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Kern, Jerome

Jerome Kern


For the Record

Selected compositions

Selected discography


When Jerome Kern died in 1945, America lost one of its greatest and most beloved composers. Harry Truman, who was the U.S. president at the time of Kerns death, was quoted as saying in David Ewens book, Composers for the American Musical Theatre: [Kerns] melodies will live in our voices and warm our hearts for many years to come. The man who gave them to us earned a lasting place in his nations history. In 1946 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released a lavish musical film biography of Kern, Till the Clouds Roll By, with appearances by Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, and other stars. The centennial of Kerns birth was celebrated in 1985, which saw the issuing of a U.S. postage stamp in his honor, as well as the release of more recordings and performances of his music. Show Boat, the most enduring of his works, continues to enjoy Broadway revivals. There is no sign that Kerns legacy is in danger of fading.

Jerome David Kern was born in New York City. He studied piano with his mother and in high school was often asked to play piano and organ and compose music for school theatrical productions. In 1902, at the age of 17, he tried his hand at a business career working for his father, who owned a merchandizing house. But the young Kerns enthusiasm for music led to his ordering 200 pianos from an Italian dealer instead of twothe number he was supposed to purchase. This action almost cost his father his business, and to Kerns relief, it was agreed that he should pursue a career in music.

Kern enrolled in the New York College of Music in 1902 and in 1903 went abroad to study music in Germany. He took up permanent residence in London, where he began writing songs for British musical hall productions. A year later, he returned to New York, taking jobs with music publishersfirst the Lyceum Publishing Company and then Shapiro-Remick. At this time, British productions dominated Broadway. Kern was hired in 1904 to adapt one of these shows, Mr. Wix of Wickham, for the Broadway stage by Americanizing some of the numbers and by writing some additional songs of his own.

A year later, Kern took a job at another music publisher, T. B. Harms & Co.which eventually became the publisher of his own worksand continued writing musical interpolations for British shows. Ewen noted that almost a hundred of his songs were heard this way, in approximately thirty musicals. [This] apprenticeship prepared him for giant tasks and achievements that lay before him.

The 1910s were a productive and noteworthy period for Kern. He married an English woman, Eva Leale, in 1910

For the Record

Born Jerome David Kern, January 27, 1885, in New York, NY; died of a cerebral hemorrhage, November 11, 1945, in New York, NY; son of Henry Kern and Fannie Seligman Kern; married Eva Leale, 1910; children: Elizabeth (Betty) Kern Miller. Education: Attended New York College of Music; further music study in Germany.

Began career by composing adaptations of British musicals, beginning with Mr. Wix of Wickham, 1904; first hit, The Girl from Utah, produced 1914; wrote numerous stage musicals 1915-39, including Nobody Home and Very Good Eddie, 1915, Oh Boy! and Leave It to Jane, 1917, Oh Lady! Lady!!, 1918, Sally, 1920, Sunny, 1925, Show Boat, 1927, The Cat and the Fiddle, 1931, Music in the Air, 1932, Roberta, 1933, and Very Warm for May, 1939; wrote music for films, including Swing Time, 1936, Lady, Be Good, 1941, You Were Never Lovelier, 1942, Cover Girl, 1944, and Centennial Summer, 1946. Collaborators included lyricists Guy Bolton, Dorothy Fields, E. Y. Yip Harburg, P. G. Wodehouse, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Johnny Mercer. Arrangers included Frank Saddler, until 1921, and Robert Russell Bennett, beginning in 1923.

Awards: Academy awards for best song, 1937, for The Way You Look Tonight from Swing Time, and 1942, for The Last Time I Saw Paris, from Lady, Be Good.

and in 1914 had his first hit, The Girl from Utah another adaptation of a British show. In 1915 Kern began writing musicals for the Princess Theatre in New York. These productions, Nobody Home, Very Good Eddie, Oh Boy!, and Oh Lady! Lady!!, were distinguished by a new approach to musical theater, developed by Kern in collaboration with librettist Guy Bolton, and, beginning in 1917, the talents of lyricist P. G. Wodehouse.

The musical revue format, with unrelated numbers strung together, was replaced by a more coherent story, more sophisticated songs, and characters that were more believable and realistic. The transformation of the Broadway musical did not happen overnight, however, and Kern also wrote the music for more conventional shows, including Leave It to Jane, Sally, which included the popular Look for the Silver Lining, and Sunny.

Kern wrote his most important work, Show Boat, in 1927 with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. The production, which included the songs OI Man River, Cant Help Lovin Dat Man, and Make Believe, is notable for the richness of its music and its influence on other Broadway composers, who saw it as a model of writing for the musical stage. Today some believe it reflects racist attitudes; protesters tried to ban a 1993 revival in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, but the production went on to great success and re-opened on Broadway in 1994.

A close examination of Show Boat reveals that it is actually quite progressive for a show that was written in 1927. The plot, involving a woman who is prohibited from performing on the show boat because she is biracial and is married to a white man, is compelling, as is the song OI Man River, which is the complete antithesis of the more upbeat tunes popular at a time when many whites did not wish to acknowledge their injustice to African Americans. Show Boat was made into a film musical three timesin 1929, 1936, and 1951. In 1954 it became part of the New York City Operas standard repertorythe first musical to be adopted by an opera company.

The 1930s saw a string of Kern musicals: The Cat and the Fiddle; Music in the Air; Roberta, which was made into a film starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in 1935 and which included the song Smoke Gets in Your Eyes; the Astaire/Rogers film musical Swing Time, featuring A Fine Romance and the Oscarwinning The Way You Look Tonight; and Very Warm for May, which was a flop but from which the song All the Things You Areperhaps Kerns best song, if not the best popular song by any composersurvives.

In the 1940s Kern moved to Hollywood and devoted the rest of his career to writing music for films. He contributed the songs The Last Time I Saw Paris to Lady, Be Good, Dearly Beloved to You Were Never Lovelier, and Long Ago and Far Away to Cover Girl. He died in New York in 1945; his last score was for the film Centennial Summer, which was released in 1946.

Most of Kerns manuscripts were assumed for decades to be lost. But in 1982 hundreds of manuscripts by Kern and other Broadway composers were found in a warehouse in Secaucus, New Jersey. In an article in the New York Times on March 10, 1987, the year that the manuscripts were inventoried after having been moved to Manhattan, Kern scholar John McGlinn was quoted as saying that the discovery was like opening the tomb of King Tut. There are major works here that had been presumed lost forever; shows that were never revived and were assumed to have vanished off the face of the earth. Included among the findings were the complete scores for Very Good Eddie, Leave It to Jane, and Sunny, and the original manuscripts of OI Man River, Cant Help Lovin Dat Man, and music that was cut from Show Boat after the 1927 production. This lost music was added to a 1988 recording of Show Boat, restoring the musical to its original glory.

Selected compositions

Stage musicals

The Girl from Utah, 1914.

Nobody Home, 1915.

Very Good Eddie, 1915.

Oh Boy!, 1917.

Leave It to Jane, 1917.

Oh Lady! Lady!!, 1918.

Sally, 1920; adapted for film, 1929.

Sunny, 1925; adapted for films, 1930 and 1941.

Show Boat (includes OI Man River, Make Believe, and Cant Help Lovin Dat Man), 1927; adapted for films, 1929, 1936, and 1951.

Sweet Adeline, 1929; adapted for film, 1935.

The Cat and the Fiddle, 1931; adapted for film, 1933.

Music in the Air, 1932; adapted for film, 1934.

Roberta, 1933; adapted for films, 1935 and 1952.

Film musicals

I Dream Too Much, 1935.

Swing Time (includes The Way You Look Tonight and A Fine Romance), 1936.

High, Wide, and Handsome, 1937.

When Youre in Love, 1937.

Joy of Living, 1938.

Very Warm for May (includes All the Things You Are), 1939.

One Night in the Tropics, 1940.

Last Time I Saw Paris, Lady, Be Good, 1941.

Dearly Beloved, You Were Never Lovelier, 1942.

Long Ago and Far Away, Cover Girl, 1944.

Cant Help Singing, 1944.

Centennial Summer, 1946.

Instrumental works

Scenario, 1941.

Mark Twain Suite, 1942.

Selected discography

Ella Fitzgerald, The Jerome Kern Songbook, 1963, reissued, Verve, 1985.

Show Boat (1988 studio castoriginal 1927 Broadway version), Angel, 1988.

Show Boat (reissue of 1951 motion picture soundtrack) Sony, 1990.

A Jerome Kern Showcase (anthology of tunes from musicals and films), Pearl, 1991.

Leave It to Jane (selections from 1959 off-Broadway revival), Stet, 1991.

Till the Clouds Roll By (selections from 1946 motion picture soundtrack), Sony, 1992.

The Heritage of Broadway, Volume 1: Music of Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern, Bainbridge, 1994.

70 Years of Broadway, Volume 1 (selections from Show Boat and Roberta by various artists), LaserLight, 1994.

The Cat and the Fiddle (1933 motion picture soundtrack), Hollywood Soundstage.

Roberta (1935 motion picture soundtrack), Classic International Filmusicals.

You Were Never Lovelier (1942 motion picture soundtrack), Curtain Calls.

Cover Girl (1944 motion picture soundtrack), Curtain Calls.

Centennial Summer (1946 motion picture soundtrack), Classic International Filmusicals.

Very Good Eddie (soundtrack from 1972 Broadway revival), DRG.



Bordman, Gerald, Jerome Kern: His Life and Music, Oxford University Press, 1980.

Ewen, David, Composers for the American Musical Theatre, Dodd, Mead, 1968.

Freedland, Michael, Jerome Kern: A Biography, Robson Books, 1978.

Krueger, Miles, Show Boat: The Story of a Classic American Musical, Oxford University Press, 1977.

Wilder, Alec, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950, Oxford University Press, 1972.


Musical America, January 1985.

Musical Quarterly, number 4, 1985.

New Yorker, March 25, 1985.

New York Times, November 12, 1945; March 10, 1987.

Time, June 10, 1985.

Joyce Harrison

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Jerome David Kern

Jerome David Kern

Jerome David Kern (1885-1945), American composer, wrote the scores for several of the musical theater's greatest successes.

Jerome Kern was born in New York City on Jan. 27, 1885. His first music teacher was his pianist-mother. He later studied at the New York College of Music as well as in Europe.

After working in the London theater, Kern returned to America, where the only work he could find was as a song plugger and pianist with a music publishing company. From 1905 to 1908 he was associated with a music company, rising to the vice presidency. He married Eva Leale in 1910, and they had a daughter. His first published score was an operetta, The Red Petticoat (1912).

Between 1914 and 1929 Kern was represented on Broadway by at least one show a season. His prolific output included Rock a Bye Baby (1918), Sally (1920), and Sunny (1925). In 1926 he wrote the score for a Broadway adaptation of an Edna Ferber novel, and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the lyrics. The result was the musical classic Show Boat. It opened in 1927 and ran for 572 performances. It was later twice made into a Hollywood film. One of its songs, "Ol' Man River," is perhaps Kern's most famous. In 1941 Show Boat was transposed into symphonic form and performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

Other Kern successes include Music in the Air (1932) and Roberta (1933) and, for the movies, Swing Time (1936), You Were Never Lovelier (1942), and Centennial Summer (1946). Among his most popular songs are "My Bill," "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," "Who?," "They Didn't Believe Me," "Look for the Silver Lining," and "The Last Time I Saw Paris" (his only hit song not written for a specific show).

In the realm of serious music, Kern composed Portrait for Orchestra (Mark Twain), which had its world premiere in 1942 by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and Montage for Orchestral Suite for full orchestra and two pianos.

Kern was interested in a number of scholarly pursuits. His collection of rare books brought nearly $2 million at auction in 1929. He was also a collector of art, a numismatist, and philatelist.

In his 40-year career Kern wrote 104 stage and screen vehicles. At the time of his death on Nov. 11, 1945, he was in New York to cosponsor a new production of Show Boat. A film biography, Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), was one of many tributes paid to him.

Further Reading

An entertaining account of Kern's life is David Ewen, The Story of Jerome Kern (1953), which makes it clear that Kern was the first to break from the style of European operettas. See also Ewen's The World of Jerome Kern (1960). Background studies include Cecil M. Smith, Musical Comedy in America (1950), and David Ewen, The Story of America's Musical Theater (1961; rev. ed. 1968) and Great Men of American Popular Song (1970).

Additional Sources

Bordman, Gerald Martin, Jerome Kern: his life and music, New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Lamb, Andrew, Jerome Kern in Edwardian London, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Institute for Studies in American Music, Conservatory of Music, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, 1985.

Freedland, Michael, Jerome Kern, New York: Stein and Day, 1981, 1978. □

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Kern, Jerome

Jerome Kern (kûrn), 1885–1945, American composer of musicals, b. New York City. After studying in New Jersey and New York he studied composition in Germany and England. His first success was the operetta The Red Petticoat (1912). Among the numerous musicals that followed were Leave It to Jane (1917), Sally (1920), Sunny (1925), The Cat and the Fiddle (1931), and Roberta (1933). After 1931 he wrote scores for many films, including versions of several of his stage successes. His outstanding work is Show Boat (1927), for which Oscar Hammerstein 2d wrote an adaptation of Edna Ferber's novel. Kern's many famous songs include "Ol' Man River," from Show Boat, and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," from Roberta. He also wrote an orchestral work, A Portrait of Mark Twain (1942).

See biographies by G. Bordman (1980) and M. Freedman (1986).

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Kern, Jerome (David)

Kern, Jerome (David) (b NY, 1885; d NY, 1945). Amer. composer. Wrote his first successful song in 1905. Comp. several popular musicals incl. Oh, Boy! (1917); Sally (1920); Sunny (1925); Show Boat (1927); Music in the Air (1932); and Roberta (1933). Show Boat (first musical to enter an opera co.'s repertory, NY City Opera 1954) contained the songs ‘Ol’ Man River’, first sung by Paul Robeson, and ‘Can't help Lovin’ dat Man of Mine’. Also comp. ‘Smoke Gets in your Eyes’ (in Roberta), ‘All the things you are’, and other popular melodies, several being featured in films. Words for several of his songs (most famous being ‘Bill’) were written by P. G. Wodehouse.

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"Kern, Jerome (David)." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . 17 Jan. 2018 <>.

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Kern, Jerome David

Kern, Jerome David (1885–1945) US songwriter of film and show music. His best-known musical, Showboat (staged 1927; filmed 1936, 1959), contains the song “Ol' Man River”. Kern influenced Richard Rodgers and George Gershwin.

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