Jews and All That Jazz

This is a guest post by Mark Levy, a singer and lecturer who specializes in older Judaic folk music in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Ladino, Klezmer history and theory, and Jewish music history, in honor of Jazz Appreciation Month.
Jazz developed in New Orleans within the Afro-American community and spread up the Mississippi River to Chicago and Kansas City, then to New York and California. The Jewish immigrants coming from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century became exposed to this new music and many composers, singers, and players caught the bug. These young Jewish artists lived very differently from their parents’ generation.
The first talking film, The Jazz Singer, takes up the issue of old world and new as Al Jolson’s character Jakie Rabinowitz defends his ragtime songs against the ravings of his cantor father. (Jolson’s real father, also a cantor, was similarly opposed to his son’s new music, despite the more sympathetic 1948 portrayal in “The Jolson Story” starring Larry Parks.)
Many of the early jazz singers, composers, and performers, such as Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker, Jerome Kern, Eddie Cantor, and Fanny Brice, were discovered by Florenz Ziegfeld and employed by him in his follies. The Ziegfeld Follies were lavish Broadway productions including chorus girls, singers, comedians, and skits. Florenz Ziegfeld discovered and made a number of vaudeville and burlesque performers stars in his follies in the early decades of the 20th century, extravagant productions of talent on Broadway. (Opinions differ as to whether Ziegfeld himself was Jewish.)
Brice made her name as a singer-comedienne who affected Yiddish and other foreign accents in her comedic songs. She can be seen playing herself in the 1936 film “The Great Ziegfeld” starring William Powell in the title role. One of the songs she sings in the film is “Yidl With Your Fiddle, Play Some Ragtime,” written by Irving Berlin in 1909, which says it all. The pressures of show business caused Brice to do something Sophie Tucker would never have done – she had her nose done in the 20’s to look less Jewish.
Jewish composers Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin all incorporated elements of ragtime in their songs, which became popular with mainstream theatergoers. Berlin was born in Russia, Kern and Gershwin in New York. Kern’s musical “Showboat,” although a romantic caricature of the old South, was a smashing success in 1927, and changed American musical theater forever. Berlin began composing in his teens, penning his first big hit “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” in 1911. Of his friend Berlin, Kern noted, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music–he is American music.”
In contrast to Berlin, who couldn’t read music, George Gershwin was a trained classical composer and pianist with a foot in both classical and jazz music camps. Aside from his well-known “Rhapsody in Blue,” which included both classical and jazz elements, Gershwin produced a stream of hit songs employing the new musical idioms for Broadway and films with his lyricist brother Ira, and also wrote for Yiddish theater. His best known musical “Porgy and Bess” takes place in the rural South and adopts the Black idiom, with syncopation and bluesy jazz singing. The success of this musical shows that, at least in the North, audiences were ready to deal with racial issues.
In the ’30’s and ’40’s, it was bandleaders like Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Ziggy Elman, and later Buddy Rich – all Jews – who brought the big band and swing era styles of such Black legends as Count Basie and Duke Ellington to the attention of a white audience. They made the jazz of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Duke Ellington their own, and added many originals to the hit parade. Goodman, the “King of Swing,” is considered the first to integrate black and white musicians and to bring jazz from the dance hall to the concert hall. Goodman’s quartet melded the virtuosity of Teddy Wilson (piano) and Lionel Hampton (vibraphone), both black, with Gene Krupa on drums and Benny on clarinet. This mix, as well as the inter-racial mix in Goodman’s big band, opened the door to other bandleaders to do the same, while it brought the music to public recognition. So successful was Goodman in popularizing the new sound that black arranger Fletcher Henderson, who had worked with just about every black composer and bandleader, came to Benny to ask about arranging his tunes. The resulting collaboration made jazz history.
Jazz great Artie Shaw was born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky, but shortened his name because of anti-Semitism. A clarinet player and rival of Goodman, Shaw and his band worked with Billie Holiday, and immortalized Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine.” Trumpet player Ziggy Elman (born Harry Finkelman) started his own band after playing for Goodman. Elman’s claim to fame was his collaboration with Johnny Mercer (a prolific lyricist and a white from the South who also collaborated with many black composers), “And the Angels Sing,” an old Klezmer melody with Mercer’s lyrics, in the middle of which Ziggy breaks out with the Klezmer trumpet solo. (This can be seen in the 1956 film The Benny Goodman Story, which starred Steve Allen as Goodman, but featured many of the original band members in re-creating the concerts, including Elman.)
Later, Jewish jazz and pop singers whose voices permeated the airwaves, TV, and film include Dinah Shore, Mel Torme, Eddie Fisher, Barbra Streisand and Sammy Davis, Jr. Davis converted to Judaism after a near fatal car crash. He was visited in the hospital by a rabbi, and then developed the interest which led to his becoming a Jew.
The fusion of Latin music with jazz also had its Jewish exponents and innovators: Stan Getz and Herbie Mann were taken with Brazilian rhythms, Herb Alpert with salsa from South of the Border.
So, here we have a century of great jazz, born of the Black soul and transfused into the blood of so many Jewish musicians and writers. This music is still vibrant and exciting, and continues to touch younger players who make their own music and give it to the world. I hope it inspires you, as it did me, to seek out their recordings and give an ear.
This article was originally published on the Jewish Federations of North America website.