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The Jewish Influence in Blues and Jazz

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I haven’t written very much in the past 20 years. It’s only been in the last few months that I have rediscovered my greatest passion. There are many reasons for this that are not necessary for me to get into. That’s another story. Perhaps my recent heart attack gave me the opportunity to spend a fair amount of time reflecting back into my past.

I started listening to a lot of music recently and drifted back to my childhood. Maybe in some profound way I finally felt more justified to discuss my love of jazz music and especially blues. These latest events made me finally attempt to bring my love of music and writing together.

Growing up in the sixties I recall so many different genres of music that played in our household. From The Beatles and The Monkees in my sister’s room, to Big Band Jazz in the living room, to my brother’s turntable that span the soulful sound of electric blues and jazz in the bedroom we shared.

Music was everywhere. Tunes were always playing in our house even before my birth. It would appear that I was breast-fed music and by the time I was in my early teens, as a result, I developed a natural but unusual knowledge level for my age. My father played the harmonica and my brother the guitar. Together they would have jam sessions that filled the house with a vibrancy that I can never forget.

My grandparents were very orthodox, and while my parents never got too involved in Judaism, they thought that out of respect, they should make me understand my roots. I went to Hebrew School and studied up until I had my Bar Mitzvah at thirteen. I was the strange child that loved listening to the Cantor sing at the synagogue because I was convinced he sounded like Jack Bruce of Cream. To this very day I still think that! It was this very thought wave that made me think… Is there a link between this? Maybe there was something to it. I know there are people who are going to think I’m off my rocker, but that’s OK. We’re all entitled to our opinion. I wanted to see if instinctively I felt something back then that I couldn’t explain until now.

I started thinking to myself that out of all the blues and jazz music I remember, how many of these were Jewish? Is it even possible? I mean the roots of blues originated in the late 19th century in the American south by African-American slaves forced to work from sunup to sundown. Hmmm … Sunup to Sundown … Sunrise Sunset … Sorry drifted off …

These slaves sang a rhythmic "call and response" to ease their brutal labour and to converse without knowledge of their masters. They were known as field hollers. One of the workers would shout a solo line, and then the others would repeat a harmony line, all while being in tempo with the work at hand. This is the seeds of the blues, and the improvisational style of early jazz would form from this as well. In Europe something interesting was developing.

At the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th, many of the Jewish people lived in The Pale of Settlement. This included the territory of present-day Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus. The Jewish people from these Eastern European parts borrowed and synthesized music from different cultures, including styles with North Africa. When this Jewish culture started arriving as a whole in America's northern cities, they brought with them a style of music called the "Klezmer,” a word created when combining the words vessel and song together.

African Americans were escaping poverty, and in America's south headed for a new beginning in the great cities of the industrial north. They brought the blues with them and started to form a new lifestyle away from oppression. In the formation of the blues, vocalists developed a style that was familiar, but at the same time not heard of before. During this time, horn and string players studied these blues singers, imitated their techniques and altered the sound to their own instrumental accompaniment.

W.C. Handy was one of these horn players and would eventually be known as the Father of the Blues. Jewish people and African Americans would live together in the big cities of New York, Boston, and Chicago; sharing their experiences with similar impoverished roots.

A professional scholar of musical studies could better explain the musical notes and the similarity in the Jewish musical roots to that of the blues. The facts are there, I’ll let you discover them if the interest is there. There is no coincidence, and I can think of one person in particular that best links the two cultures together and his name is Al Jolson. Jolson’s The Jazz Singer (celebrating its 80th Anniversary this year) was the first movie to use sound as dialogue. The movie is a creation of Jewish imagination and it tells the story of a dream and new found ambition in conflict with old world values in America at the time. Musically it’s a mix of Jazz and Yiddish Blues by way of Tin Pan Alley.

The contributions of many Jewish performers would continue to influence the blues and Jazz scene. The significant clout of artists like Artie Shaw, Buddy Rich, Mel Torme, Herbie Mann, Stan Getz, and Irving Berlin were massive at the time, and that’s just to name a few. Many believe that George Gershwin was strongly influenced by his Yiddish background. The beginning clarinet of "Rhapsody in Blue" was definitely a Klezmer influence and Benny Goodman is also a good example of this. Not too compare myself by any means, but these were Jewish people with their roots in the synagogue like me.

My soul searching while I was recovering from my heart condition was now starting to come together. There was something I felt back then. The Big Band Jazz and sleepless nights of soulful blues was finally making sense. It would certainly explain why my father would play his harmonica and jam with my brother, and why he was so profoundly turned off by The Monkees and even The Beatles.

Fast forwarding to the sixties, the contributions of Jewish people in blues and jazz continued, and I recalled my brother spinning music of The Paul Butterfield Band on his turntable. A young guitar player from his band, who received his first guitar as a Bar Mitzvah present would contribute and inspire a new generation of musicians and fans. His name was Mike Bloomfield. It really didn’t matter where he was from. The sound was pure heartfelt, soulful blues and everyone including all the blues giants couldn’t deny his obvious talent. Bloomfield was so dedicated to his craft that he turned down going on the road with Bob Dylan to stay with Paul Butterfield.

By the way, speaking of Dylan, between Al Kooper’s The Blues Project and the Highway 61 Sessions Revisited, there were so many Jewish contributions you could have easily had a minion if you had to.

At this time in the sixties in England, there was something oddly familiar taking place (I think I said this before). John Mayall and the Blues Breakers were carving a name for themselves in the British Blues seen. Now don’t get concerned, I’m not going to tell you that Eric Clapton was Jewish. However, when Clapton left The Bluesbreakers he was replaced by a Jewish bluesman called Peter Greenbaum, more commonly known as Peter Green.

Green would eventually be known as a pioneer of the British blues scene. Everybody would marvel at the sound that Green would generate from his famous 1959 Gibson Les Paul. B.B. King would go on to say that Green “has the sweetest tone I ever heard; he was the only one who gave me the cold sweats.” Similar to Clapton, Green only worked on one major album with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers and would go on to form a little known band of his own called Fleetwood Mac. Just in case you never knew, he also wrote "Black Magic Woman," made famous by Santana.

I mentioned earlier about Jack Bruce. My research leans towards the fact that while certainly Scottish, he has some Jewish ancestory. I cannot prove that notion, but he always had the Cantor feel to me. However his songwriting partner and half the team responsible for many of the band Cream’s hits was Pete Brown and he was definitely Jewish. So maybe Brown did have some Klezmer influence on Jack. Who knows!

I feel I could go on and write more on this subject. There are so many names that were on my list and I’m sure that many of you who are reading this are coming up with a few yourself. We can always touch on this through your comments if you like. This post is a blend of my roots through jazz, blues and Jewish studies. I wanted to find a way to blend it together somehow, and when I recently came across a blog post by Brian Clark called “Jazz and the Art of Improvisational Blogging” on his Copyblogger website, the inspiration was enough to drive this article. Anyway, I hope you found it interesting.

I think it’s important to know that this subject matter is quite vast and has viewpoints that are not very positive. I have chosen not to touch upon those areas. My whole approach to writing is not to concentrate on the negatives, but to keep an upbeat flow. Music has and always will be my great love. When all is said and done, it doesn’t matter who we are or where we’re from. We will always feel sorrow, joy, anger and love together through song.

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About The Blues Blogger

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Man, what a fantastic article! I think its time that the Blues Blogger unmask himself and reveal his true identidy to Blogcritics and to the world. This was so well-written, in-depth, and passionate I simply don’t know where to begin. Great, great piece. Bravo to the Blues Blogger!

    -Glen

  • http://daslob.blogspot.com/ Pico

    Nice article! As soon as I saw the title with “Blues” and “Jewish” in it I thought of Michael Bloomfield. Man, what a talent he was. On the jazz side, John Zorn comes to my mind because of his Masada project and also his fostering of Klezmer jazz bands like The New Klezmer Trio. You could probably go on for a long time about the contributions Jews made to both genres.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I wonder if Kenny G has any jewish in him Pico. Maybe we need to email his assistant…

    -Glen

  • http://daslob.blogspot.com/ Pico

    I get a sneaky feeling that this conversation is about to take an interesting turn…

  • http://jonsobel.com/ Jon Sobel

    Very thought-provoking article. I have always noticed an affinity between the minor-key strains of traditional Jewish music (ancient Sefardic music, Torah chants, klezmer, etc.) and the “blue notes” that define what we call the blues. It’s very interesting to reflect that these may be related not simply through the psychology of a shared experience of persecution, but actually, to some degree in modern times, through musical cross-pollination.
    (Note: I think your reference to Joshua Redman is an error. He is not a Jewish musician from the golden age of jazz…)

  • http://thebluesblogger.com The Blues Blogger

    Thanks for all your kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Jon you are definitely right. Not sure how that happened. I was probably thinking of Red Buttons or something ridiculous like that. Who knows …weird… I promise you this; I’ll never buy that brand of red wine again. I’ve sent an email off to Glen to fix it.

  • JC Mosquito

    I’ve got a green bullet harp mike just like the one in your picture. Funny… it didn’t look…

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I didn’t read that email until late this evening, but consider it fixed.

    -Glen

  • http://waxinggibbons.blogspot.com Robert

    Well,(one of) Jack Bruce’s middle names is Asher.
    Hmmmm.
    As a Jewish Blues based guitarist myself, I can see what Bloomfield had going on. Peter Green is somewhat of a mystery to me. One of those acid casualties that drifted into a cult and then seemingly had his Oliver Sachs moment, afterward.
    I don’t know if you want to lump Paul Kossoff soelly in the camp of Blues players, but he was a HUGE influence on me. Hendrix was, too. Do a bit of genealogical nosing around on Jimi’s surname. You might be very surprised!
    Sorry to hear about the Heart Attacks, man. I had two M.I.’s at the end of 2004. Would have traded both of them for massive Strokes.

    Peace, Brother!

    -Robert

  • Tony Stock

    Bill Wyman called Dylan “the greatest white blues singer”. It would be interesting to look at Dylan’s influences, and his association with people like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, real name Aronowitz (from memory).

    LIstening to songs like ‘One More Cup of Coffee..’ and having heard Dylan perform numbers like ‘Little Moses’ and ‘Let My People Go’, we can be left in no doubt that Dylan has been heavily influenced by his religous roots.

  • joe

    I love it when you say the jews and blacks lived together bull the jews used the blacks and would never live near them or any other white goiam….the jews used the blacks….jews live in comfort when blacks live in poverty…jews control everything the media and the usa..

  • Bigdog

    The Jews did far more for popular music than even this article suggests. How about a MOJO awards!
    The call and response was already well embedded in popular song among the new world colonists as it came from sea shanties. There is nothing in traditional African music that can be more linked to Blues and Jazz than European music. When Europeans travelled to Africa to buy slaves they were engaging in trade. Ports have always been melting pots and the ships used popular songs to help the work. North America was 70% Scottish Irish just as slavery was taking off. Listen to Scottish Psalm singing and tell me it isn’t where Gospel came from. Modern popular music owes much to Jews and much to Scottish/Irish traditional music, as well as the European song tradition. All of these predate any black influence and negate the very small features that resemble African traditional music. This is because African traditional music is very, very simple and contains only elements that are already present in many other musics. The influence that Black people have had on modern music however, is huge. But they did this while they were Americans. Blues and Jazz are, without doubt, American. Blues and Jazz have exactly the same heritage as America does: Founded by Europeans who then bought Africans to do most of the labour. As the Africans gained their much deserved freedom they showed what they could do within that same new culture. Good on America for giving the world these great musical forms and bad on those that want to claim them as exclusively theirs.

  • ross bradshaw

    Just come across this article.. we (Five Leaves in the UK) have just published a book called Jazz Jews by Mike Gerber. It’s 656 pages, international in scope, 7,000 names in the index. Not the last word on Jews in jazz, but a lot of words…
    You can find more details on http://www.fiveleaves.co.uk.
    End of commercial.

  • Dima Gimburg

    Thank you for a great article. As a jew i really wanted to know what has my religion benefited to the genre I love so much. When I think of it now, I see so many jewish artist performing around the world and making their influence on the blues [modern or older].

  • YS

    Hey,
    Great article! I want to write a paper for an African American history class on the relationships and mutual influence of black and Jewish jazz musicians. What are some good sources where I can read about that?
    Thanks,
    YS

  • http://www.myspace.com/paullyricist Paul Robert Thomas

    Great & very interesting article, particularly for me as a song lyricist who has always loved the Blues & is now being drawn more & more to Jazz, in fact our soon-to-be-released album called ‘Cole Porter’s Blues’ is a Jazz/Blues album ……. and yes, I am Jewish:)!

  • Kdees

    Cool article, I am a Muslim researching Jewish influences in Blues/Jazz/Folk, I am also researching Islamic influences in Blues/Jazz. Anyway nice article however you missed a few Jewish key figures in Blues/Jazz, starting by Leiber, Stoller and Chess brothers. I find it shocking that you labeled B.B. King infamous! as a Blues/Jazz researcher I find that new, when did the king become “infamous” ?

  • kali

    @ bigdog

    Its only a matter of time before our culture is completely stolen
    And history changed. Our music simple? Are u kidding me? Stop stealing peoples culture and passing it off as ur own. Without blacks there wouldnt be any jazz. You know nothing of our spirit. Jazz is from us. Humanity is from us. Religion from us. In twenty years i would bet my life people like u would claim rap came from jews. Stop trying to steal our culture. You can barely tapyour foot on beat.Btw, great article.

  • Teri Rini Powers

    I am a Jewish convert of 37 years…I am a Jazz musician and am attempting to write a service in Jazz….I find your article very thought provoking….since I am 73 years in age….and of Italian descent…and have been a musician all of my life…and think that perhaps..God gave all people the ability to think and create…and Jazz is one of the many roads that we take.