The Music Plays On — Kay Swift

Donato Cabrera
3 min readJul 4, 2020
Kay Swift

The composer and songwriter, Kay Swift, is an intriguing figure. Today, her name is mentioned mostly in passing, usually only in association with George Gershwin. However important Swift’s ten-year long friendship and affair might have been to both Swift and Gershwin, her music had an enormous influence on the development of the American musical and the classical pieces that she wrote are truly excellent.

Katharine Faulkner Swift was born in New York City in April, 1897, and was trained at the Institute for Musical Art, which would become the Juilliard School. She had every intention of a career as a classical pianist and composer and after graduating was a member of the Edith Rubel Piano Trio. She wrote the wonderful Theme and Variations for Cello and Piano for the cellist in this trio, Marie Rosanoff.

Swift married James Paul Warburg in 1918 and while he was a banker, his passion was poetry and under the pseudonym, Paul James, became Swift’s lyricist. They penned the song, Can’t We Be Friends, in 1929 and this became her biggest hit. This song has since been sung and recorded by the world’s greatest singers, but I love the first one made by Red Nichols and His 5 Pennies.

Kay Swift with husband and lyricist, Paul James

In 1930, Swift and her husband wrote the hit musical of the year, Fine and Dandy. The title song has become a jazz standard, but this musical was not like any other show of its era. The score relied heavily on the sound of saxophones, which hadn’t really been used to this extent before. Also, the subject of upward mobility and socioeconomics wasn’t something usually addressed in the typical carefree free plots of the musicals of the time. It ran for 255…