JEROME KERN (1885-1945) : Biography

Education and Music Education

Jerome Kern was born in Manhattan on January 27, 1885 to middle class parents, Fannie and Henry Kern.  It is probable that Kern learned about music and the piano from his mother, a skilled pianist.  He recalled that, at an early age, he joined his mother and two brothers in playing 8-handed piano concerts for his father.

At the age of eleven, his family moved to Newark, New Jersey.  When he was a junior at Newark High School, he was asked by the senior class to write the spring musical (March 1901). Following that, he was commissioned by the Newark Yacht Club to write the score for a musical satire (January 1902).

Leaving high school in 1902, he pursued further musical education outside Heidelberg for several months.  Returning to the United States, he was employed by music publisher, Edward B. Marks, at his firm Lyceum; the firm published his first song, “At The Casino,” in September 1902. Before his second song, “In A Shady Bungalow”, was published in May 1903, Kern had enrolled in the New York College of Music, where he studied counterpoint with Austin Pierce, piano with Albert von Doenhoff and harmony and composition with Alexander Lambert and concert pianist, Paolo Gallico.

Welcome to the Max Dreyfus World

On the advice of composer Ernest Ball, Kern sought work at the music publishing firm T.B. Harms in 1903, at the time headed by Max Dreyfus. Dreyfus was said to have been “blessed with an exceptional ear for up-and-coming talents” and would go on to sponsor many young composers such as George Gershwin (1917), Vincent Youmans (1921) and Richard Rodgers (1925) well before they became famous.

In 1904, Dreyfus placed two of Kern’s songs into a British musical import, An English Daisy (1904.04).  Eleven Kern songs added to Mr. Wix Of Wickham (1904.34), drew the attention of Alan Dale of the American: “…its music, by Jerome D. Kern, towers in such an Eiffel way, above the average…that criticism is disarmed….”

Broadway Phases 1 and 2

Kern songs were interpolated into over twenty musicals, operetta imports, and revues between 1904 and 1912, when a show opened with Kern’s first full score, The Red Petticoat (1912.41).  However, it was the interpolation of five songs into the British musical The Girl from Utah (1914.18) that changed Kern’s life forever.   An orchestra played two of those five songs (“You’re Here and I’m Here” and “They Didn’t Believe Me”) at his aunt’s wedding, prompting a young George Gershwin to inquire about the origin of the music. “Kern was the first composer who made me conscious that most popular music was of inferior quality, and that musical-comedy music was made of better material.  I followed Kern’s work and studied each song that he composed.”

According to one of Kern’s biographers, “Victor Herbert heard the score of The Girl From Utah when it was first completed:  Max Dreyfus had Kern play it for Herbert at the Harms office.  ‘This man,’ Herbert told Dreyfus, ‘will inherit my mantle.’ When Herbert died in 1924, thirty-eight year-old Jerome Kern was one of the pallbearers with Max Dreyfus, John Philip Sousa, George Gershwin, and others. With Herbert’s passing, Kern became the most venerable, distinguished composer in the American musical theatre.”

The first period of apprenticeship and growth culminated in the series of successful musicals, written with Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse, now referred to as “the Princess Theatre shows.” These intimate, witty and very American musical comedies included Very Good Eddie (1915.30), Have A Heart (1917.01), Oh, Boy! (1917.06), Leave It To Jane (1917.17), and Oh, Lady! Lady! (1918.03).  

The 1920s may be considered the second phase of Kern’s theatre career.  By the 1920s, Oscar Hammerstein II, Anne Caldwell and B.G. DeSilva worked with Kern on The Night Boat (1920.04), Sally (1920.44), Stepping Stones (1923.40) and Sunny (1925.33), among others.

Broadway Phase 3

The 1927 epic musical Show Boat (1927.67) introduced the third phase of Kern’s career as a composer of fully integrated musicals including Sweet Adeline (1929.31), The Cat and The Fiddle (1931.37), Music In The Air (1932.23), Roberta (1933.26), Very Warm For May (1939.28) and the London show, The Three Sisters.  Kern’s collaborator on The Cat and The Fiddle and Roberta, Otto Harbach, stated that Kern “was delighted when a song had good motivation.  He also had an astute critical sense for good dialogue and plot development.”  Oscar Hammerstein II, Kern’s collaborator on the remaining shows in Phase 3 stated, “He didn’t think a score is important unless it is linked to a good libretto.  He was always more intense about story and characterization than about music.”

Hollywood Phase

Kern also wrote scores for films, including the Billie Burke film Gloria’s Romance, and film adaptations of Show Boat (1929), Sally (1929), Sunny (1930), The Cat and The Fiddle (1934), Sweet Adeline (1934), Music In The Air (1934) and Roberta (1935).  His first original film score, I Dream Too Much (1935), was followed by Swing Time (1936, Academy Award for Best Song “The Way You Look Tonight”), High, Wide, and Handsome (1937), and The Joy Of Living (1938). Following the Broadway failure of Very Warm For May, Kern returned to Hollywood, and his last films include You Were Never Lovelier (1942), Cover Girl (1944), Can’t Help Singing (1944), and Centennial Summer (1946).

In May 1942 Hammerstein suggested a musical adaptation of Lynn Riggs’ play Green Grow The Lilacs (1931.02), but Kern turned down the opportunity because he thought the musical problems posed by the play were too tricky for successful resolution. When Hammerstein’s adaptation of Riggs’ play with Richard Rodgers, now titled Oklahoma!, opened in 1943, Kern forwarded his congratulations, even while he must have realized the mantle had passed once again, this time to Rodgers.

As producers of Annie Get Your Gun, Rodgers and Hammerstein invited Kern to write the score with Dorothy Fields.  Returning to New York to work on the new musical and a revival of Show Boat, Kern suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died in November 1945.  President Truman summed up the feelings of most Americans in his wire to Kern’s family:  “His melodies will live in our voices and warm our hearts for many years to come, for they are the kind of simple, honest songs that belong to no time or fashion.  The man who gave them to us earned a lasting place in his nation’s memory.”