The Arty Semite

Sonny Berman: The Jazzing Jew

By Benjamin Ivry

Courtesy mp3.com

Earlier this year, the Library of Congress website analyzed an unpublished 1946 jazz recording which the Library acquired last year of a jam session in Oklahoma City featuring trumpeter Sonny Berman, a talent well worth remembering. Born Saul Berman in New Haven in 1925, Sonny was sassy, no-holds-barred, and witty, blithely adept at be-bop as an online recorded excerpt indicates. It’s entitled “Sonny,” a tune which the composer and guitarist Chuck Wayne dedicated to Berman. Wayne never copyrighted “Sonny,” and Miles Davis appropriated it a few years later, retitling — and copyrighting — it as “Solar”. Berman’s glory was brief; he died of a heroin overdose in 1947.

Yet he had time to record an LP in the mid-forties entitled “Sonny Berman - Beautiful Jewish Music” with the Brooklyn-born saxophonist Al Cohn and trumpeter Irvin “Marky” Markowitz. Unlike jazz albums which memorably interpret genuine Yiddish and Israeli melodies, such as “Terry Gibbs Plays Jewish Melodies in Jazz Time” and Shelly Manne’s “My Son the Jazz Drummer,” Berman’s “Beautiful Jewish Music” was distinctly less literal in content. Instead, it features works from Berman’s repertoire which are not specifically Jewish, such as “Woodchopper’s Holiday,” “Sonny’s Blues,” and “Sonny Speaks Out,” suggesting that whatever he played became “Jewish music” ipso facto.

This strong sense of Yiddishkeit came from a career which began early. Berman started touring at age sixteen and eventually worked with the bandleaders Louis Prima, Harry James, Benny Goodman, and Woody Herman. It was in the last-mentioned jazzman’s ensemble that, as Barry Ulanov wrote in his 1952 “History of Jazz In America,” Berman became “one of the leading actors in the band’s troupe of Jewish comedians,” spouting Yiddish phrases and executing pratfalls alongside such musicians as Irv Lewis and Sam Marowitz.

Ulanov adds that circa 1944, Berman was “end man in [Herman’s] trumpet section, a funny kid whose square countenance looked so much like the front of a subway car that it earned him the extraordinary sobriquet of ‘BMT-face.’” Jokes apart, Berman’s artistry was admired by all, as Ulanov notes: “Sonny’s solos, those long cadences and flattened notes piercing the wildest up-tempo jazz with such lovely poignancy…Sonny was funny with a touch of sadness, sad with a meaning, sorrowful on his horn, touching as a person when you got to know him and got beyond the frantic exterior.” The Library of Congress’s web posting is a welcome excuse to get behind that exterior and relish the real Sonny Berman.

Listen to Sonny Berman solo in a 1945 recording with Woody Herman and his Orchestra here.

Listen to Berman in 1946 with his own ensemble, Sonny Berman’s Big Eight here.

Read more


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Sonny Berman, Jazz, Miles Davis, Benny Goodman

The Joyous Music and Gloomy Life of Artie Shaw

By Benjamin Ivry

Nepotism is largely justified in Jewish families, when it is a matter of encouraging real talent. Such is the conclusion to be drawn from Tom Nolan’s “Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake: The Life of Artie Shaw,” a new biography of the clarinetist and bandleader.

Born in 1910 as Avraham Ben-Yitzhak Arshawsky on the Lower East Side of New York, Shaw started his musical career playing with Jewish bandleaders such as Jean Goldkette, Joe Cantor and Irving Aaronson. His big break came when he was hired at a hefty salary by Roger Wolfe Kahn, son of the noted financier Otto Kahn. Together with Kahn’s high level ensemble — which was as musically alert as the more famous Paul Whiteman Orchestra — Shaw even participated in a few light-hearted Vitaphone short films.

By the mid-1930s, Shaw was being encouraged by Willie “The Lion” Smith, the remarkable African American Jewish jazz pianist who served as cantor of the African American synagogue in Harlem. The Yiddish-speaking Smith was a friendly mentor, but Shaw soon ran up against a concrete wall of sibling rivalry in the form of his near-contemporary, the superstar Benny Goodman. Striving to outdo each other in Yiddishkeit, Goodman’s big band made a 1930’s hit of Sholom Secunda’s “Bei Mir Bistu Shein.” Shaw’s contemporaneous response, “The Chant,” was inspired by “Khosn Kale mazeltov,” a klezmer tune described in Mark Slobin’s authoritative “American Klezmer: its roots and offshoots” as a “popular Jewish wedding recessional.”

Read more


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Willie "The Lion" Smith, Roger Wolfe Kahn, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw




Find us on Facebook!
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • 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.
  • 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.