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Review: Jazz Jews

Talmudic toe-tapping

    Shockelling Satchmo: Louis Armstrong was influenced by Jews at prayer
    Shockelling Satchmo: Louis Armstrong was influenced by Jews at prayer

    By Mike Gerber
    Five Leaves, £24.99

    Innovative jazzmen, from Louis Armstrong to Ornette Coleman, have been creatively influenced by Jewish music, says Mike Gerber.

    In the case of Louis, the New Orleans trumpet virtuoso’s scat singing was at least partly inspired, he said, by seeing and hearing religious Jews swaying as they prayed. For Ornette Coleman, the avant-garde saxophonist, it was hearing Josef Rosenblatt, a Ukrainian-born cantor, whose chanting sounded, to Coleman, as if he were crying, singing and praying, all in the same breath, as though it was “coming from his soul”.

    Gerber relates these incidents in the course of a global exploration of the extent to which Jews and their religious and social heritage have influenced their playing and the development of jazz.

    That Jews have played a prominent role in jazz throughout the decades is fairly obvious, even to those with only a casual awareness of the music. Nevertheless, like a fervent ornithologist leading a group of new birdwatchers on a ramble through the forest, Gerber leads his readers on an instructive journey through the ages of jazz, from New Orleans through ragtime, Dixieland, big-band swing, bebop, West Coast cool to jazz-rock, fusion, free-form and avant-garde and beyond, spotting a remarkable array of Jewish jazzmen on the way.

    They range from the famous to the almost totally obscure and Gerber describes the influences that coloured their music and, in particular, the extent to which their heritage, secular or religious, played a part. He discovers Jewish sounds in the otherwise entirely African-American music they play and, through searching questions, sometimes enables even the most assimilated Jews to discover something of their heritage in their musical creativity.

    In the early years, Jewish jazzmen seem mostly to have shrugged off their Jewishness — the legendary swing-era clarinettist Artie Shaw even took pains to hide his. When “outed” and asked in a television interview what he had wanted to be when he grew up, he replied: a gentile.

    Gerber relates how Shaw and his rival clarinettist, and fellow Jew, Benny Goodman, paved the way in breaking down the colour bar isolating black Americans. He also delves into the experiences of Jewish jazzmen in the Nazi death camps and under Soviet oppression.

    He describes how, in recent years, a host of younger Jews have rediscovered their Jewish musical heritage, whether its roots be klezmer, Sephardi, Balkan or liturgical, and now wear it proudly. He introduces readers to the Radical Jewish Culture movement, whose philosophy is to play “Jewish music beyond klezmer: adventurous recordings bringing Jewish identity and culture into the 21st century.”

    Gerber quotes Jeremy Shoham, one of the newer wave generation of British jazzmen, who likens jazz improvisation, in which a musician plays a melody in dozens of different ways, to the talmudic tradition of exploring every angle of an issue.

    Now, says Gerber, Jewish musicians are using jazz, and its bastard children — rock, funk, punk and hip-hop — in combination with klezmer and other Jewish musical forms or inflections. In doing so, he says, they are asserting their Jewish identity and producing a lot of exciting music.

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