Jazz at 100 / The Jazz Messenger – The Porgy and Bess Show

Cab Calloway as Sportin’ Life

In the mid-1930’s, George Gershwin acquired the rights to the play Porgy by DuBose Heyward, based on his own novel of 1925. Gershwin’s great American opera, Porgy and Bess debuted in 1935 with lyrics by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward.

For some period of time, the themes of domestic violence, drug addiction, and gambling led many in both the white and black communities to see the opera as an unfortunate caricature of African Americans. MGM even had difficulty recruiting top-tier black talent to star in the 1958 film adaptation.

Yet the interest generated by the film led to a renewed focus on the music and the late-1950s saw many recordings of the songs by popular and jazz artists of stature. Over the intervening sixty years, the opera has become understood as a powerful statement about community, loss and hope.

What follows is a recreation of the opera using great performances by jazz artists, presented in performance order with plot summaries to create context for the music and lyrics. George Gershwin saw his work as a “folk opera”; in this version, it can be heard as a “jazz opera.”

This is a version of a broadcast that was originally presented during the 2017 Classical Marathon on WTJU 91.1 FM Charlottesville as the contribution of Russell Perry and Brian Keena, hosts of the jazz programs “Jazz at 100” and “The Jazz Messenger.”

Overture. Russ Garcia Orchestra.
Porgy & Bess. 10/14/1957.


Act 1, Scene 1: Catfish Row, a summer evening
The opera begins with a short introduction which segues into an evening in Catfish Row.

Introduction, Summertime. Duke Ellington Orchestra
(William “Cat” Anderson, Willie Cook, Clark Terry, Ray Nance, Quentin Jackson, John Sanders, Britt Woodman, Russell Procope, Jimmy Hamilton, Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Harry Carney, Jimmy Woode, Sam Woodyard). Bethlehem Porgy & Bess. 2/7-8/1956.

Jasbo Brown entertains the community with his piano playing. Clara, a young mother, sings a lullaby to her baby as the working men prepare for a game of craps.

Summertime. Ella Fitzgerald – Louis Armstrong
The Russell Garcia Orchestra. Porgy & Bess. 8/18/1957.

Summertime. Gil Evans Orchestra
(Coles, Glow, Mucci, Royal-tp, Miles Davis -flh, Bennett, Cleveland, Rehak-tb, Hixson-btb, Ruff, Schuller, Watkins-frh, Barber-tu, Richardson, Penque-fl/cl, Bank-bcl, Cannonball Adderly-as, Paul Chambers-b, Philly Joe Jones-d). Porgy and Bess. 8/4/1958.

One of the craps players, Robbins, scorns his wife Serena’s demands that he not play, retorting that on a Saturday night, a man has the right to play. Clara’s husband, the fisherman Jake, tries his own lullaby with little effect.

A Woman is a Sometime Thing. Sammy Davis Jr.
The Buddy Bregman Orchestra. Porgy and Bess – Sammy Davis Jr. and Carmen McRae. 10/28/1958.

Little by little, other characters in the opera enter Catfish Row, among them Mingo, another fisherman, and Jim, a stevedore who, tired of his job, decides to give it up and join Jake and the other fishermen. Porgy, a disabled beggar, enters on his goat cart to organize the game. Peter, an elderly “honey man” returns, singing his vendor’s call.

Medley: Here Come De Honey Man – Crab Man – Oh, Dey’s So Fresh And Fine. Ella Fitzgerald – Louis Armstrong
The Russell Garcia Orchestra. Porgy & Bess. 8/28/1957.

Crown, a strong and brutal stevedore, storms in with his woman, Bess, and buys cheap whiskey and some “Happy Dust” off the local dope peddler, Sportin’ Life. Bess is shunned by the women of the community, especially the pious Serena and the matriarchal cookshop owner Maria, but Porgy softly defends her. The game begins. One by one, the players get crapped out, leaving only Robbins and Crown, who has become extremely drunk. When Robbins wins, Crown attempts to prevent him from taking his winnings. A brawl ensues, which ends when Crown stabs Robbins with a cotton hook, killing him. Crown runs, telling Bess to fend for herself but that he will be back for her when the heat dies down. Sportin’ Life gives her a dose of happy dust and offers to take her with him when he goes to New York, but she rejects him. He flees, and Bess begins to pound on doors, but is rejected by all of the residents of Catfish Row, with the exception of Porgy, who lets her in.

Summertime. Gerald Wilson Orchestra
Theme For Monterey. 11/24-25/1997.


Act 1, Scene 2: Serena’s Room, the following night
The mourners sing a spiritual to Robbins.

Gone, Gone, Gone. Gil Evans Orchestra
(Coles, Glow, Mucci, Royal-tp, Miles Davis-flh, Bennett, Cleveland, Rehak-tb, Hixson-btb, Ruff, Schuller, Watkins-frh, Barber-tu, Bodner, Penque-fl/cl, Bank-bcl, Cannonball Adderly-as, Paul Chambers-b, Philly Joe Jones-d). Porgy and Bess. 7/22/1958.

To raise money for his burial, a saucer is placed on his chest for the mourners’ donations. Bess enters with Porgy and attempts to donate to the burial fund, but Serena rejects her money until Bess explains that she is now living with Porgy. A white detective enters and coldly tells Serena that she must bury her husband the next day, or his body will be given to medical students (for dissection). He suddenly accuses Peter of Robbins’s murder. Peter denies his guilt and says Crown was the murderer. The Detective orders Peter to be arrested as a material witness, whom he will force to testify against Crown. Serena laments her loss in My Man’s Gone Now.

My Man’s Gone Now. Nina Simone Septet
(Buddy Lucas-hca/ts, Nina Simone-voc/p, Ernie Hayes-org, Rudy Stevenson-g, Eric Gale-g, Bob Bushnell-b, Bernard ‘Pretty’ Purdie-d). The Blues. 1/5/1967.

My Man’s Gone Now. Bill Frisell solo
(Bill Frisell-g). Ghost Town. 2000.

The undertaker enters. The saucer holds only fifteen dollars of the needed twenty-five, but he agrees to bury Robbins as long as Serena promises to pay him back. Bess, who has been sitting in silence slightly apart from the rest of those gathered, suddenly begins to sing a gospel song and the chorus joyfully join in, welcoming her into the community.

My Man’s Gone Now. Bill Evans Trio
(Bill Evans-p, Scott LaFaro-b, Paul Motian-d). Sunday At The Village Vanguard. 6/25/1961.


Act 2, Scene 1: Catfish Row, a month later, in the morning
Jake and the other fishermen prepare for work. Clara asks Jake not to go because it is time for the annual storms, but he tells her that they desperately need the money. This causes Porgy to sing from his window about his new, happy-go-lucky outlook on life.

I Got Plenty of Nuttin’. Frank Sinatra
The Nelson Riddle Orchestra. A Swingin’ Affair!. 11/15/1956.

I Got Plenty O’Nuttin’. Joe Henderson Septet
(Conrad Herwig-tb, Joe Henderson-ts, Tommy Flanagan-p, Stefon Harris-vib, John Scofield-g, Dave Holland-b, Jack DeJohnette-d). Porgy and Bess. 5/25-28/1997.

Sportin’ Life waltzes around selling “happy dust”, but soon incurs the wrath of Maria, who threatens him. A fraudulent lawyer, Frazier, arrives and farcically divorces Bess from Crown. When he discovers Bess and Crown were not married, he raises his price from a dollar to a dollar and a half. Archdale, a white lawyer, enters and informs Porgy that Peter will soon be released. The bad omen of a buzzard flies over Catfish Row and Porgy demands that it leave now that he finally has found happiness.

Buzzard Song. Mel Torme
Bethlehem Porgy & Bess. 1957.

As the rest of Catfish Row prepares for the church picnic on nearby Kittiwah Island, Sportin’ Life again offers to take Bess to New York with him; she refuses. He attempts to give her some “happy dust” despite her claims that she’s given up drugs, but Porgy grabs his arm and scares him off. Sportin’ Life leaves, reminding Bess as he goes that her men friends come and go, but he will be there all along. Bess and Porgy are now left alone, and express their love for each other.

Bess, You Is My Woman Now. Ella Fitzgerald – Louis Armstrong
The Russell Garcia Orchestra. Porgy & Bess. 8/28/1957.

Summertime. Patricia Barber
(Patricia Barber-p/voc, Wolfgang Muthspiel-g, Marc Johnson-b, Adam Nussbaum-d/per). A Distortion of Love. 11/25/1991.

The chorus re-enters in high spirits as they prepare to leave for the picnic. Bess is invited to the picnic by Maria, but she demurs as Porgy cannot come (due to his disability, he cannot get on the boat), but Maria insists. Bess leaves Porgy behind as they go off to the picnic. Porgy watches the boat leave.


Act 2, Scene 2: Kittiwah Island, that evening
The chorus enjoys themselves at the picnic. Sportin’ Life presents the chorus his cynical views on the Bible, causing Serena to chastise them.

It Ain’t Necessarily So. Cab Calloway & Ken Darby Singers
Porgy and Bess Soundtrack. 1959.

It Ain’t Necessarily So. The Free Bridge Quintet
(John D’earth-tp, Jeff Decker-bs, Bob Hallahan-p, Peter Spaar-b, Bob Jospe-d). Spanning Time. 10/26/1998.

Everyone gets ready to leave Kittiwah. As Bess, who has lagged behind, tries to follow them, Crown emerges from the bushes. He reminds her that Porgy is “temporary” and laughs off her claims that she has been living decently now. Bess wants to leave Crown forever and attempts to make him forget about her, but Crown refuses to give her up.

Oh, What You Want Wid Bess? Frances Faye and Johnny Hartman
Bethlehem Porgy & Bess. 1957.

Crown grabs Bess and will not let her go to the boat, which leaves without her, and then forcefully kisses her. He laughs at his conquest as her resistance begins to fail, and commands her to get into the woods, where his intentions are only too clear.

It Ain’t Necessarily So. Mary Lou Williams Trio
(Mary Lou Williams-p, Larry Gales-b, Eddie Marshall-d). Live At The Keystone Korner. 5/8/1977.


Act 2, Scene 3: Catfish Row, a week later, just before dawn
A week later, Jake leaves to go fishing with his crew, one of whom observes that it looks as if a storm is coming in. Peter, still unsure of his crime, returns from prison. Meanwhile, Bess is lying in Porgy’s room delirious with fever, which she has had ever since returning from Kittiwah Island. Serena prays to remove Bess’s affliction, and promises Porgy that Bess will be well by five o’clock.

Oh, Doctor Jesus. Ella Fitzgerald
The Russell Garcia Orchestra. Porgy & Bess. 8/28/1957.

As the clock chimes five, Bess recovers from her fever. Porgy tells Bess that he knows she has been with Crown, and she admits that Crown has promised to return for her. Porgy tells her she is free to go if she wants to, and she tells him that although she wants to stay, she is afraid of Crown’s hold on her. Porgy asks her what would happen if there was no Crown, and Bess tells Porgy she loves him and begs him to protect her, and he promises that she will never have to be afraid again.

I Loves You, Porgy. Billie Holiday Quartet
(Carl Drinkard-p, Jimmy Woode-b, Peter Littman-d, Billie Holiday-voc). Live At Storyville. 10/6/1953.

I Loves You, Porgy. Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Arkestra
(Phil Cohran-cor; Marshall Allen-as, fl; John Gilmore-ts; Sun Ra-p; Ronnie Boykins-b; Jon Hardy-d). Holiday For Soul Dance. 12/1960.

Clara watches the water, fearful for Jake. Maria tries to allay her fears, but suddenly the hurricane bell begins to ring.

I Loves You, Porgy. McCoy Tyner – Bobby Hutcherson duo
(McCoy Tyner-p, Bobby Hutcherson-vib/mar). Manhattan Moods. 12/3/1993.


Act 2, Scene 4: Serena’s Room, dawn of the next day
The residents of Catfish Row are all gathered in Serena’s room for shelter from the hurricane. They drown out the sound of the storm with prayers and hymns while Sportin’ Life mocks their assumption that the storm is a signal of Judgment Day. Clara desperately sings her lullaby Summertime.

Summertime. Herbie Hancock
(Wayne Shorter-ts, Herbie Hancock-p, Ira Coleman-b, Stevie Wonder-harm, Joni Mitchell-voc). Gershwin’s World. 3/1998.

Summertime. Sonny Rollins – Coleman Hawkins Quintet
(Sonny Rollins-ts, Coleman Hawkins-ts, Paul Bley-p, Henry Grimes-b, Roy McCurdy-d). Sonny Meets Hawk! 7/18/1963.

A knock is heard at the door, and the chorus believes it to be Death. Crown enters dramatically, having swum from Kittiwah Island, seeking Bess. He shows no fear of God, claiming that after the long struggle from Kittiwah, God and he are friends.

If God Want To Kill Me. Johnny Hartman.
Bethlehem Porgy & Bess. 1957.

The chorus tries to drown out Crown’s blaspheming with more prayer, and he taunts them by singing a vulgar song.

A Red-Headed Woman. Johnny Hartman
(Howard McGhee-tp, Sam Most-fl/cl/as, Johnny Hartman-voc)
Bethlehem Porgy & Bess. 1957.

Suddenly, Clara sees Jake’s boat float past the window, upside-down, and she runs out to try to save him, handing her baby to Bess. Bess asks that one of the men go out with her, and Crown taunts Porgy, who cannot go. Crown goes himself, yelling out as he leaves “Alright, Big Friend! We’re on for another Bout!” The chorus continue to pray as the storm rises.

Porgy. Archie Shepp – Mal Waldron Duo
(Archie Shepp-ts, Mal Waldron-p). Left Alone Revisited. 2/7/2002.


Act 3, Scene 1: Catfish Row, the next night
A group of women mourn Clara, Jake, and all of those who have been killed in the storm. When they begin to mourn for Crown as well, Sportin’ Life laughs at them and is told off by Maria. He insinuates that Crown may not be dead, and observes that when a woman has a man, maybe she’s got him for keeps, but if she has two men, then it’s highly likely she’ll end up with none. Bess is heard singing Clara’s lullaby to her baby, whom she is now taking care of.

Once Catfish Row is dark, Crown stealthily enters to claim Bess, but is confronted by Porgy. A fight ensues which ends when Porgy kills Crown. Porgy exclaims to Bess, “You’ve got a man now. You’ve got Porgy!”

Porgy. Abbey Lincoln
(Kenny Dorham-tp, Sonny Rollins-ts, Wynton Kelly-p, Paul Chambers-b, Max Roach-d, Abbey Lincoln-voc). That’s Him. 10/28/1957.

Porgy. Auld – Hawkins – Webster Sextet
(Charlie Shavers-tp, Coleman Hawkins-ts, Ben Webster-ts, Georgie Auld-ts, Bill Rowland-p, Hy White-g, Israel Crosby-b, Specs Powell-d). Rainbow Mist. 5/17/1944.


Act 3, Scene 2: Catfish Row, the next afternoon
The detective enters and talks with Serena and her friends about the murders of Crown and Robbins. They deny knowledge of Crown’s murder, frustrating the detective. Needing a witness for the coroner’s inquest, he next questions an apprehensive Porgy. Once Porgy admits to knowing Crown, he is ordered to come and identify Crown’s body. Sportin’ Life tells Porgy that corpses bleed in the presence of their murderers, and the detective will use this to hang Porgy. Porgy refuses to identify the body, but is dragged off anyway. Bess is distraught, and Sportin’ Life puts his plan into action. He tells her that Porgy will be locked up for a long time, and points out that he is the only one still here. He offers her happy dust, and though she refuses, he forces it on her. After she takes a whiff, he paints a seductive picture of her life with him in New York.

There’s A Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon For New York. Branford Marsalis Quartet with Kurt Elling
(Branford Marsalis-sax, Joey Calderazzo-p, Eric Revis-b, Justin Faulkner-d, Kurt Elling-voc). Upward Spiral. 12/16-19/2015.

There’s A Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon For New York. Joe Henderson
(Conrad Herwig-tb, Joe Henderson-ts, Tommy Flanagan-p, Stefon Harris-vib, John Scofield-g, Dave Holland-b, Jack DeJohnette-d). Porgy and Bess. 5/25-28/1997.

Bess regains her strength and rushes inside, slamming the door on his face, but he leaves a packet of happy dust on her doorstep, and settles down to wait.

Summertime. John Coltrane Quartet
(John Coltrane-ts, McCoy Tyner-p, Steve Davis-b, Elvin Jones-d). My Favorite Things. 10/24/1960.


Act 3, Scene 3: Catfish Row, a week later
On a beautiful morning, Porgy is released from jail, where he has been arrested for contempt of court after refusing to look at Crown’s body. He returns to Catfish Row much richer after playing craps with his cellmates. He gives gifts to the residents, and pulls out a beautiful red dress for Bess. He does not understand why everyone seems so uneasy at his return. He sees Clara’s baby is now with Serena and realizes something is wrong. He asks where Bess is. Maria and Serena tell him that Bess has run off with Sportin’ Life to New York.

Oh Bess, Oh Where’s my Bess? Louis Armstrong
The Russell Garcia Orchestra. Porgy & Bess. 8/18/1957.

Oh Bess, Oh Where’s my Bess. Jimmy Smith solo
(Jimmy Smith-org). Angel Eyes. 1/25-26/1995.

Porgy calls for his goat cart, and resolves to leave Catfish Row to find her. He prays for strength, and begins his journey.

Oh, Lawd, I’m On My Way. Louis Armstrong
The Russell Garcia Orchestra. Porgy & Bess. 8/18/1957.

Selections From Porgy And Bess. The New Vision Sax Ensemble
(Diron Holloway-ss/as/cl, James Lockhart-as, Jason Hainsworth-ts, Melton Mustafa-bs). Musical Journey Through Time. 6/12/2017.

This version of the Porgy and Bess program omits the fundraising aspect of that broadcast of December 8, 2017. Should you wish to honor that original intent, please make a generous contribution to WTJU, by donating on-line at WTJU.net. The listeners of WTJU are the single greatest source of funds that keep this great music on the air. Please join listeners like you in becoming a supporter of this great institution.

The program “Jazz at 100” is heard on WTJU 91.1 from 9:00 to 10:00 AM Eastern, every Friday on 91.1FM, where it is followed from 10:00 – Noon by “The Jazz Messenger.” All programs on WTJU can be streamed live at wtju.net.

“Jazz at 100” is the celebration of 100 years of jazz recordings, produced by WTJU Charlottesville. For annotated playlists of this and all other programs in the series, go to WTJU.net/jazz100. There you will also be able to stream any previously-broadcast program in the series. This is your host, Russell Perry.

Annotated playlists and streaming links for all the Jazz at 100 broadcasts: Jazz at 100

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