Oddly enough, Porgy and Bess is considered by many to be America's only authentic opera. This is odd because the opera, which was adapted by Ira Gershwin from the novel Porgy, and composed by George Gershwin, is about the descendants of black African slaves.
They live in a slum in Charleston, South Carolina, in the first quarter of the 20th century. They struggle to barely survive. They are uneducated and superstitious. The slum's bad guy is a drug dealer (Sportin' Life), and the heroine (Bess) is a whore, and the hero (Porgy) pulls his body around in a cart (he can't afford a wheelchair). Not one black person contributed to this opera that has no white characters. It's 100 percent black. And there are lots of critics who have a very low opinion of how these blacks are portrayed. Nevertheless, Porgy and Bess is not only a great (indeed soaring) American opera, but a number of its songs are in the canon of black American culture.
The fact is that George Gershwin, who died in 1937 at the young age of 38, was a genius composer. He not only wrote superb pieces (Rhapsody in Blue) and scores (American in Paris), but, in the case of Porgy and Bess, also songs that, when played by black musicians, expressed the deepest of black feelings.
If you think this is an exaggeration, then I recommend you sit down and listen to Nina Simone's "I Loves You, Porgy." You do not need to know its place or function in the opera, or that it's actually a duet between Porgy and Bess. What's important is how Simone sings that song. How she enters it and makes every part of it about her—her lonely childhood in the South, the men who broke her heart, the humiliation she endures because her society does not recognize her black beauty.
In the case of Louis Armstrong's version of "Oh, Lawd, I'm On My Way," which concludes his spectacular 1957 collaboration with Ella Fitzgerald, Porgy and Bess, we hear the Armstrong all Americans love. He is doing his own thing. There's no stopping him; he is on his way to that heavenly land.
Now, if you want to hear the best jazz ever packed into 1:20 minutes, listen to Miles Davis's "Here Come De Honey Man," which is on his 1959 masterpiece Porgy and Bess.
In 1936, Billie Holiday recorded a raunchy version of "Summertime." It was an early hit for her, and the first time the tune went to the top of the charts. (I have always adored this version of the most popular work in the opera, because it's half-serious, and it shows a sunny side of a singer whose life was often hard.)
Teddy Wilson, who was Holiday's pianist for a bit, and is also remembered as one of the most elegant jazz musicians in American history, has an impeccable version of "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" on his 1959 album Mr. Wilson and Mr. Gershwin. His interpretation of the tune by a white Jewish American makes you feel all warm and black inside.
To see some newer interpretations of these songs, Seattle Opera is producing Porgy and Bess through August 25 at McCaw Hall.