How Jazz Connected Minneapolis’ Jewish, Black Communities

It is a fairly common experience for one to have their entire image of an individual upended after discovering some previously unknown fact, and this is no less true for historians. Perhaps the biggest shock I encountered during my research on the history of Jews and post-war housing segregation in North Minneapolis was the discovery that Samuel Scheiner, the longtime director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and one of the main focal points of my project, moonlighted as a jazz pianist.

It is only vaguely alluded to in the sources I read; Robert Latz mentions it in his autobiography, Jews in Minnesota Politics. But for me, this was an earth-shattering discovery, because the picture of Scheiner I had painted in my mind’s eye did not leave room for a scene of this man closing down a bar somewhere in Minneapolis at 2 a.m. playing the music of the community with which he had witnessed the exponential increase of racial tensions during the 1950s and 1960s. 

This is the same man who in January of 1970 called a reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, a Black newspaper, in order to correct him for likening the physical appearance of an article’s subject to a Jew. In his role as one of the leaders of the Jewish community, Scheiner had become a policeman of sorts, securing the legal, spatial, cultural, and political borders between his community and others, even if this meant burying instances of Jewish discrimination against other minorities. 

So what do we make of the fact that in order to supplement his small salary from the JCRC, Scheiner willingly ventured beyond his own cultural boundaries into the realm of the group he came to fault for destroying the Jewish Northside? What did Scheiner make of it? 

But Scheiner’s interest in jazz may also remind us of another truth about his community’s relationship with Minneapolis’ Black population: that it runs much deeper than commonly believed. We do not know where Scheiner performed, but to learn a style of music that would not be brought into most institutions of learning for at least another 50 years, he most likely would have had to venture to the centers of Black life in Minneapolis during the mid-twentieth century. He would not have had to journey far. Minneapolis has boasted a vibrant jazz community for almost a century, and for much of this history, one of the most celebrated venues for musicians, including national luminaries like Oscar Peterson, was the Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House, located within spitting distance of the Emmanuel Cohen (now Sabes) Jewish Community Center in Near North. 

These two institutions, pillars of their respective communities, existed side-by-side for the better part of three decades and attest to the spatial diversity of North Minneapolis during this period. African Americans did not “invade” the area in the 1950s; they had been living adjacent to and within the local Jewish community for decades. Work done by Mapping Prejudice attests to these communities having shifted in relation to each other for over 50 years beginning in the 1920s when the city’s Black population was restricted to finding homes in Near North and parts of South Minneapolis. 

In this landscape, it is not too difficult to imagine young Jews like Scheiner being exposed to Black music. One could even picture Scheiner rubbing elbows with individuals such as John Nelson, a young, Black transplant from Louisiana who also made a name for himself as a local jazz pianist. Nelson would go on to name a son after the stage name he used in his piano trio: “Prince Rogers Nelson.” This theme of interracial connections between Blacks and Jews in North Minneapolis continued into the 1960s and beyond. In his recently published autobiography, Prince wrote that some of his earliest friends were Jewish, and he would go on to recruit two St. Louis Park Jews into the Revolution’s most famous lineup. The Jews of North Minneapolis did not live in a bubble, and the music produced by the neighborhood attests to that.  

This piece of the history of North Minneapolis may cast the neighborhood in a more positive light than the other articles in the Exodus and Equity series, but it also renders the history of housing discrimination discussed in those articles all the more tragic. It demonstrates how the cultural relationship between Jews and Blacks was one part emulation, one part collaboration, and one part theft, mirroring the social and economic relationships explored in the series. It does little justice to this history to imagine that these relationships did not exist until after the “golden age” of the neighborhood brought to an end by the post-war Great Migration. It does even less justice to Scheiner to remove him from this context and view him solely as a product of the Jewish community he championed.

As I envision him on stage in some smokey bar, exhausted after a hard day’s work but happy to make some extra money playing the music he loved, I hope sharing this part of his life does justice to the complexity and diversity of the communities touched by this history in North Minneapolis and the Twin Cities.