Alexis Gershwin carries on the family tradition


Every day, somewhere on the planet, someone is performing a song or concert composition by George Gershwin. Open a newspaper, peruse a season music schedule, and the name is bound to turn up.

Simply put, everybody likes a Gershwin tune.

Few offerings, however, can boast the title, “Gershwin Sings Gershwin.” On March 22, Alexis Gershwin, niece of George and Ira Gershwin, will sing favorites from their songbook at the Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood. She also will appear at Temple Sinai in Palm Desert on April 10. Both concerts feature a four-piece band and the Gershwin Singers, directed by Steven Applegate. 

“I grew up being spoiled with good music,” Gershwin said, after welcoming a reporter into her Westside home, her cat draped over her shoulder. “My father’s side was as great in classical music as my mother’s was in jazz.”

Gershwin’s mother, Frances, who died in 1999 at age 92, was George and Ira’s younger sister. With George at the piano, Frances sang their newly composed songs. (George wrote the music; Ira, the witty lyrics.) Frances was in the room when her brothers were working on a classic of the American Songbook, “Fascinating Rhythm,” from “Lady, Be Good!” The tricky tune’s misplaced accents challenged Ira’s ability as a lyricist, and he complained, “For God’s sake, George, what kind of lyric do you write to a rhythm like that?” Frances recalled Ira musing, “It’s a fascinating rhythm … ”

Like her mother, Gershwin began singing at an early age. “I used to sing at my parents’ dinner parties,” she said, “but I never had the Gershwin pressure. My mother always showed me unconditional love. I sang a mix of songs, and concentrated on my uncle George’s music as I got older.”

George was only 38 when he died of a brain tumor in Los Angeles in 1937. Gershwin recalled going to dinner every week at Uncle Ira’s house. He lived in Beverly Hills and died in 1983.

“We also played tennis,” Gershwin said. “Ira was a very good tennis player, almost as good as his lyrics. I’m told George was more extroverted. Ira was more of an introvert — soft-spoken. He wasn’t vivacious, but his vibrant lyrics couldn’t come out of nowhere. He had to have a big heart for love and romance.”

A big heart for love and romance seems to run in the family. Gershwin’s take on the family songbook is unashamedly heart on sleeve. “I want to make people feel the lyrics of a song,” she said. “I like to move people.”

Elegance, too, plays a part in her interpretations, something she learned from her father, Leopold Godowsky Jr., son of the great pianist-composer. Her father, who played violin, also had a scientific bent. Today, he is best remembered as the co-inventor of Kodachrome color photography.

“My father was a very elegant gentleman,” Gershwin said. “I like elegance. There’s not much left of it anymore.”

Gershwin, who began playing piano as a girl, recalled her father as an understandably tough teacher. “My parents wanted me to become a pianist, but my father would be furious if I made the tiniest mistake. I was a little girl, and it was intimidating. My father wasn’t the best psychologist, but he cared in his way. They were all good people.”

A particular favorite in the Gershwin-Godowsky family was Aunt Dagmar Godowsky, a silent film actress. Indeed, on one wall of Gershwin’s home, just below an accomplished pencil sketch by George of his mother, Rose, is a photo of Dagmar in a scene from “A Sainted Devil” (1924) with Rudolph Valentino.

“I adored my father’s sister,” Gershwin said. “She always had everybody laughing. You have to have a sense of humor.”

Gershwin said she plans to tell a few family stories during her upcoming performances, but tries to balance speaking and singing. The approximately 75-minute program, consisting of 18 songs, isn’t all Gershwin. She is also singing a song by Ned Washington, and another by Cy Coleman. New to her Gershwin repertory is “For You, For Me, For Evermore.”

Applegate, her music director, said he works with Gershwin on phrasing and experimenting with fresh approaches to the Gershwin songbook. For example, “Embraceable You” is set to a bossa nova on her “Gershwin Sings Gershwin” CD (2012). 

“Alexis is singing her uncles’ music, which is unusual,” Applegate said. “She doesn’t just sing. She’s a song stylist who knows what to do with those clever lyrics. Her love of the repertoire comes through.”

Though Gershwin said her focus was always on music, she also studied with acting teacher Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. “Being a good actress makes you a better singer,” she said. “You put the drama into your singing.”

For Gershwin, who left Sarah Lawrence College before graduating (“I fell in love”) and raised two children, gearing up for more gigs is exciting. She recalled her mother, who re-emerged as a singer later in life with “Frances Sings for George and Ira,” a well-received 1975 album.

“Frances sacrificed and forfeited a career for her family,” Gershwin said. “My mother could have been in Broadway shows.”

For her part, Gershwin has no regrets. “I most prefer having my own instrument. Singing is who I am. I have Ira’s lyrics in my head at night. I dream Ira’s lyrics.”

For more information about Alexis Gershwin’s March 22 show at the ” target=”_blank”>Temple Sinai in Palm Desert, click highlighted text.

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