Swinging into War: Music for Trombone, Guitar and Mortar

by Scott Krane

The Shai Brenner trio with elderly kibbutzniks
By Scott Krane
When the Saints Go Marching In
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ISRAEL---Last November, Israelis envisioned another approach to looking after their fellow citizens during wartime: play jazz.

In November 2012, the Israel Defense Forces launched Operation Pillar of Defense against Hamas in the Gaza Strip in retaliation to thousands of rockets launched at Jewish homes inside Israel proper. Early in the last decade, Israel returned the Gaza Strip which sits on the Mediterranean Sea close to the border of Egypt to a Palestinian government. They had been holding onto the land unlawfully according to the United Nations. Israel had captured it in 1967 during a war to "push the Jewish state into the sea" to borrow rhetoric commonly heard at Passover table discussion.

Ever since, Israelis in the south of their country have been victims of rocket fire.

On Sunday, November 18, on a kibbutz in the Biblical Negev desert called Nahal Oz which sits near the Gaza border towns of Netivot and Sderot, three jazz musicians kept kibbutzniks entertained. Amnon Ben-Artzi played trombone, Uri Ben-Zvi guitar and Shai Brenner played soprano saxophone to a crowded room.

The percussion for the combo? Not a snare drum, not a washboard, but the formidable thunder of rockets exploding in the background!

Since its founding, the kibbutz residents have found that life then was no deadlier than life today.

Soprano saxophonist and bandleader, Shai Brenner told me – referring to his jazz performance on the kibbutz Sunday, November 18 – “It [the performance] was hot. Literally. We performed right next to the border with Gaza to the members of the kibbutz in the shelter... We all crowded for an hour of New Orleans jazz while outside rockets thundered.” he said, adding that “I'm glad we came so that the residents know that we support them, identify with them… We played jazz to encourage and strengthen them. The residents were very happy of course.

We played mostly the good-old jazz tunes (like Sweet Georgia Brown, Indiana, Sheik of Araby and Some of These Days" to name a few as well as "[some] Sidney Bechet tunes.

We had to perform in the shelter because rockets were falling all the time in the area. Jazz sounds in the shelter overcame rockets sounds outside.” he said.

This description speaks symbolic volumes about the clash of militaries and cultures in the region. Israel conquered the Biblical region during a war in 1967 in which the Jewish state had to defend itself from attacks by militaries throughout the region. The occupied territory bred a culture of terrorism and guerilla warfare.

The strife has been traumatic for both sides.

“People were sitting and listened quietly but you could see the look of appreciation on their faces.” Brenner said referring to the performance for an interview.

"Besides encouraging the people there, I felt that personally I carry a message as a jazz player…This is the real spirit of jazz as I see it.” he said.

Brenner is one in a long lineage of Jewish musicians who have found strength during wartime in their music.

Leopold Kozlowski, 94, is a Polish Jew from Krakow who goes by the moniker, "the last klezmer."

"Music saved my life," he told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz in September 2012. "I was in a concentration camp, in a ghetto and in the forest. Music gave me strength. Hitler destroyed Judaism, but not its music. It lives forever." Kozlowski's story was the topic of a film made in the '90s. And aside from his saga, tales abound about how the inmates of Hitler's death camps resisted the defeat of their spirit by playing jazz and yiddish music.

For the residents of Israel's south, Shai Brenner's unique brand of New Orleans jazz music reminds Jewish people of the music of the ghetto.

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Scott Krane