When jazz sounds Jewish

The role of Jews as jazz pioneers is often ignored or caricatured. A professor is putting the record straight.


Its not exactly protest music, but jazz has deep roots as a vehicle for social change. Jazz bands offered some of the 20th centurys brashest experiments in racial integration; jazz songs themselves seduced a narrow-minded America with slyly multicultural influences.  

Jews helped drive that narrative — think Benny Goodman, George Gershwin, the producer Norman Grantz, or Barney Josephson, owner of the ground-breaking Café Society in New York’s Greenwich Village. But the role of Jews as jazz pioneers had often been overlooked, or saw them presented as caricatures like the rapacious club owners Moe and Josh Flatbush in Spike Lee’s 1990 film Mo’ Better Blues.

That was until Cleveland State University Professor Charles Hersch started thinking it about it. Hersch, who’d long studied the effect of the arts on society, had just completed Subversive Sounds, his 2008 history of racial politics, jazz, and their intersection in New Orleans.

“I have a long history of examining music in terms of ethnicity and race, and I just noticed there were a lot of Jewish musicians in the jazz pantheon, and no one had written much about it,” Hersch says. “What does it mean for Jews to be aligned with an art form dominated by African-Americans?”

Eight years later, Hersch is exploring the answers in a new book. Jews and Jazz: Improvising Ethnicity (Routledge) is a fascinating look at how Jews used jazz to both affirm and subvert notions of identity.

“Part of what I wanted to do in the book was do more justice to relations between Jews and blacks than I’d seen,” Hersch says. “I’d read simplistic ideas of the affinity thesis — we’ve both suffered, the blues sounds like davening, et cetera. I wanted to get at the complexity of the relationship instead.”

His more satisfying thesis, as laid out in Jews and Jazz: “Jewish jazz musicians’ identity exploration has been made possible by the shared hybrid and improvisatory nature of Jewishness and jazz.”

As Hersch deftly illustrates, the way Jews used jazz as an art form — and commercial vehicle — tracks how they were regarded in society at particular moments. “Jews were shut out of a lot of professions in the early 20th century, so they went into entertainment,” Hersch says. “They used music to play with, express, and explore their Jewish identities. And how they did that, changed over time.”

As jazz arose in the late 1920s and early ’30s, Hersch explains, “Jews weren’t considered fully American or fully white.” Gershwin and the Tin Pan Alley composers created “melting pot” compositions” that incorporated a range of ethnic genres — and made an implicit case for acceptance.

“Through musical forms, they wanted to create an America that was safe for Jews,” Hersch says.

In the 1930s and ’40s, Jews began to engage with black musicians at a time when such interactions were still taboo. But — as if to highlight the complexities of identity at a fraught time — their Jewishness had little to do with their beneficence, Hersch says.

“Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw were hiring black musicians, but they didn’t do it as Jews or in the name of Jews,” he says. “Goodman thought a lot about equality. He was appalled by some of the injustices of keeping blacks out of certain bands, not being able to hire [famed pianist] Teddy Wilson or [legendary instrumentalist] Lionel Hampton. He always put it in terms of, ‘I just wanted to hire the best musicians’”.

Rather than altruism, could any of this forward thinking have been driven by a desire for notoriety, or just to sell more records or tickets?

“Goodman eventually hired Hampton as part of a small breakout group, but it was still controversial and cost him money,” Hersch says. “The producer Norman Grantz lost millions of dollars because he wanted to take a group of jazz musicians on tours, and southern venues wouldn’t let him take black musicians — and they wanted to segregate audiences. So it’s hard to make the case that they were doing it for financial reasons.”

Still, Hersch characterises the black-Jewish alliance as “a fraught relationship. There was always a tension there. Sure, there were Jews who took advantage of black musicians. But they loved the music, and helped spread it. Of course they wanted to make money, but they also put out music they knew wouldn’t make money.” Hersch cites the example of Blue Note Records, the seminal label founded by German-Jewish refugees in 1939, “which put out some of the best jazz recordings that have stood the test of time.”

Pressed to choose just one song that best symbolises the contributions of Jews to jazz, Hersch doesn’t hesitate. “One thing that kept popping up over and over is [circa 1932 Yiddish standard] Bei Mir Bist du Schoen,” Hersch says. “It’s a Yiddish song written by Sholem Secunda. Someone hears it being sung by a couple of African American musicians, with English lyrics. It becomes a big hit for Benny Goodman, who throws in a klezmer section. Then, an African-American musician named Slim Gaillard covers it as ‘Bei Mir Bist du Pork Chops’, substituting food imagery throughout the song. A ton of other musicians do their own version.”

The song, a huge hit for the non-Jewish Andrews Sisters in 1956, became an “anthem” for American Jews, Hersch writes, who saw in the song’s success a sign of their growing acceptance by the majority.

While the book is mostly focused on the US, Hersch does find a British thread to the story. Baroness Pannonica (Nica) de Koenigswarter, who was born and raised a Rothschild in England and emigrated to the US, became an important jazz patron for Thelonious Monk and other bebop musicians in the 1940s and 1950s. No less than the great saxophonist Sonny Rollins proclaimed that de Koenigswarter’s story “is our story. It has to be told,” according to an anecdote in the book. Hersch implies that the Baroness’ “hatred of prejudice” arose from her own Jewishness – and experiences of antisemitism in the UK.

The Jews-and-jazz story doesn’t stop in the 1950s. As Hersch vividly points out, jazz today has become a means to “think about Jewish identity in a multicultural world.

“Jewish musicians say things like, ‘yes I’m a Jew, but I grew up in New York City, so have all kinds of influences. So let me create music that explores my full identity, an urban identity in a multicultural world.’

“And that’s where things are going.”


‘Jews and Jazz: Improvising Ethnicity’ is published by Routledge

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