April 5, 2012 -
Sidran book on Jews in pop music is ‘elegant, insightful’
By Andrew Muchin
“There Was a Fire: Jews, Music, and the American Dream” by Ben Sidran. (392 pages, Unlimited Media hardcover $36, Nardis Books paperback $18.) Ben Sidran
In this age of iPods and music web sites, Americans march to the beat of their own soundtracks assembled from a nearly infinite supply of songs.
For most of the 20th century, however, Americans had turned to sheet music, then records, then radio to share in a growing national soundtrack. It offered pithy, sometimes artful songs that reflected both broad national trends and Jewish values.
Yes, Jewish values. Even in songs like “White Christmas” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
Segments of this history have been written, but never as elegantly, insightfully, and comprehensively as in Madison jazzman and author Ben Sidran’s book, “There Was a Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream,” published last month. He seamlessly blends memoir, history, philosophy, sociology, music theory, and juicy musician stories.
Racine-native Sidran has forged a unique and productive four-decade career as a jazz pianist, singer, composer, record producer, National Public Radio host, scholar, author, and musical innovator.
His 1994 CD “Life’s A Lesson,” a jazzy setting of Jewish religious songs featuring contributions from more than a dozen top Jewish jazz musicians he recruited, stands as one of the finest contemporary recordings of Jewish liturgical music. This was Sidran’s only wholly Jewish recording, and it could be the launching point of “There was a Fire.”
But Sidran begins the story in the sanctuary of Beth Israel Sinai Congregation in Racine, during his bar mitzvah celebration in 1956.
He remembers his pride and sense of accomplishment, but for Sidran the day’s spiritual content, which he describes as “connecting to something both serious and mysterious,” came when he went home to listen to his father’s jazz records.
‘A very Jewish dream’
Like Sidran, the early American Jewish songwriters had been fascinated by all things American. In 1908, Albert Von Tilzer, a Jewish immigrant and younger brother of songwriter Harry Von Tilzer, read a series of articles in The Jewish Daily Forward, a Yiddish newspaper, about baseball.
Without ever attending a game, he wrote “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” To Sidran, the song is less about watching baseball than conveying a desire to be invited to ballpark and participate in a quintessential American activity.
Sidran concludes that “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” is “about a dream, a very Jewish dream that came to speak to all Americans” about “a place from which no one was excluded and in which everyone was safe.” Von Tilzer is all in. “I don’t care if I never get back,” goes the song.
Three years later, a fellow Jewish immigrant, Irving Berlin, wrote “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” That the song wasn’t actually written in ragtime didn’t prevent Berlin from becoming “the king of ragtime.”
More importantly, contends Sidran, Berlin had accurately captured “something of the black American experience” in a popular entertainment vehicle for the first time since Stephen Foster was writing music in the 1860s.
Sidran similarly analyzes the work of George Gershwin, a piano virtuoso who, like Berlin, denied that his Jewishness had any influence on his music.
For those who would argue that the clarinet opening to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” practically oozes klezmer, Sidran explains that Gershwin had written a multi-note opening that clarinetist Ross Gorman changed in rehearsal to a long glissando. Gershwin approved.
These insider stories are part of the charm of the book along with the obscure but influential music industry Jews that Sidran describes. Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, for example, was a serviceable clarinetist and bandleader whose major contribution to the jazz world was distributing marijuana to musicians, including his friend Louis Armstrong. Mezzrow was known for rolling the perfect joint, Sidran notes.
He was one of the many songwriters who wrote in both minor and major keys, creating moods of happiness and sadness. Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich saw the same meld in Jewish humor, which he called “laughter through the tears.”
Sidran’s analysis of Jews and American music and dreams sweeps through the decades all the way to hip hop, exploring many important contributions along the way.
There’s the famous story of Armstrong working as a boy on the junk wagon of the Jewish immigrant Karnovsky family in New Orleans. The Karnofskys advanced him the money for his first trumpet and showered him with love, encouragement, and traditional Jewish tunes.
Songwriter Jerome Kern invented the modern Broadway musical. Benny Goodman was the first big band leader to racially integrate his group. Tummeling Jewish businessmen opened dozens of small independent record labels such as Blue Note, Chess, and Specialty that popularized African-American blues, r & b, and jazz.
“There Was a Fire” describes guitar ace and musicologist Michael Bloomfield, a rich suburban Chicago kid who immersed himself in studying and playing blues. Bloomfield worked with our era’s great Jewish songwriter, Bob Dylan, whose life has been filled with what Sidran considers a key American Jewish value: inventing oneself.
Sidran is a master of two types of keyboards. His writing, like his piano playing, is clear, direct, rhythmic, and flowing. His ideas cascade, develop, expand, intertwine, and resolve.
For more information on Sidran and his book, see Sidran’s website www.bensidran.com.
Andrew Muchin is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and the host of the “Sounds Jewish” weekly program on Mississippi Public Broadcasting Music Radio.
http://www.jewishchronicle.org/index.php13 Nisan 5772. Thursday April 5th, 2012