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What Do Jews Have to Do with Jazz? Plenty!

What Do Jews Have to Do with Jazz? Plenty!

If you love jazz and Jewish culture, as I do, it seems only natural to seek out connections between the two. That’s exactly what a select group of jazz lovers in New Jersey did this past fall and winter, bringing to the fore the exceptional exhibit, Jazz, Jews and African Americans: Cultural Intersections in Newark and Beyond. The show was a collaboration of the Institute of Jazz Studies (Rutgers University-Newark), New Jersey Performing Arts Center, WBGO, the Jewish Museum of New Jersey, New Jersey City University, and Congregation Ahavas Sholom, an historic synagogue in Newark that houses the museum.

Created in just about three and a half months, the exhibit explored connections between African- Americans and Jews in the development of this art form in the 20th century and beyond, through photographs, illustrations, matchbooks, record jackets, and a series of engaging events that brought together present-day communities. Displayed through early 2016, the exhibit offered enduring lessons on this fascinating subject. The show’s curator, Tad Hershorn, archivist, Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University-Newark, shares his reflections here.  How did you frame the theme of the exhibit?

Tad Hershorn: Right from the start, the exhibit recognized that jazz at its core comes from the heart of the African-American experience. At the same time, it showed that there was a higher than normal proportion of Jews involved in all types of roles than their numbers in the population would indicate. The exhibit traced how the singular qualities of jazz influenced American music for decades from the 1920s through the 1950s and beyond — from Tin Pan Alley through swing, bebop, and onward.

Who were some of the performers featured in the exhibit?

The exhibit showed how early on Sophie Tucker, a Jewish singer and vaudeville star who was friends with African-American stars like Ethel Waters and Mamie Smith, loved jazz and incorporated it in her acts. Tucker, whose career lasted until the late 1960s, was among the first entertainers to perform jazz for white audiences. Later, in the eras of swing and bebop, Jewish band leaders and musicians worked with African-American band leaders and musicians. So, for example, band leaders like clarinetist Benny Goodman hired the African-American arranger Fletcher Henderson, employed pianist Teddy Wilson and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton for his quartet in 1938, and later the groundbreaking modern jazz guitarist Charlie Christian. Artie Shaw, a clarinetist and band leader was another star of the swing era brought to light in the exhibit.

Besides performers, who are some others in the jazz world who are highlighted?

Over the years, a lot of Jewish club owners, managers, record producers, bookers, and promoters worked with black performers. Among them were Barney Josephson, who created Cafe Society in New York in the late 30s to bring jazz music to the public, and singers like Mildred Bailey, Lena Horne, and Billie Holiday all of whom performed there. At Cafe Society, Holiday performed “Strange Fruit,” a song written by Lewis Allan (A.K.A. Abel Meeropol), telling the story of a lynching in the South. And in Greenwich Village, the Village Vanguard was opened by Max Gordon in 1938 and remains open today.

In the recording business, the exhibit profiled Alfred Lion, Max Margulis, and Francis Wolff, owners of Blue Note Records that produced albums featuring such African-American artists as Horace Silver, Jimmy Smith, Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, and more.

Then, there are managers and promoters, including the great jazz impresario, record producer, and civil rights advocate Norman Granz. He toured and recorded Ella Fitzgerald for over 40 years, helping her to become “The First Lady of Song.” Unfortunately, at the low end, there were some promoters who took advantage of performers and were not above board.

Who were some of the songwriters that were featured?

Songwriters and lyricists, including Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Jerome Kern, Leonard Bernstein, and Dorothy Fields, whose works formed the basis of what became the Great American Songbook, made appearances in the exhibit. Many of their songs were popularized in the movies, on Broadway and radio, and went on to become jazz standards.

How was the exhibit received by the community?

The idea of the exhibit and the programs was to bring in different members of the community beyond just African-Americans and Jews. There were nine or 10 complementary programs – from panel discussions to musical performances – held at nearby churches and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, For example, the composer-musician David Amram played and spoke on a panel, the film Strange Fruit directed by Joel Katz was shown and discussed, and Carolyn Dorfman Dance produced a dance performance. As a result, I don’t think the museum had ever seen traffic like it did for that exhibit, but it also accomplished its goal to engage a wide swath of the community.

What memorable moments did you experience during this exhibit?

One visitor looking at a photo of a jazz performance told me it made him want to hear the people who were depicted. I think if you can inspire the viewer with the core of what these people do, that’s really the goal.

Audrey Merwin is a member of the Union for Reform Judaism’s communication team. She edits Reform Voices of Torah, the Monday edition of Ten Minutes of Torah, sings in the United Synagogue of Hoboken choir, leads services, and teaches in the synagogue’s learning center. 

Audrey Merwin

Published: 5/27/2016

Categories: Jewish Life, Arts & Culture, Music
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