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Jews for jazz

Local players, writers, and history buffs fete a musical ‘love affair’

The poet and author David Lehmann has called jazz a cocktail of “Jewish gin and black vermouth.”

From jazz’s earliest days, Jewish musicians, impresarios, and songwriters both learned much from and contributed greatly to an art form created by African-Americans.

That “on-again, off-again love affair” (again, Lehmann’s phrase), which continues to this day, will be well represented locally in a forthcoming lecture and concert and is embodied in a new biography of jazz impresario Norman Granz and in the memories of local musicians and jazz fans.

On Thursday, May 10, the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest expects “dancing in the aisles” during its “Jews & Jazz” program, which will take place at the Aidekman campus in Whippany as part of Jewish Heritage Month.

“We thought it was something that would give the celebration an American flavor,” said Linda Forgosh, executive director of the society.

David Aaron, a jazz clarinetist from Union, will illustrate a talk on the subject by playing recorded works of such Jewish jazz greats as Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Stan Getz, Paul Desmond, and Mel Torme.

Aaron will follow his talk with a concert by his trio, which includes Lew Leabman of Marlton on drums and Dan Schwartz of Fair Lawn on keyboard.

Acknowledging the genre’s deep African-American roots, Forgosh said, “We are not attempting to say jazz’s origins are Jewish, but there are very few Americans who are not aware of Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw or the influence of klezmer music on a number of composers like George Gershwin and Irving Berlin.”

Jazz began attracting Jewish musicians when its African-American pioneers migrated to northern cities in the years after World War I, Aaron said.

The list of jazz musicians who happen to be Jewish is a long one.

Among the earliest is Willie “the Lion” Smith, an African-American pianist who was raised in turn-of-the-20th-century Newark by his Jewish father and learned Hebrew from a rabbi for whom his mother did laundry.

In a 2010 essay in Jazz Times magazine, critic Nat Hentoff wrote about Smith, pointing out that he became bar mitzva at 13 at a Newark synagogue and quoting the pianist as saying years later, “People can’t seem to realize I have a Jewish soul and belong to that faith.”

The late impresario Norman Granz was in some ways Smith’s mirror reflection: a white Jew who identified deeply with black culture. Born in California to Jewish immigrant parents, he would go on to manage and produce records for the likes of famed performers Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson. He created a landmark series of concerts known as Jazz at the Philharmonic and founded the legendary Verve record label

“No question about it, Granz is one of the most influential Jews in the history of jazz,” said Tad Hershorn, author of the newly published Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice and project archivist at the Institute of Jazz Studies on the Newark campus of Rutgers University.

Granz played an important role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, demonstrating what his biographer called “the humanitarian spirit of the Jewish people to understand what is right and what is wrong.”

“Norman was a very secular Jew,” but he had absorbed “a lot of the values I associate with Jews — a love of knowledge and the arts and humanitarian causes,” said Hershorn, in a recent interview with NJJN. “He did not go to synagogue regularly or anything like that. But right from the beginning he was associated with the cause of racial justice. He used jazz to break down barriers, insisting on integrated audiences and first-class accommodations for the many black musicians whose careers he shepherded for decades.”

Jazz has meant a great deal to two leaders of the historical society.

As a young man, Howard Kiesel of Short Hills, its current president, earned his living as an alto saxophonist in the Borscht Belt resorts of the Catskills, also playing weddings, bar mitzvas, and school dances.

For seven years he was in the New Jersey National Guard band, but, he said, “I gave it up as other things took over…. Let’s put it this way: My professional status went away a long time ago.”

Bob Max, a former JHS president who lives in Summit, began studying jazz after his parents gave him a clarinet on his 10th birthday. At the age of 15 he performed “In the Mood” with high school bandmates and developed “an insatiable appetite for big band music,” he told NJJN. He learned alto sax as well as clarinet and started to play in local bands.

“We got good bookings and I made a little money,” he recalled.

It led to one particular bar mitzva gig at a Newark synagogue — “I don’t remember which one,” Max said. “The day of the bar mitzva, the piano player called in sick and there I was, up in the balcony playing the ‘Wedding March’ from Lohengrin on an alto sax.”

As a college student, Max played in Ohio University’s jazz band. “After a year, a war came along at the wrong time,” he quipped. Within weeks after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the army. “When I got to Fort Dix, the fact that I was a musician was on my record.”

Jack Leonard, who preceded Frank Sinatra as vocalist for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, was in charge of music at the base. He assigned Max to play reeds in the army band.

“I had no duties,” said Max. “I did not have to make my bed or do KP. I had no responsibilities other than keeping the music going.” He played alongside men he recognized from some of the nation’s most popular swing bands.

“It was quite intimidating for a guy who really wasn’t in their league,” he confided. “But it was a nice life. Then my name came up to be shipped out from basic training.”

At the age of 20, Max had a tough decision to make. Leonard offered to pull strings to keep him in the band, but Max was eager to get into combat. Within months he was fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and was taken prisoner by the Germans, who beat him savagely and marched him through the winter to a forced labor camp.

After losing 45 pounds during 90 days of captivity, Max and two fellow prisoners managed to escape.

When the war ended, Max returned to college and his chair in the Ohio University big band. “But the dreams of glamour faded after the war. I was bent on a career, but not in music.” Instead, he became involved in advertising and marketing, and ultimately founded his own consulting firm.

Jewish influence on jazz continues into a new century with such local talent as Greg Wall of Livingston, who doubles as a jazz (and klezmer) musician and an Orthodox rabbi. A saxophonist well-versed in the music’s traditional and avant-garde genres, he has performed and recorded with Hasidic New Wave, the Greg Wall Trio, and the Wall/London Band. Jazz Times magazine named one of his albums, From the Belly of Abraham, one of the 10 best CDs of 2002. He has served since 2009 as religious leader of the Sixth Street Community Synagogue on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Twenty-something brothers Alex and Asher Stein, who were raised in Maplewood, studied jazz at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and are members of their own quintet and the Bud Powell Tribute Sextet.

“You’ll see that a lot of the jazz musicians, even back in the early days, if they weren’t black, they were probably Jewish,” tenor saxophonist Alex Stein told NJJN in 2004. “It is going back to a respect for high art and high music.”

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