Author: Charles Hersch
The origins of Jazz can be traced to the late 19th and early 20th centuries in African-American communities — most notably in New Orleans. Once it spread, it began attracting different traditions, including Jewish composers and musicians who had populated Tin Pan Alley.
Curt Schleier in his article for The Forward:“Nine Jews Who Changed the Sound of Jazz”(Dec 22, 2014) states that jazz took in so much from so many places and changed so much from its origins that it might easily be called the Yiddish of musical forms. It includes everything from ragtime to be-bop to big band, and in most of these incarnations the Jewish impact was large.
Charles Hersch, Professor of Political Science at Cleveland State University and author of Jews and Jazz: Improvising Ethnicity not only explores the meaning and influence of Jewish involvement in the world of American Jazz but also how Jewish musicians connected with African American musicians and bonded through their music.
The principal theme running through the book is a look at Jewish identity through jazz in the context of the surrounding American culture. In his opening remarks Hersch informs his readers that “American Jews have used jazz to construct three kinds of identities: a) to become more American, b) to emphasize their minority outsider status, and c) to become more American.” He proceeds to point out that from the onset, Jews employed jazz for all three of these purposes, however, over time it shifted.
Going back to the 1920's and 1930s we have a situation where Jews were perceived as being foreign, and thus Jewish musicians used Jazz to make a more inclusive America for themselves and for African Americans, establishing their American identity.
Matters began to change in the 1940s when Jews began to be more accepted into the mainstream, and as Hersch states, they used Jazz to “re-minoritize” and “avoid over assimilation through identification with African Americans.” He goes on to to further mention: “Finally, starting in the 1960s as ethnic assertion become more predominant in America, Jews have used jazz to explore and advance their identities as Jews in a multicultural society.”
Dividing the book into six chapters spread over three parts, Hersch explores how Tin Pan Alley composers as George Gershwin tried creating musical versions of an America that was inclusive as the incorporated genres from several American ethnic groups. Although, it should be mentioned that they did minimize their Jewish identify as Jews were not fully accepted as Americans. These “melting pot” musical compositions made the case for an America where Jews would be accepted. In fact, as mentioned, these musicians visualized their music as an embodiment of the American ideal of meritocracy without prejudice.
From here Hersch jumps into the1930s where Jews actively became engaged with black musicians at a time there fraternizing was taboo. We learn about Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and many others who fought for integration in the music world. We also become familiar with concert promoter and record producer Norman Granz and Barney Josephson owner of “Café Society” embraced political activism as they broke down barriers to integration in concerts, recordings, and nightclubs. With their actions they promoted Jewish values of social justice striving to creating an America that was inclusive.
In another chapter of the book, we learn how Jews predominated the business of presenting jazz to audiences and as they were involved in the world of producers, bookers, music publishers, managers, critics, concert promoters, and disc jockeys. However, being active in these various fields often raised issued central to black-Jewish relations that brought forth charges of Jewish exploitation of black musicians that were sometimes driven by stereotypes.
Quite interesting is chapter four where we learn that in the 1940s and 1950s clarinetist “Mezz” Mezzrow, disc jockey “Symphony Sid” Torin, jazz trumpeter Red Rodney, and saxophonist Roz Cron played with black identity in a variety of ways and to various degrees. As pointed out, these Jewish jazz musicians engaged with black music to avoid “melting” into American mainstream that they considered to be bland and intolerant and to “re-minoritize” Jewishness. Hersch states that “even if they initially “became black,” these musicians often came to blackness through Jewishness and ultimately struggles with a never fully buried Jewish identify.”
Another interesting chapter deals with how some African American jazz musicians “played Jewish” by performing Jewish or Jewish-themed songs. These included Willie “The Lion” Smith, Cab Calloway, Slim Gaillard, and others.
final chapter of the book deals with how “Jewish jazz attempted to
combine “Jewish music” and jazz into a new genre. This began in
the 1930s “Yiddish Swing” and in the 1960s with albums produced
by Shelly Manne and Terry Gibbs.
I have to admit that this book is a jewel for jazz enthusiasts and a prize for any music library.