of “Summertime,” Louis and Ella transcend the sometimes syrupy orchestration with a moving vocal performance. Armstrong also treats us to some of his trumpet playing.

Duke Ellington
Piano in the Foreground
2004 Sony 474930
Original recording 1961
It is always a treat to hear Ellington’s comparatively rare interpretations of standards (aside from the many standards composed by himself and Billy Strayhorn, of course). This rendition of “Summertime” is emotional and edgy, affirming what a modernist he was at the core.
John Coltrane
My Favorite Things
1990 Atlantic/WEA 1361
Original recording 1961
Coltrane, aided by his newly formed quartet, approaches “Summertime” from a modern, modal perspective. The results are intense and passionate.
Sonny Rollins
Sonny Meets Hawk!
1999 Polygram 63479
Original recording 1963
This version of “Summertime” allows for an exciting glimpse at two generations of saxophone greats at play. Overlapping solos highlight the different approaches taken by Rollins and Coleman Hawkins.
Gil Evans
1999 Koch 8518
Original recording 1973
Evans changes the context of his classic arrangement for Miles Davis, turning it into a funky feature for the guitar of Ted Dunbar.
Herbie Hancock
Gershwin's World
1998 Verve 557797

Herbie’s moody interpretation features a very effective vocal cameo from Joni Mitchell.

- Noah Baerman

Lambert, Hendricks & Ross
Everybody's Boppin'
1990, Sony 45020
Original recording, 1959
LH&R are considered the best vocal jazz group ever. They took vocalese, the art of setting words to improvised jazz solos, to new heights. Their version of “Summertime” is timeless and one for all seasons.
Ray Brown Trio
Bam Bam Bam
1988, Concord Records 4375

When Gene Harris was the pianist in bassist Brown’s trio with drummer Jeff Hamilton, “Summertime” was an audience favorite. Harris’ bluesy take on the tune fairly drips with Spanish moss.

- Sandra Burlingame

Miles Davis
Porgy and Bess
1997, Sony 65141
Original recording, 1958
This may be the definitive version of “Summertime” on what many consider one of the definitive jazz albums. “Summertime,” in the gentle hands of trumpeter Davis, is only made better by the arrangement of Gil Evans and the backing of a stellar orchestra.
Art Blakey Quartet
A Jazz Message
1990, MCA
Original recording, 1963
Drummer Blakey steps away from the Messengers to lead a stellar quartet featuring Art Davis on bass, McCoy Tyner on piano, and Sonny Stitt on saxophone. Their version of “Summertime” is, as the title suggests, a relaxed, breezy affair that swings as gently as a hammock.
Joshua Redman
Timeless Tales for Changing Times
1998 Warner Bros 47052
Original recording 1998
Saxophonist Redman places “Summertime” among an interesting mix of jazz standards and pop songs. He gives the song fresh attitude, playing around with the theme and adding Latin spice.

- Ben Maycock

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