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American dream, Jewish score
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American dream, Jewish score

Musician Ben Sidran sees spiritual roots in secular songwriting

Musician Ben Sidran will bring one part jazz, one part Judaism, and one part journalism to the bima of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield when he appears there as artist-in-residence on Jan. 10 and 11.

The pianist, producer, singer, and composer — and now author — will discuss his new book, There Was A Fire: Jews, Music and The American Dream. But the veteran musician, who has been performing jazz and blues since his high school years in the late 1950s, promises more than a talk about his writing.

“I am going to do some playing as well as some speaking,” he told NJ Jewish News in a phone interview from his Madison, Wisc., home.

“On Friday night I am going to be speaking about the idea of how Jews in 20th-century America helped form what we think of as the American dream, from Emma Lazarus and her poem on the Statue of Liberty to Bob Dylan and the Beastie Boys and the whole sweep of the 20th century and how it was profoundly Jewish.”

And on Saturday evening, he said, “I will give a concert with the band and play primarily Dylan music.”

Why would a self-proclaimed “jazzhead” devote so much attention to a folk-rock singer-songwriter like Dylan?

“Dylan is obviously a key historical figure, and very Jewish,” Sidran explained. “Bob Zimmerman invented Bob Dylan, and the Dylan he invented was very Jewish in the talmudic sense. He argued with God, and he opened a passageway for all musicians who followed to sing in a natural voice and to honor the words.”

Sidran said Dylan’s chords are as basic as his lyrics are complex.

“Jazz musicians love interesting harmonies, so I have reharmonized them modestly so that they are still true to his movements,” he said. “A lot of what jazz is about is what you don’t do. So leaving spaces and punctuating them with harmonic and rhythmic moments make it a jazz record, but I wouldn’t say that the music particularly lends itself to jazz.”

‘America is Jewish’

After a brief flirtation with rock in college, playing alongside Boz Scaggs and Steve Miller at University of Wisconsin fraternity parties in a group called The Ardells, Sidran devoted himself primarily to jazz. He cites fellow pianists Horace Silver, George Shearing, Bud Powell, and Erroll Garner as his primary influences.

But he has also worked as a sideman and a producer for such pop and rock artists as Diana Ross, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, and the Rolling Stones, and is the host of NPR’s “Jazz Alive” series.

Judaism began to touch Sidran’s life while he was growing up in a Conservative synagogue in Racine, Wisc. In Madison, Sidran said, he is “active in raising money for the Jewish social services and the community centers, that sort of thing.”

He wrote There Was a Fire “to talk about not just in what ways Jews are Americans but in what ways America is Jewish. America in many ways is profoundly Jewish. This whole idea of the American dream of social justice and fair play, of being an individual and finding your voice — all this stuff has deep Jewish roots.”

Sidran views music “as a form of journalism. When I go out and perform, I do a lot of talking from the stage. I talk about contemporary issues. I talk about the lives we are all living. Jazz musicians are notoriously silent on every issue. We let the music talk. So I found a niche for myself where I talk about social issues while I am performing. That fed into the writing, and it is part of the way my music has evolved,” he said.

He is concerned about how both jazz and Judaism may evolve in the future.

“Jazz requires a certain amount of patience and attention to love, but the attention span of most young people today is short. Five minutes to a kid today is a lifetime. That covers their declining interest in both the Jewish experience and jazz” he said.

“There is a lot of research that’s says that because the intermarriage rate among Jews is above 50 percent except in the hasidic community, 50 years from now, only the hasids will be identified as Jews. The rest of us will be identified as Americans.” While such a projection doesn't bother him particularly, “it bothers a lot of Jewish organizations,”  he said.

“People have fought so long and so hard for the right to be secular Jews. There are 15 million Jews in the world, and seven million live in the United States. So a big part of what the contemporary Jewish experience is is the American-Jewish experience….

“You don't have to believe in God to be moved spiritually, particularly where there is music involved. You can be spiritual about your secular life.”

rwiener@njjewishnews.com

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