History: Black-Jewish Jazz Family in Action

March 25, 2013

by Nat Hentoff 

Growing up during the so-called “Great Depression” in Boston – then the most anti-Semitic city in the country – I felt such an outsider that, for one example, I’d look in the window of a Brooks Brothers clothing store, but would never enter.  It was so far outside the Jewish ghetto, I figured they didn’t want a Jew as a customer.

But one night, on a jazz radio program, I suddenly heard the always exuberantly swinging Cab Calloway singing – in Yiddish! – “Ot azoy nyet a shnayder” (this is how the tailor stitches) with his big band rollicking behind him.

Gee, I felt a welcome inside this music that had already been lifting my outsider’s spirits. There was more, like trumpeter Ziggy Elman, in the midst of a Benny Goodman concert, playing a jubilant “freilache,” just like one I’d seen people of all ages dancing to at a Jewish synagogue wedding near the corner of my street.

After I’d moved to New York, reporting for DownBeat, Billie Holiday, whom I’d gotten to know well, astonished me by singing, on a private recording in 1956 made in the home of another friend, clarinetist Tony Scott, as she turned “My Yiddish Momme” – in Yiddish! – into a blues.

Both came back to me in an indispensable collection, Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations, produced and distributed by the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation (www.idelsohnsociety.com).   On the first page of the booklet accompanying Black Sabbath, there is a quotation from Ray Charles whom I interviewed a number of times, but he never told me what he says here:

“If somebody besides a Black ever sings the real gut bucket blues, it’ll be a Jew.  We both know what it’s like to be someone else’s footstool.”  He said that in 1976 at the Beverly Hills Lodge of B’nai Brith.

What astonished and thrilled me most in Black Sabbath is Johnny Mathis whom I’d often enjoyed as an enchanting ballad singer, one of the most convincing romanticists in jazz.   But here he is singing what I most looked forward to hearing as a child in the Orthodox synagogue at my neighborhood on Boston’s Blue Hill Avenue (classified by the anti-Semites as “Jew Hill Avenue”): “Kol Nidre,” climaxing the Jewish High Holidays in the Yom Kippur prayer service on the Day of Atonement.  The cantors’ deeply soul challenging improvising that struck me as arguing with God eventually brought me, as I told my buddy Charles Mingus, to the blues.  Dressed as a cantor, Mathis would have been a star of Blue Hill Avenue.

There are more treasures released by the Idelsohn Society, which describes itself, “as an all-volunteer-run organization.  We are a core-team from the music industry and academia who passionately believe Jewish history is best told by the music we have loved and lost.  In order to incite a new conversation about the present, we must begin to listen anew to the past.”

They not only release evocative long-neglected Jewish performances, but also, “curate museum exhibits that showcase the stories behind the music and create concert showcases which bring our 80 and 90 year-old performers back on stage to be re-appreciated by the young audiences they deserve.”  For more information on the Idelsohn Society, I’d suggest you contact Roger Bennett, its co-founder, at 845 Third Avenue, 4th Floor, New York, NY 10022 or call (646) 731-2309.

In my experience as a chronicler of jazz musicians, the most unexpected discovery of the black-Jewish family relationships concerned Willie “The Lion” Smith, the master of Harlem Stride Piano, whom Duke Ellington considered his main mentor.

When I first came to New York in 1953, The Lion and I soon became friends and it was a great pleasure to pick up the phone at home and find him calling just to chat.  One of the first jazz recordings I produced was of Willie and another key shaper of Harlem piano, Lucky Roberts, in separate sessions – released on what is now the Concord Music Group: Lucky and the Lion – Harlem Piano (also available on Good Time Jazz, Amazon.com).

But I didn’t find out until after Willie’s death that he regarded himself – and proudly – as being Jewish.  The British critic Michael Gerber in the path-breaking, extensive Jazz Jews book (fiveleaves.co.uk, 2009), tells of Willie as a boy making deliveries, being especially intrigued by the chanting of a rabbi at one of the customer’s apartments.  This led the rabbi to separately teach Jewish music and culture to this eager learner.

Willie was actually bar mitzvahed in a Newark synagogue at 13 and years later became a cantor in a black synagogue in Harlem.  If I’d known that, I’d have asked him how I could become a member of the congregation.

Jazz Jews quotes Willie: “A lot of people are unable to understand my wanting to be Jewish.  One said, ‘Lion, you stepped up to the plate with one strike against you – and now you take a second one right down the middle.’”  But The Lion insisted, “I have a Jewish soul.”

As for his jazz impact on Duke Ellington, certainly not Jewish, in an entry on jazz.com (http://www.jazz.com/jazz-blog/2009/10/8/hentoff-on-jazz-the-jewish-soul-of-willie-the-lion-smith) I cited Duke’s memory of the first time he heard the Lion:

“Everything and everybody seemed to be doing whatever they were doing in the tempo that The Lion’s group was laying down.  The walls and furniture seemed to lean understandingly.  One of the strangest and greatest sensations I ever had.  The waiters served in that tempo; everybody who had to walk in, out, or around the place walked with a beat.”

Duke’s description of this black-Jewish-jazz beat is from a book, Willie “The Lion” Smith/ 8 Piano Compositions, by Michael Spike Wilner, owner and manager of the by now legendary Smalls Jazz Club in Manhattan and himself a jazz pianist and scholar of stride piano.

Finally, I cannot resist a final chorus with a personal story years after Cab Calloway gave me a quick hint of being welcomed into the Black-Jewish jazz family.   An especially enduring friendship I had with a jazz musician was with Dizzy Gillespie.  Once, when he was rehearsing an all-star band for a concert at the UN, I came to the rehearsal hall and found the musicians there – but not Dizzy.

I hadn’t seen him for months, but suddenly there he was, with a friend, coming down the corridor.  Seeing me, he quickened his pace, came over and gave me a big hug, saying to his friend: “It’s like seeing an old broad of mine.”

That made me feel indeed, however informally, a member of the Black-Jewish jazz family.

Nat Hentoff is one of the foremost authorities on jazz culture and history. 

He joined DownBeat magazine as a columnist in 1952 and served as that publication’s associate editor from 1953-57.  Hentoff was a columnist and staff writer with The Village Voice for 51 years, from 1957 until 2008, and has written for The Wall Street Journal, Jazz Times, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker, among many other outlets.

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