June 30, 2016 by Helen Borgers

When the weather gets hot, and summer arrives, one song gets sung, played, and hummed more than any other…George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” with and without lyrics by DuBose Heyward. It is one of the most covered songs in the history of recorded music, with over 25,000 versions!  As a tribute to this wonderful aria from Porgy and Bess – and also in an attempt to stay cool! – I have selected a few of the many great jazz versions of this song for this 4th of July weekend blog! Compare, contrast, enjoy!  And Happy Independence Day!


Billie Holiday’s recording was the first version of the song to make the pop music charts … although it was not the first recording! Gershwin himself had made one in 1935 with opera singer Abbie Mitchell, and Bob Crosby made a transcription a few months before Billie.  But, in 1936, Billie made it to number 12. Bunny Berigan on trumpet, Cozy Cole on drums, and Artie Shaw on clarinet, all add to the power of this performance.


In 1939, Sidney Bechet made one of the greatest recordings of this song ever produced. Perhaps so moved by the death of his long-time friend, trumpeter Tommy Ladnier, four days before, he had even more passion than usual in this stunning take for Blue Note, featuring Teddy Bunn on guitar, Meade Lux Lewis on piano, Johnny Smith on bass, and Big Sid Catlett on drums. Bechet plays soprano sax.



In 1958, there was a revival of interest in Porgy and Bess, due in large part to the making of the film with Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge, but also due to a New York production that year. It featured a dancer, Frances Taylor, in whom Miles Davis was interested. (He later married her!) He also became interested in the Gershwin music.  Miles had already worked with Gil Evans on The Birth of the Cool, and Evans had already worked on Porgy and Bess for Claude Thornhill’s big band in 1941, so the project was a natural collaboration.



Based on Miles’ version, Eddie Jefferson created a vocalese recording of it in 1977 on what turned out to be his last album, The Main Man. It featured Richie Cole on alto, Slide Hampton on trombone, and Harold Mabern at the piano, among a distinguished ensemble.


Interestingly, Eddie Jefferson had been a professional dancer until he heard Charlie Parker. He was then inspired to become a singer.  Eventually known as the “Godfather of Vocalese,” he developed the style around 1939.


Charlie Parker was proud of having recorded with strings, and this is from the famous 1949 Charlie Parker and Strings album. Not featured, but still present, are Ray Brown on bass and Buddy Rich on drums.


Two piano versions for your consideration. Both pianists at the height of their powers.


Erroll Garner


and Oscar Peterson:


Sarah Vaughan recorded the song many times throughout her career… as early as this, 1949, and at least once a decade through the ‘70s. This remains my favorite of her versions, though.


And, last but not least, is something completely different. John Coltrane’s epic version from the album, My Favorite Things, with McCoy Tyner on piano, Steve Davis on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums. 1960’s magic.  Who needs fireworks?



On-air personality, Helen Borgers, can be heard on KJazz 88.1 FM from 2:00 pm - 6:00 pm, Monday through Friday. As a jazz broadcaster, Helen has been invited to give pre-concert lectures at various performing arts centers, served on panels in jazz conventions all over the world, and lectured about the history of jazz in middle schools, high schools, and colleges. She has also written articles for international jazz publications and regularly emcees concerts, festivals, and club dates throughout southern California.

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