The highs and lows in the long-term relationship between Jews and African-Americans in the field of jazz were the focus of a vibrant two-hour discussion Nov. 22 in the sanctuary of Ahavas Sholom, Newark’s historic Conservative synagogue.
Wayne Winborne, executive director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers-Newark, moderated a panel that considered the positive bonds that developed among performers, composers, producers, and audience members, as well as the tensions that led to resentment and charges of exploitation.
Dan Morgenstern, a veteran music critic and former director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University’s Newark campus, called the Jewish presence in the world of jazz “quite significant.”
Citing some of the most prominent entrepreneurs in the field, Morgenstern called Jews “enablers for jazz all the way back to the early 1920s.”
Norman Granz, a Jew from Los Angeles, was a manager, producer, and record label owner who was responsible for the successful careers of dozens of jazz musicians — black and white — and was highly instrumental in breaking down jazz’s racial barriers.
Barney Josephson, born and raised in Trenton, integrated both the performers and audiences in the Greenwich Village club he owned, Café Society. “It featured integration as a very significant part of what was going on,” said Morgenstern.
“Jazz is very significant in race relations in the United States,” he added. “Jazz was the first playing field — before baseball — where integration became a cause with Benny Goodman,” a Jew and the first white bandleader to hire African-Americans. They were pianist Teddy Wilson, who joined the band in 1935, and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, who was hired in 1936 — 11 years before Jackie Robinson became the first black man to play in Major League Baseball.
But Morgenstern and others also noted the tensions that sometimes accompanied the close relationships.
He recalled Irving Mills, a Ukrainian immigrant born Isadore Minsky, who discovered Duke Ellington and managed Ellington’s career for 13 years. Mills took a 50 percent commission on much of the bandleader’s earnings, and insisted he be given credit for lyrics of many of Ellington’s compositions he did not write.
“Both white and black bandleaders did this routinely,” Morgenstern added.
Touching on such fraught relationships, panelist Sheila Anderson told the 100-member audience that interactions of blacks and Jews in jazz were “mutually beneficial for all, but, yes, there were complications over who’s in control of the product and who’s not.”
“Blacks could not enter some areas of jazz because of Jim Crow, slavery, and all that imposed on us as slaves,” said Anderson, a disc jockey at Newark public radio’s jazz station, WBGO. “People dismiss that, but I think it is important to the conversation to explain the relationship as it developed.
“The racism in this country has done so much that it has hindered us on the business side,” Anderson continued. “But were it not for Jews and other white jazz aficionados, I don’t know what would have happened to this music…. But it is kind of heartbreaking to see that we were unable to flourish on our own without having to have the benefactors.”
Panelist John Schreiber recalled his years as an assistant to impresario George Wein, a fellow Jew and an innovator of jazz festivals.
To Wein, “it wasn’t about what religion you were or what color you were. It was about who you were,” said Schreiber, president and CEO of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.
After growing up in an all-white section of Queens, Schreiber said working with Wein exposed him to a world “that expanded exponentially because I was surrounded by all these major musicians. It was true that a lot of the managers and a lot of the producers were Jewish, but a lot of the bandmates were Jewish, too. There was no separation as long as somebody played well.”
He said musicians he worked with “played great, hung out together before and after, and that is the best of all worlds.”
Audience member Barbara Kukla, an author and jazz journalist, introduced another thorny side of the relationship between blacks and Jews when she spoke of Herman Lubinsky, the owner of Newark-based Savoy Records. He was considered an arrogant and mean-spirited businessman who allegedly exploited many of the jazz musicians he worked with.
Kukla, author of America’s Music: Jazz in Newark and Swing City: Newark Night Life 1925-1950, said she struggled and failed to “find someone with something nice to say about Lubinsky,” even among members of his family. “But if he hadn’t recorded these guys, we wouldn’t have their music today,” she said.
Referring to “the nature of oppression of Jews and anti-Semitism,” Schreiber said, “you can’t quite match that with the African-American experience…. But I think there was a real relationship between African-Americans who were looking to advance an art form and Jews who appreciated that art form and desired to use the best each had to offer in order to make something special happen.”