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Jews in the Family of Jazz

For 60 years I’ve been waiting for a book that has finally been published in England: Jazz Jews by Mike Gerber (Five Leaves Publications; [email protected], contact: Ross Bradshaw). Ten years in the making-eight of them on research-with 7,000 names in the index, ample footnotes and an extensive bibliography, it is more comprehensive than I ever imagined possible. The writing is not academic; rather, it grooves.

Mike Gerber is a freelance writer whose credits range from The New Statesman to Financial Times. The range of his knowledge of jazz history, including the business elements of it, becomes deeply evident during the many interviews. I’ve told Gerber that I’m working to get an American publisher for Jazz Jews, and I’m sure I’ll succeed.

What especially reached me personally was a revelation about Artie Shaw, who first brought me into jazz when I was 11 with “Nightmare.” In this book, Shaw denied that his longtime theme song had anything Jewish about it. But years ago, I found out that the penetrating theme was based on a nigun, a melody sung by Jewish cantors (chazzans).

As I wrote in a previous JazzTimes column, the improvising chazzans in the orthodox Jewish synagogue of my childhood were my first exposure to the “soul music” that later connected me to the black blues records I started collecting when I was in my teens.

I knew Artie Shaw (birth name: Arshawsky), but never asked him about his childhood. What I found out in Jazz Jews is that, as a kid, he was often sharply wounded by anti-Semitism. That resonates with my having grown up in Boston, which was then the most anti-Semitic city in the country. In my Jewish ghetto, a boy alone at night ran the risk of being punished by invaders as a “Christ-killer.” I lost some teeth that way.

That’s when I became an outsider to the point back then that I didn’t go into certain Boston stores, because I figured they didn’t want to have anything to do with Jews. I’m still an outsider in my day job writing about civil liberties; for instance, I’m an atheist pro-lifer.

What I didn’t know when I used to talk to Artie Shaw is that he felt so marginalized growing up Jewish that, as Mike Gerber writes, “Those anti-Semitic episodes haunted Shaw to such an extent that having Anglicized his name … for years he avoided disclosing his Jewish roots to fellow musicians.”

Coming to New York, Artie Shaw had as one of his mentors Willie “The Lion” Smith, also mentor to Duke Ellington. Said Shaw during a National Public Radio interview, “Willie didn’t know I was Jewish. I didn’t tell him that.” The Lion, notes Gerber, was proud of his good student, Artie, all the more so when Sidney Bechet, who was particular about clarinet players, asked Willie about Shaw, adding that “this musicianer was a good bluesman.” Artie was being welcomed into the family of jazz. He certainly soon knew that he belonged there, not at all marginalized.

One night, while still in the Boston ghetto, I heard on the radio Ziggy Elman-on Benny Goodman’s “And the Angels Sing”-burst triumphantly into a joyous, swinging, klezmer-like Yiddish trumpet solo. At that moment, I felt as if I had been welcomed into the jazz family. Reading Jazz Jews, I discovered from Peter Sokolow, a klezmer-jazz musician, that “Ziggy imitated a cantor on his trumpet.”

As a member of this family, I was very pleased to find in Jazz Jews a reference to Ben Ratliff’s book The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music (St. Martin’s Griffin) concerning Ornette Coleman’s reaction to a recording by a renowned chazzan, Josef Rosenblatt. “I started crying like a baby,” said Ornette. “[Rosenblatt] was crying, singing and praying all in the same breath. I said, ‘Wait a minute, you can’t find those notes … they don’t exist.'”

Ratliff asked Ornette if he could tell how much of the chazzan’s chanting was improvised and how much of the “up and down melodic shapes were well practiced.” Said Ornette, “It doesn’t sound like it’s going up and down; it sounds like it’s going out, which means it’s coming from his soul”; the “soul music” I first heard so long ago.

One of the experiences of being in the family of jazz I most prize happened outside a New York rehearsal hall where Dizzy Gillespie was preparing an all-star jazz orchestra for a performance, as I remember, at the United Nations. The musicians were ready, but Dizzy hadn’t yet arrived.

I had gotten to know Dizzy quite well. He once gave me excellent advice for how to keep a marriage working. I was doing a phone interview with him when I heard a familiar angry shout from inside his home: “Dammit, Dizzy, you left the toaster on again!” I’d heard that piercing stop chorus often at my home. I asked Dizzy what his formula was for keeping a long marriage harmonious. “When you hear that sound,” he said, “just say, ‘Yes, dear. Yes, dear.'”

It works.

That day outside the rehearsal hall, Dizzy and a friend were coming down the corridor. I hadn’t seen him for months. He rushed over, gave me a big bear hug, and said to his friend, “It’s like seeing an old broad of mine.” Neither before nor since have I been given that distinctive a tribute. That sure made me feel like a member of the jazz family.

I’ll have more to say about Mike Gerber’s Jazz Jews in a future column. He also tells of Willie “The Lion” Smith getting bar mitzvahed at 13 at a Newark synagogue, and saying years later that “people can’t seem to realize I have a Jewish soul and belong to that faith.” That story is in my forthcoming book, At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene (University of California Press), due out in June. The Lion eventually became a chazzan for black Jews in a Harlem synagogue. I wish I’d known that in time to be a member of his congregation.

Nat Hentoff can be contacted at 212-366-9181.

Originally Published