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Final Chorus: Jazz Is an International Language

Long ago, between sets by the Modern Jazz Quartet, John Lewis and I were speculating about the future of jazz. Like who – if anyone – would be the next Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker or John Coltrane. We agreed that jazz would keep on being the sound of surprise anyway, without a new colossus.

But then John surprised me. “If there is a next one,” he said, “he could be a sideman taking a chorus as we speak in a club somewhere in Romania.” I’d heard impressive players from abroad who might not have been able to speak English but were fluent in this international language. For instance, on a recording, a joyous big band in Siberia that could have warmed up its remotest hamlets.

It was with sudden force, however, that the memory of John’s vision resonated for me when I opened the December 2005 issue of the International Association of schools of Jazz Newsletter (David Liebman, Artistic Director). Located in The Hague ([email protected]) the Association, formed in 1990, held its 15th Annual IASJ meeting last July in Krakow, Poland.

What struck me about the review of the concert was not only that 36 schools of jazz from more than 25 countries were represented, but also the inclusion in the music of the textures and rhythms of the various indigenous cultures.

Toshiko Akiyoshi, of course, has done this very evocatively in her writings and orchestral performances; and Duke Ellington’s global travels often resulted in expanding his singular musical language with the timbres and subtle pulsations of the music he heard reverberating as he passed through.

In Krakow between July 3 and 9 last year, alto saxophonist Zbigniew Namyslowski – already with some international renown – expanded his jazz quartet to encompass Gorale, a folk group. As reporting in the IASJ Newsletter:

“After an opening piece played by the jazz quartet, the folk group came on stage, singing, and took their places. The two groups then played separately, in turns and at times, together. The songs from the mountains were reworked into jazz compositions on which the jazz quartet improvised.” There was also a lecture by Namyslowski on how folk melodies from the mountain people in central Europe can nurture jazz.

I await the recordings of the concerts; and if I ever get to Poland, I anticipate nights in Krakow where there are many jazz clubs, two of them – where jam session took place every evening – “are located in beautiful cellars with typically arched ceilings providing excellent acoustics… In ever well attended jam session, the students had the opportunity to play in endless styles and grooves.

From these cross-cultural experiences will come jazz musicians who have not only absorbed the blues and other fundamental elements of American jazz roots themselves part of what Alan Lomax called “the rainbow of American music” but will also help further create, from their own traditions, a musical rainbow circling the globe.

All I knew of Krakow before learning of the IASJ 2005 meeting there was that it is again a center of Klezmer music. I said “again” because the Nazi’s, while exterminating Polish Jews and their deeply rich culture, sent, I’m sure, many klezmorim to the crematoriums.

Before Hitler’s almost final solution, in Jewish shtetls (ghettos) throughout Eastern and Central Europe, local musicians made an uncertain living traveling across different countries – trying to avoid being caught in pogroms – and absorbing the music they heard between their gigs.

Many of these improvising musicians were part of the Jewish emigration, along with my parents, to America, where, being adaptable, they played in many different contexts, including Broadway pit bands and in the then flourishing Yiddish theater on New York’s Second Avenue where tragic dramas were interspersed with jubilant musical comedies.

The first music I ever heard that made me run to hear more, almost as soon as I could walk, was a klezmer band at a wedding at a synagogue near my home in Boston that had an adjoining community hall. My mother would often run after me for fear I’d be hit by a car or by some of the young anti-Semitic hooligans that occasionally went on Jew-bashing expeditions in the neighborhood.

Although the klezmorim who so entranced me played Yiddish songs and also added their own flavors to popular standards of the time, they remained essentially improvisers. In the front line, crackling trumpet players interwove with strutting, jocular clarinetists, and with the rhythm sections transformed the wedding parties into Jewish versions of the dancers I later saw in Harlem clubs.

By the time I was also immersed in jazz, I still kept going, uninvited, to those weddings down the block. As a fledgling clarinetist, I got to talk to a klezmer master of that challenging instrument; and one afternoon, after he finished an ecstatic solo on a freilach (a swinging up tempo number) recorded for posterity by trumpeter Ziggy Elman on Benny Goodman’s “And the Angels Sing,” I expressed my great, envious pleasure at hearing the clarinet extended far beyond my strivings.

“Well,” said this jaunty member of the klezmer combo, “where do you think Benny Goodman came from?”

Reading of the commingling of cultures in Krakow last year, I noted that a Klezmer band was part of the proceedings. It occurred to me that the very first music I was drawn to, the excitement of which led me to jazz was already demonstrating that the international language of music crossed all boundaries. Originally Published

Nat Hentoff

Nat Hentoff

Over more than 60 years, Nat Hentoff (1925-2017) wrote about music, politics, and many other subjects for a variety of publications, including DownBeat (which he edited from 1953 to 1957), the Village Voice (where he was a weekly columnist from 1958 to 2009), the Wall Street Journal, and JazzTimes, to which he regularly contributed the Final Chorus column from 1998 to 2012. Of the 32 books that he wrote, co-wrote, or edited, 10 focus on jazz. In 2004, Hentoff became the first recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Jazz Masters award for jazz advocacy.