The Arty Semite

Jazz Jews in Excelsis

By Benjamin Ivry

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Those eager to hear the Latin jazz maestro Larry Harlow, whose Yiddishkeit was explored in the Forward last year, at his much-anticipated August 14 Lincoln Center concert, can stave off their impatience for “El Judio Maravilloso” with an exuberant new compendium from Five Leaves Publications, “Jazz Jews.”

In the book, British journalist and indefatigable researcher Mike Gerber discusses superstars like Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Lee Konitz and Stan Getz, as well as many under-celebrated talents.

“Jazz Jews” scotches rumors of Goodman’s “exploiting” African American musicians and arrangers, for example, pointing out that Goodman did much to integrate jazz. Gerber also gets ultra-specific in this roomy tome, pointing to a particular 1928 Goodman recording of “That’s A-Plenty” as being influenced by the klezmer aesthetic of Naftule Brandwein.

Yet “Jazz Jews,” which has excited often-captious mavens like Nat Hentoff, is perhaps most valuable because of its universal scope. Israel’s jazz scene is well-limned, including a section on Eyran Katsenelenbogen, a pianist of quasi-Oscar Peterson elaborateness.

Other figures discussed in “Jazz Jews” include the debonair French Jewish bandleader Ray Ventura, who made lightly swinging records including a 1935 number “Everything’s Fine, Milady” (“Tout va très bien, Madame la Marquise”), in which servants gloss over ghastly events occurring in their employer’s absence, which became emblematic of French politicians’ ongoing attempt to gloss over Europe’s slide toward Fascism.

1940s Danish Jewish jazz singer Raquel Rastenni, born Anna Rachel Rastén, made big band recordings influenced by Ella Fitzgerald. A frequent Ella collaborator, the American Jewish master guitarist Barney Kessel was keenly refined on delicate numbers like “Autumn Leaves” by Joseph Kosma, a French composer of Hungarian Jewish origin.

Gerber tracked down interviews even when subjects were not eager to chat with him, like the eminent soprano sax player Steve Lacy, born Steven Norman Lackritz in New York City. Others were delighted to delve into their Yiddishkeit, however, like pianist and singer Barbara Carroll, who peppily declares: “I’m thrilled to be Jewish.”

“Jazz Jews” also focuses on those who departed the scene too soon, like the brilliant guitarist Emily Remler, who memorably told People magazine: “I may look like a nice Jewish girl from New Jersey, but inside I’m a 50-year-old, heavyset black man with a big thumb, like Wes Montgomery.” Remler’s untimely death of heart failure in 1990 at age 32 still resonates in the jazz community.

Watch Mike Gerber speak at the London book launch for “Jazz Jews”:


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