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Jerome Kern

born Jan. 27, 1885, New York, NY
died Nov. 11, 1945, New York, NY

Perhaps the great pioneering Broadway composer, Kern is credited with the creation of the first truly American musical theatre.
The son of an upper-middle class new York family, Jerome studied at Heidleberg University in Germany and them went straight into composing for Broadway. His first big hit was They Didn't Believe Me from the 1914 show The Girl From Utah.

In collaboration with P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton Kern created a series of shows – called the Princess shows, after the theatre in which the majority were mounted - featuring charming melodies combined with witty books and lyrics. These light, bright, quintessentially American shows signalled a break with the middle-European operettas which had until then dominated musical theatre in New York.
Together with Hammerstein, Kern was responsible for another hugely influential change when the pair created Showboat in 1927.

In 1934 Kern went to Hollywood to work on the film of Roberta, based on his Broadway show. He had a new melody for which lyrics were required, and the studio invited Dorothy Fields to oblige. The result was Lovely to Look At. Kern liked Dorothy's work on this number, and on her rewriting of I Won't Dance, also for Roberta. More importantly, he liked her. Since Hammerstein, his regular partner was not enamoured of Hollywood, Kern was delighted to establish a new partnership with Dorothy. The result was a harmonious, affectionate relationship and a slew of great songs.

Andre Kostalanetz on Jerome Kern: 'looked less a musician than any man I've ever known'The partnership's first, operetta-style film score, for I Dream Too Much was poorly received. The next, however, was far better suited to Dorothy's talents. It was the immortal Fred and Ginger movie Swing Time, with an embarrassment of song riches, such as Never Gonna Dance, Pick Yourself Up, A Fine Romance, Bojangles of Harlem, and the Oscar-winning The Way You Look Tonight.

Over the next few years, the pair contributed songs to three more films, all forgotten today except for some of the exquisite songs, such as Remind Me.

When Dorothy returned to New York in 1939, Kern stayed in Hollywood, working with lyricists Johnny Mercer and Ira Gershwin. In 1945 Dorothy enticed him back to New York to discuss her project for a musical about Annie Oakley; shortly after his arrival, he died from the effects of a stroke.

Read of Dorothy Fields's personal reminiscences of Jerome Kern

A decade after her friend's death, Fields set words to three unused Kern melodies, April Fooled Me, Nice to be Near and Introduce Me. The circumstances are described in the liner notes to the LP "Premiere Performance!" by singer George Byron (who had married Kern's widow) which presented them for the first time.

Byron, who, according to Ira Gershwin, “is the ultimate answer to a lyric writer’s prayers”, was engaged in preparing an album of neglected Kern songs when he discovered the melodies. After showing them to André Previn, who was to arrange the music in the album (and who shared Byron’s enthusiasm for them), Byron forwarded them to Dorothy Fields in Brewster, N.Y. Miss Fields, who had enjoyed a long and rewarding association with Kern as the lyrist of some of his greatest accomplishments, familiarized herself with the three songs and then, in order to escape the clamor of her vacationing children and their friends, secluded herself in a barn. There, seated in a wagon, she provided them with words....

It is, by the way, a risky business to record unpublished material by a composer of Kern’s stature. A new Kern song, like a new Hemingway novel, is, at least in the field of aesthetics and ruthlessness, news of a stop-presses nature. Everybody, as it were, wants to get into the act. Understandably, the three premiere performances in this set had to be carried out in an air of utmost secrecy. They were therefore recorded in a closed session at the Capitol studios in Hollywood. Except for Previn, not a single member of the twenty-seven-piece orchestra was aware that he was participating in an historic undertaking. In order to preclude any information’s leaking out, Kern’s name was omitted from the music parts. But here they finally are.

It's actually a splendid album, but has not alas made it to CD. As far as I know these are the only recordings of Nice to be Near and Introduce Me.

At about the same time, Dorothy began work on a new show, using unpublished Kern music (which she described as "wonderful" and "delightful") and based on the Charles Boyer and Olivia de Havilland movie Hold Back The Dawn. (The plot involved a Romanian gigolo marrying a naive American schoolteacher in Mexico so he can legally enter the United States. Complications arise as he discovers he is falling in love with her.) It seems that the three songs mentioned above, plus another unrecorded number Marcha del Toros, were to have been part of the score. The project was never realised.

Surprisingly, there appears to be no sizeable website devoted to Kern. For biographical information, see the Tunesmiths Database : Kern.

Another site includes the moving eulogy delivered by Oscar Hammerstein at Kern's funeral.

In 2006, Yale University Press published a superb study of Kern's work: Jerome Kern by Stephen Banfield.

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