This year, the American Musicological Society’s national meeting was in Lou’vl, KY, and it has proven to be one of my favorite annual get-togethers: good program, papers, food, bourbon, networking, planning, socializing, jamming, even meetings…really, the whole lot. One of the nicest aspects, for me, was learning about a recent Gershwin-related discovery. Eric Davis (doctoral candidate at USC) gave a fine paper about recently discovered private recording by Ford Lee (“Buck”) Washington, who had been the original Jasbo Brown character (Mingo, also) in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Although Washington’s part was drastically reduced for dramatic reasons, he was the first exponent of the piano solo that opens the opera—a slow piano jam, “Jasbo Brown’s Blues,” that establishes the mood and setting in Catfish Row, in Charleston, SC.
“Buck” Washington, staying in Los Angeles for a performing engagement, took himself to a recording studio five years to the day after Gershwin’s 1937 death and recorded two sides: an extended version of Jasbo Brown’s solo which segues into “Summertime,” and a version of “Embraceable You.” As one of the sides opens with eight bars of Eubie Blake’s “Memories of You,” Davis made a compelling case for this recording representing an explicit “valentine” from Washington to Gershwin, and a record of something closer to what Jasbo Brown’s original solo would have been like.
But look—don’t take my word for it! The recordings are available on the composer Lance Bowling’s website, both sides in good quality streaming audio, so go listen right now and judge for yourselves. I hear occasional Rhapsody in Blue-like licks (e.g., the transition in parallel seconds), but in general the piano is more reminiscent of the Second Rhapsody, which is in a slightly more lean and objective style than the more familiar mid-1920s pieces: Rhapsody in Blue, Concerto in F, and the Three Piano Preludes. I’m sure most of the Jasbo Brown solo, at least, is Gershwin’s writing as opposed to Washington’s jamming thereupon. An uncommon treat!