The Arty Semite

Composer Brings Jazz Age to Washington Ballet

By Susie Davidson

  • Print
  • Share Share

Elizabeth Gaither and Jared Nelson in ‘The Great Gatsby.’ Photo by Steve Vaccariello.

F. Scott Fitzgerald — who dubbed the 1920s “the Jazz Age” — would surely approve.

This week, jazz clarinetist and composer Billy Novick and his band, the Blue Syncopators, will play Novick’s score for The Washington Ballet’s production of “The Great Gatsby” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The ballet premiered in 2010 with seven sold-out shows.

Novick’s music can be heard in hundreds of commercials, film and television soundtracks, and he’s played jazz and rock with greats such as David Bromberg, Martha and the Vandellas, and J. Geils. He also wrote the soundtrack to a 2002 film on Holocaust artist Samuel Bak. But this gig’s got him grinning.

“The ballet is very accessible and entertaining, and the choreography is incredibly dynamic and exciting,” he told The Arty Semite. “People thought the show should be on Broadway.” In the ballet, excerpts from Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, set on Long Island’s North Shore and in New York City, are voiced by actor and singer Will Gartshore.

Novick’s collaboration with The Washington Ballet came about through a 2009 email exchange with Mort Speck, an instructor in orthodontics at the Harvard University School of Dental Medicine and a longtime clarinet student. Speck’s son, Scott, the conductor and musical director for The Washington Ballet, had asked his octogenarian father to describe the typical instrumentation of a 1920s jazz band.

“I jokingly asked if he needed an arranger-composer,” recounted Novick. They did, and now Novick and the ballet company’s artistic director, Septime Webre, are discussing bringing other great American books to the ballet floor.

Novick grew up in the Village of Westbury in Long Island, where his mother taught Sunday school at Temple Beth Avodah. His parents also exposed him to a wide variety of Jewish culture. “My parents were big time Israeli folk dancers, fluent in Yiddish,” Novick said. “I still remember Menasha Skulnik in ‘The Zulu and the Zayda’ on the Lower East Side,” he recalled.

In addition to his work in rock and jazz Novick has done the requisite simcha circuit, playing bar mitzvahs and weddings as a member of the Klezmer Conservatory Band and in a klezmer-jazz duo with Moshe Feldman, aka “Moshe from Russia.” He’s also recorded CDs with Safam, and with singer-songwriter Peri Smilow.

“I was surprised by how many klezmer songs I knew from some 40 to 50 years ago,” he said. He even remembered the steps for Israeli dances, though he admits that he didn’t dance much then, or now. At his own bar mitzvah, while a folk dancer led the guests in “Mayim” and other standards, he was listening to the World Series and playing craps with sugar cubes from the dinner tables.

“I’m a total klutz,” he said. “I’m used to being on the other side of the music.”

Now with “Gatsby,” he will be.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: The Washington Ballet, The Great Gatsby, Susie Davidson, Music, Dance, Billy Novick, Ballet

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.