'Every time I try to play black, it comes out sounding Jewish': Jewish jazz musicians and racial identity.
Early in his memoir, Really the Blues (1946), Jewish jazz clarinetist Milton "Mezz" Mezzrow describes a conversion experience. Mezzrow and his friends approach a segregated lunch counter in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. As someone who is, in his words, "dirty from riding the rails and dark-complexioned to begin with," he is told, "We don't serve niggers in here." Clearly a mistake has been made, perhaps because of their dirty faces. However, the more he thinks about it, Mezzrow believes it was not a mistake: "We were Jews, but in Cape Girardeau they had told us we were Negroes. Now all of a sudden, I realized that I agreed with them." He vows to become a "Negro musician." (3)
Mezzrow's conversion from Jew to black is well known, but his is only the most extreme example of Jewish jazz musicians who identify with African Americans because of a felt sense of affinity. (4) These musicians, to use Jewish saxophonist Stan Getz's words, "played black," not only by becoming part of a musical genre whose most influential figures have been African Americans, but also by adopting black speech inflections. (5) Although it is tempting to dismiss these Jewish artists as "white Negroes," to cite Norman Mailer's well-known phrase, their apparent adoption of black identity was made more complicated and interesting by its connection to their Jewishness. Even if they initially "became black," these musicians often came to blackness through Jewishness and ultimately struggled with a never-fully-buried Jewish identity. Thus, when Jewish jazz musicians tried "to play black," it sometimes "[came] out sounding Jewish." (6) In the 1940s and 1950s, the ongoing negotiations of racial identity by Mezzrow, disc jockey "Symphony Sid" Torin, jazz trumpeter Red Rodney, and others emerged from both the history of Jewish racial ambiguity in America and the specific mixture of antisemitism and pressure to assimilate that they faced. (7)
"The African Character of the Jew"
The notion of affinity between Jews and blacks has roots in historical perceptions of Jews as less than fully white. For antisemites, Jews were an inferior, "colored" race. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Jews were seen as having dark skin, which was considered a sign of inferiority and disease. Reflecting a consensus among anthropologists and others, Robert Knox, in the mid-nineteenth century, spoke of "the African character of the Jew, his muzzle-shaped mouth and face removing him from other races." According to Knox, "the whole physiognomy, when swarthy, as it often is, has an African look." (8) Well into the twentieth century, Jews were seen as a separate race, not as white. (9)
From this perspective, Jews were foreigners to the European-American musical tradition. The idea that the foreignness of Jews to Western culture was a threat to music had its most notorious exposition in Richard Wagner's 1869 essay, "Jewishness in Music." (10) There, he argued that "European art and civilization ... have remained to the Jew a foreign tongue," in which he or she can never create great art. Such attitudes were not confined to nineteenth-century Europe, however.
In the 1920s in America, Jews were seen as "Orientals" who would contaminate American music. Author and composer Daniel Gregory Mason decried the influence of the "foreign type" Jews on modern music: "The Jew and the Yankee stand in human temperament, at polar points; where one thrives, the other is bound to languish. And our whole contemporary aesthetic attitude toward instrumental music, especially in New York, is dominated by Jewish tastes and standards, with their Oriental extravagance, their sensuous brilliancy and intellectual facility and superficiality, their general tendency to exaggeration and disproportion." (11)
Though in extreme form, Henry Ford also made the argument that Jews were musical foreigners, but for him they were in league with African Americans. Jazz was a "Jewish creation" whose "monkey talk" and "jungle squeals," presumably taken from blacks, "invade[d] decent homes." (12) (Interestingly, saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker once claimed that his wife, Chan, was "not white" but a Jew, because "everybody knew that Jews were black." (13)
The idea that Jews are people of color had faded by the end of World War II. Jews were now more likely to be seen as racially ambiguous. Even in the early twentieth century, when Jews were viewed as African, they were not seen as purely black but rather as a "mongrel race." (14) Antisemites feared that Jews could secretly pass as whites: Rudyard Kipling once wrote of "a young Jew trying to appear white." The term "white Jew" was used in the 1940s to describe those who chose to "pass" or assimilate. (15) In 2009, jazz clarinetist Don Byron spoke about Jews as cultural "go-betweens" or mediators between blacks and whites, occupying a "swing position," "swinging between being an oppressed minority and not being an oppressed minority." (16) (The pun on "swinging" is no doubt unintended.) American Jews are white but not WASPs, minorities but not people of color or even as generally oppressed as other minorities.
Part of the ethnic flexibility of Jews comes from the multifaceted nature of Jewish identity. Jewish identity is unlike most other ethnic identities in that it mixes religion, culture, and ancestry. Saying someone is "very Jewish" could mean very religious or very ethnically Jewish (using a lot of Yiddish and so on.) According to Daniel Itzkovitz, the fact that Jewishness could be considered a race, a religion, a culture, or a nationality gives it a "limnality," a "fundamental instability that could be mobilized to various, and particular, effects." (17)
The multifaceted nature of modern Jewish identity gives Jews the opportunity, if not the necessity, to construct identities. Constructing their own ethnic identities has in turn made it easier for Jews to identify with members of other races. Itzkovitz speaks of the "astonishing capacity of Jewishness to be the 'type O negative' of ethno-racial groups, able to enter the bloodstream of any group and exist there in culturally meaningful ways." Jews have thus, in the words of Eric L. Goldstein, "negotiated their place in a complex racial world where Jewishness, whiteness, and blackness have all made significant claims on them," and these "competing identities ... never disappeared." (18)
The feeling of being pulled by different racial identities was particularly acute during the post-World War II period. World War II brought mainstream acceptance for Jews, who then were more likely to be seen as quintessential Americans, immigrants who worked hard and succeeded in America. Yet such acceptance created new identity issues for many American Jews. The price of acceptance was the understanding that Jews would at least appear to assimilate. With this came the loss of a sense of being an outsider that many Jews valued because it allowed them to critique and create alternatives to a sterile WASP culture. According to Goldstein, "As Jews integrated into the white mainstream, they were expected to keep expressions of group difference at a level that would not offend the sense of unity and homogeneity from which whites of the postwar era drew their confidence and stability." (19) At least in public they had to submerge their Jewishness and play at being WASPs. Thus, there were almost no Jewish characters in television shows, films, and Broadway shows produced by Jewish producers. So, in 1947, when the Jewish lyricist Edgar "Yip" Harburg wrote a Broadway musical about immigrants coming to America and experiencing prejudice, he called it "Finian's Rainbow" and made the immigrants Irish. (Even in the 1990s, Seinfeld characters were rarely acknowledged as Jewish.) Many American Jews did not accept this bargain and sought to hold onto an outsider status that they saw as integral to Jewish identity.
One means Jews had of avoiding assimilation and holding onto an outsider status was to identify with racial minorities, particularly African Americans. Rather than play WASPs, they would play black. In contrast to Michael Rogin's descriptions of Jewish blackface minstrels such as Al Jolson, many Jews did not identify with blacks in order to become white. (20) Rather, they engaged with black culture in order to avoid "melting" into an American mainstream they considered bland and intolerant, and to "re-minoritize" Jewishness. (21)
According to Maria Damon, "A number of Jews found in African American culture the resources for resisting absorption into a dominant culture they found stultifying, hierarchic, unjust, unaesthetic, and un-Jewish." (22) One way to hold onto an oppositional identity through identification with African Americans was to become a jazz musician. As we shall see, Jews in the jazz world such as Mezz Mezzrow, "Symphony Sid" Torin, and Red Rodney cherished their roles as outsiders in a world that demanded assimilation, playing with Jewish, white, and black identities in creative ways.
The Jewish Jazz Musician's Conversion
Memoirs of Jewish jazz musicians, critics, and record producers often describe their introduction to jazz as a kind of religious conversion. Red Rodney's first encounter with the music of Charlie Parker was, his words, "like a religious experience." "I sat there like I was listening to one of those evangelistic gospel preachers. Oh my God. It left me talking to myself." When Bird called him in 1949 asking him to join the group, "That was a call from God." (23) Critic Leonard Feather noted that hearing Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues" determined the pattern of his life. (24)
While non-Jewish musicians undoubtedly had such "conversion experiences," for Jewish musicians, they had added meaning. Such musicians were driven to reject their Jewishness for an identity as a (black) jazz musician by antisemitism, perceived flaws in Judaism, or pressures to assimilate. Pianist and composer Ben Sidran speaks of his embrace of jazz as a rejection of his Jewishness in response to antisemitism. At the age of 13, he writes, when a friend asked him whether it was true that Jews drank the blood of Christian babies, "the whole edifice started to crumble, and I knew for sure I was from some other place." But his abandonment of Judaism also was a result of his own dissatisfaction with it. After his bar mitzvah, he "left the Jewish temple and never returned. What had the temple given me? A few memorized lines to say on cue and a sense that the ghetto was still alive and well. Being a Jew was just one long, strange, lonely trek." (25)
Realizing he could not feel at home as a Jew in America, Sidran sought a new source of refuge. Jazz offered such a sanctuary: "It was jazz, that was the place where I was from. Its voice whispered to me of a better life, where all men were brothers ... and the players were so supportive of each other." Thus, for Sidran, life as a jazz musician was a refuge from both antisemitism and Judaism itself. As he puts it: "When the black jazzman plays, he is in a way staking out his own cultural territory, while the Jewish jazzman is often in the process of fleeing his own." (26)
Leonard Feather also saw the jazz world as a refuge from the failings of Judaism. Feather was repulsed by the sexism he saw as a child in the separate seating of women in his synagogue, which he calls "segregation." This realization led him on a quest for racial equality and justice that ultimately culminated in his championing of a music dominated by blacks but open to all. When he met Louis Armstrong and his wife, Feather wrote, he was "treated ... as an equal," unlike the inequality in the temple. (27)
Sometimes this rejection of Judaism meant finding a new father figure to replace Jewish parents who were seen as stifling. When critic Nat Hentoff as a teenager started to speak to players such as jazz cornetist Rex Stewart and saxophonist Ben Webster, they became his "itinerant father figures." He sought their advice on growing up, Hentoff writes, "because they had so much life in them by contrast with practically all the other adults I knew." Hentoff also describes important jazz musicians as his "chief rabbis for many years" who replaced the Jewish leaders of his childhood. (28) Red Rodney saw Charlie Parker as a father figure: "I was like a son to him in many respects, although our ages were not that far apart." (29)
For some Jewish musicians, conversion to a musical form whose canonical figures are black entailed adopting a new ethnic identity. Yet the apparent transformation from Jew to "black" jazz musician is complicated by the fact that many Jewish musicians believed their "conversion" grew out of their Jewishness itself. According to what could be called "the affinity narrative," blacks and Jews share a history of oppression, and this common experience of suffering can be heard in the music of both groups, from the blues to the wailing of Jews in prayer. As far back as the 1920s, this narrative has been used to explain Jewish musicians' attraction to black music. (30)
Autobiographies of Jews in the postwar jazz world often begin their tales of a musical life with a synagogue scene in which they discover similarities between Jewish religious music and jazz. Nat Hentoff describes discovering the shared "blues" in Jewish music and jazz, tracing this discovery to attending synagogue as a child. "I heard the cantor's krechts (a catch in the voice, a sob, a cry summoning centuries of ghosts of Jews) ... a thunderstorm of fierce yearning that reverberates throughout the shul [synagogue]. And then ... a sadness so unbearably compressed that I wonder the chazzan [cantor] does not explode." As he goes on to hear the music of clarinetist Artie Shaw and other jazz musicians, he hears in it "the soul-shaking power of the chazzan." Later in life, he speaks to jazz composer and double bassist Charles Mingus about "Jewish blues." (31) Ben Sidran was similarly drawn to jazz because it reminded him of the music he heard in synagogue as a child: "I swayed with them as they davened [prayed] and made soft chanting sounds, rocking back and forth, as if in a trance. I had no idea what we were saying but I loved the rise and fall of the voices and the feeling of being hypnotized. I've come to think of this as my first jam session." (32)
It was not just musical similarities that drew Sidran to jazz, however: as a Jew he felt a sociopolitical affinity with African-American jazz musicians, who shared his history of discrimination. When he heard Mingus's "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," he wrote, "I just fell in love with the possibility of meeting these men one day and of understanding this music from the inside. They may have been black and I was a Jew, but we were all marked, and we had done absolutely nothing to bring it upon ourselves. In this way, it was as if we had been chosen, that we were related, and that what I was living was not so different from what a black person would know." This sense of affinity is enhanced when he witnesses blacks and Jews fighting together in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. (33) In thus connecting a shared history of oppression with resonances between black and Jewish music, Sidran evokes the affinity narrative.
The Affinity Narrative and Its Critics
With A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song, Jeffrey Melnick launched a full-scale assault on the affinity narrative. According to Melnick, Jewish musicians' identification with blacks was a cover for the economic exploitation of African-American musicians. Focusing on popular "Tin Pan Alley" songwriters such as George Gershwin rather than on jazz musicians per se, Melnick seeks to refute what he sees as the myth of black-Jewish affinity. In his view, "'Black-Jewish relations' endures as a powerful rhetorical formation even as 'facts' pile up to prove that these two groups have little reason to believe that they should be in a special relationship." (34)
Melnick argues that the notion of affinity between Jews and blacks was a rhetorical strategy whose purpose was twofold: to gain and consolidate Jews' control of the entertainment industry for financial gain and to establish their "whiteness." While Jews controlled all aspects of the music business and used the language of black-Jewish affinity, "Jewish business people did not, in the world of actual contact, regularly treat their African American employees as kin." Not only did Jews "elbow African Americans out," they trumpeted their supposed affinity with blacks to establish themselves as the premier interpreters of jazz and blues and to validate Jewish superiority over blacks. Melnick sees what he calls "sacralization"--the positing of a sonic connection between Jewish and black music--as a kind of marketing strategy, helping "to naturalize Jewish power in the entertainment industries" and "erase the commercial taint ... of Black-Jewish relations." The idea of Jews as racially flexible, according to Melnick, serves the same function. (35) (At times, Melnick disavows this exploitation narrative as too simple, but such statements are isolated and contradicted by the rest of the book. (36))
Melnick undercuts any examples of apparent sympathy between the two groups by recoding them as exploitation. Jewish love for the music is seen as a mask for economic motives. Melnick is so intent on undermining the affinity narrative that he accuses African Americans who are sympathetic to it of covering up the commercial motive that he sees as primary. This is apparent in his discussion of pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith, who believed that Jews had "soul" to the point of converting to Judaism, having a Bar Mitzvah, and performing as a cantor in a Harlem synagogue. (37) According to Smith, "A lot of people are unable to understand my wanting to be Jewish ... They can't seem to realize I have a Jewish soul and belong to that faith." (38) Smith tells us that he was drawn to Jewish music because the music of Jews, like the singing of "the Baptist colored people" "seemed to give vent to their feelings." (39)
According to Melnick, Smith himself "willfully downplays the commercial transactions that played such a large part in bringing African Americans and Jews together in music." Sentiments such as Smith's serve to mask the financial motive for Jewish involvement in jazz: "The governing version of musical and racial likeness which Smith represents always relies heavily on directing attention away from its grounding in business exchanges." (40) Melnick even characterizes Smith's use of Yiddish as "Jewish White Negroism," which he uses "to reap financial gain." Similarly, when Ethel Waters said that she loved to sing "Eli, Eli" because it portrayed a "tragic history ... so similar to that of my own people that I felt I was telling the story of my own race too," he immediately questions her sincerity. Melnick argues that Waters "admits the commercial logic" for singing the song. His evidence for this conclusion is her statement that "Jewish people in every town seemed to love the idea of me singing their song. They crowded the theaters to hear it." (41)
Melnick's critique of the affinity narrative at best oversimplifies and at worst reproduces ancient stereotypes of Jewish exploitation. Melnick claims that by exposing the supposed exploitative underbelly of the affinity narrative he is revealing something heretofore hidden: the "terrifying repressed of black-Jewish relations." (42) Yet the exploitation narrative has hardly been repressed. The stereotype of Jews as financial exploiters dates back centuries, and the charge that Jewish managers and club owners exploited black jazz musicians has existed practically from the music's inception. (43) The only thing new about Melnick's presentation is that he seeks to wrest it from the antisemites and reclaim it for the progressive (and presumably Jewish) perspective. Whether he succeeds in purging it of its antisemitic thrust is open to question.
Melnick is right to refuse to take the affinity narrative entirely at face value. The idea that black and Jewish musicians share some inherent soulfulness, based on a history of oppression, is to posit an essence of Jewishness (and blackness) that neglects the complexity of ethnic identity, especially Jewish ethnic identity. It also ignores the constructedness of identity, replacing that constructed quality instead with a "natural" essence. The affinity narrative is a constructed narrative. The question is why such a narrative was constructed and promulgated by Jews.
The notion that Jewish musicians' identification with blacks was simply a tool for cultural and economic exploitation grossly oversimplifies a more interesting picture. Of course there was exploitation of blacks by Jews in the entertainment industry. (44) But most Jews in jazz were driven by a passionate love for the music, a passion they believed was directly connected with their Jewishness. This felt connection, though constructed, was part of the reality of black-Jewish relations as much as exploitation was. Jewish jazz musicians' identification with African Americans was a response to the complex and changing situation of Jews in America, which encompassed both antisemitism and pressures toward assimilation as antisemitism waned.
Melnick's critique also neglects the complicated relationship between Jewishness and "blackness" for Jews in jazz. Both his critique and the affinity narrative itself do not do justice to the ways in which Jews, in the largely African-American world of jazz, actively constructed a variety of ethnic identities. Even if an initial sense of affinity drew them to jazz, they struggled with the question of what role their Jewish ethnicity would have in their lives as musicians in a largely African-American genre. Although many Jews were drawn to jazz because they identified with blacks, they adopted a number of different ethnic understandings about themselves. Some embraced jazz in order to trade their Jewishness for a kind of black identity, while others sought to merge Jewishness and blackness into a hybrid self. The ways in which Jews in jazz actively and creatively played with racial identity can be seen by the ways in which they talked, thought, and felt, as recorded in memoirs and interviews.
Three Jewish jazz musicians who, in various ways, identified with African Americans exemplify this process of ongoing identity construction. Mezz Mezzrow and "Symphony Sid" Torin married black women and adopted stereotypical African-American speech inflections and terminology. Bebop trumpeter Red Rodney played with Charlie Parker and, he claims, passed as a light-skinned African American on a Southern tour. Each found creative ways to negotiate their identities as Jews in the postwar jazz world. These three men do not represent all Jewish jazz musicians, but their stories illustrate ways in which important Jewish musicians played with blackness.
Really the Blues: "Mezz" Mezzrow
The child of Jewish Russian immigrants, clarinetist Milton "Mezz" Mezzrow (born Mesirow) is often seen as the quintessential white Negro. In his autobiography, Really the Blues, he takes the conversion narrative beyond an embrace of the jazz life by attempting to become, as Ebony called him, a "converted Negro." (45) One of the highlights of his life is getting put in the "colored" wing when he is thrown in jail.
Mezzrow at times sees blackness as something "real" and claims that he has actually become an African American. However, he undermines this assumption in two ways. First, he more often talks about blackness as an achievement requiring tremendous effort. Second, he often describes himself as a "link between the races." (46) One of the keys to acting as such a link is his Jewishness.
Mezzrow's conversion to blackness is partly a response to antisemitism, which figures among the first incidents he recounts in his book. Rival Polish and Irish gangs taunt him, and a police officer adds insult to injury by calling his friend a "sheeny." (47) The idea of a connection between Jews and blacks based on a shared history of oppression is central to the affinity narrative.
However, contrary to the seamless interchangeability of the two groups in the affinity narrative, Mezzrow shows that the realization of the potential affinity requires tremendous work and therefore in a sense is artificial or constructed. Language is the key to the realization of affinity. Antisemitism sends him "maneuvering for a new language that would make me shout out loud and romp on to glory. What I needed was the vocabulary." He works to acquire two kinds of language: jive and the musical vocabulary of New Orleans jazz.
Mezzrow devotes great effort to learn jive. As he tells fellow musician Dave Tough, "If you want to dig our music you got to dig the guys who made it up. You can't get to know what a people are like ... unless you really learn and know their language." To this end, he tells us, he spent "weeks studying Bessie Smith's slaughter of the white man's dictionary, analyzing all her glides and slippery elisions." He realizes that he "must have sounded like I was trying to pass for Negro." Mezzrow even ridicules himself: "I was ... a Chicago-born Jew from Russian parents, and I'd hardly been south of the Capone district, but I sounded like I arrived from the levee last Juvember." (48)
Gayle Wald believes that Mezzrow's "contrived and rehearsed" use of jive illustrates an anxiety about his ability to become black. (49) But Mezzrow acknowledges and revels in the artificiality of jive. In his words, the "hipster stays conscious of the fraud of language" and manipulates it for his own purposes. Jive is "jammed with a fine sense of the ridiculous that had behind it some solid social criticism." As something constructed, the white hipster can master it, as Mezzrow does himself; the book contains a virtuoso jive dialogue, complete with "translation" and glossary. (50) Jive was "protest"--the use of which enrolled one in a "tight secret society." Yet jive's "declaration of independence" rests on its signifying on white speech, playing with it in order to undermine it. (51) The hipster's "language is also a parody, a satire on the conventional ofay's [white's] gift of gab and gibberish." (52) Using jive, for Mezzrow, is not a blackface ritual proving he is "really black." Rather, it is a self-consciously artificial performance used to parody and therefore to question mainstream white society.
Music is an equally important part of Mezzrow's new vocabulary, which he realizes when he plays in a racially mixed band at the Illinois State Reformatory in Pontiac. Hearing the black inmates sing the blues in the jail reinforces this insight. He learns that "there aren't many people in the world with as much sensitivity and plain human respect for a guy as the Negroes." (53) At the same time, he is inspired in prison by hearing Original Dixieland Jazz Band records. Though he doesn't say so, this indicates that he believes whites can play jazz as well. (He later repudiates the ODJB as too commercial.)
However, learning the music is a much more difficult task than mastering jive. For Mezzrow, the music is an expression of authenticity, of essence. Whereas jive demands invention, learning jazz (especially for the white musician) requires subservience to a larger tradition. In his eyes, no white musician can equal the African-American progenitors, and Mezzrow never aspires to originality. Even if "unhip critics" think his music is something new, he works to "be more authentic, purer, closer to the source." "Our music was derived ... [We] took some things over from the colored musicians ... and sometimes did them good; we drifted away from their pattern in places and fell down." (54)
The process of becoming a jazz musician is a painstaking one for Mezzrow. His first efforts are "an imperfect reflection, like you get in a distorting mirror, of the only real jazz, the colored man's music." It is only after he lives near Harlem and spends time with black musicians that his "education was completed" and he "became a Negro." In the end, though, living in New Orleans, he finally finds that he has "fallen all the way into the groove" and is playing "real authentic jazz." (55)
Apparently, at first, Mezzrow's conversion is incomplete. Every great narrative requires a fall and redemption, and Really the Blues delivers, though the details are sketchy. The relevant incident occurs when he is arrested for marijuana, (22) years after his discovery of his blackness in the Pontiac reformatory. When detectives ask him if he is "colored," he says, "No, Russian Jew, American born." However, he realizes that he has "abandoned [himself]." Feeling a sense of solidarity with black inmates, he soon tells a deputy, "I'm colored, even if I don't look it," and asks to be placed in the "colored" section of the prison. Authorities comply, but then he is transferred to the white section because he looks too "conspicuous." However, after this round of "football in the little Jim-Crow skirmishes," he ends up back in the black section. (56) Months later, his fellow prisoners accept him as black.
Yet Mezzrow's final conversion to blackness is intimately connected with his Jewishness. When some Jewish inmates organize a choir during the Jewish holidays, he is surprised they "ask me, a colored guy, wouldn't I care to lead it." After all, he is black and claims not to know the words. However, as he hums along to the "Hebrew chants," he adds "Negro inflections" and "blues inflections," and they fit perfectly with the "wailing and lament" and minor key harmonies of the Jewish music. This experience teaches him "how music of different oppressed peoples blends together." At the same time, the (other?) Jewish inmates are mystified, unable to "understand how come a colored guy digs the spirit of their music so good." (57)
His realization in prison that African-American and Jewish music are connected is not entirely new. As a young man, he noticed musical affinities between the two kinds of music, which he dates back to hearing a record by blues singer Blind Lemon Jefferson about a "black snake" being played in the "Jewish ghetto" at a record store where an Orthodox Jew was "shaking his head sadly, like he knew that evil black snake personally." (58) In addition, the passage describing his realization in Cape Girardeau that he is black is followed by a recollection from his Jewish past: a memory of how as a child his rabbi told him that "Moses, King Solomon, and the Queen of Sheba were all colored, and maybe the whole world was once colored." (59) In a later Downbeat blindfold test, Mezzrow says that Ellington's "Koko" "uses a surprising Hebraic inflection and a little Oriental flavor." (60)
The fact that Mezzrow's apparent pure black identity is in reality an interconnected black-Jewish one can be seen in a 1946 Ebony feature on the clarinetist. On the one hand, he is presented as an "ex-white man." The opening page has a picture of him standing on a street corner in Harlem with New Orleans jazz greats Sidney Bechet, Henry "Red" Allen, and Baby Dodds; Mezzrow is just another black musician on a Harlem street corner. The text on the first page reinforces that view: "Mezzrow loves color. He has been color-conscious for a long time; so much so that years ago he crossed the color line, married a Negro girl and became a Negro officially and for the record." It goes on to say that despite marrying a black woman, he claimed not to be in an "interracial marriage," for he, his wife, and his son were "three of a kind." (61)
But other parts of the article present him taking on both black and Jewish identities, acting as a "link between white and colored jazzmen." From this perspective, blackness and Jewishness coexist and contribute to one another. The article recounts a conversation between Mezzrow and his young son:
"'Daddy, you ain't white, are you?'
"'Why.... yes, I am son,' Mezzrow admitted hesitantly.
"'Mummy says I'm Jewish,' the boy continued.
"'Why of course you are,' Mezz agreed.
"'And colored, too?'
"After that conversation, little Milton stayed home from school on all Jewish holidays."
Mezzrow's integration (so to speak) of the two identities is shown in a discussion of dinner at his home. We are told that Mezzrow "raves about [his wife's] cooking, which produces a long list of succulent dishes ranging from Jewish gefilte fish to Southern fried chicken," combined in a literal melting pot.
Despite talking about being black, Mezzrow's opponent is not whiteness but Jim Crow, which he mentions over and over. His victory is that he "fought across the no-man's-land between the races, outing Jim Crow as he went." (62) Mezzrow "becomes black," but his Jewishness is a bridge across dangerous racial frontiers. His early exposure to blues-like "Jewish music" and his experiences with antisemitism--in his eyes, being treated like a black and lumped together with African Americans--allow him to cross the no-man's land. He wants to thin the line between the races, and one of the ways he does this is through his Jewishness. And, ultimately, he wants to retain Jewishness as part of his identity, even as he identifies as black.
"Jumpin' with 'Symphony Sid'"
Disc Jockey and producer "Symphony Sid" Torin was another Jew in the jazz world who was drawn to the counterculture of African-American music. Born Sidney Tarnopol on New York's Lower East Side in 1909 to Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Russia and Romania, he got his name from the Symphony Shop, a record store where he worked. When kids started asking for records by black artists, normally only available in Harlem, he started putting them on the shelves. A stint as a DJ on WBNX in the Bronx in 1937 launched his career in radio broadcasting in New York. He started out on small, local radio stations, but ultimately got a job at WJZ, one of ABC's flagship stations, whose 50,000 watts reached a thirty-state area. Torin regularly broadcast concerts by Charlie Parker at Birdland from a glass booth at the back of the club, and he produced and promoted concerts featuring Parker, "Dizzy" Gillespie and others. Torin brought the sophisticated art music that came to be called "bebop" to a large audience.
"Symphony Sid" manifested his black identification in his radio announcing. He adopted the hipster persona, peppering his broadcasts with terms such as "the gonest," "jumpin,'" and "cats and chicks." It is tempting to see such patter as condescending or even racist and, in fact, some at the time were unimpressed by what they saw as his playacting. One reviewer praised a 1945 Parker-Gillespie concert produced and emceed by Torin, but complained that "Symphony Sid" was "much too anxious to knock you out with hip vocabulary." (63) Parker reportedly referred to him as "Sym-phony Sid" and would subtly make fun of him in their onstage dialogues. (64) Listening to Torin's broadcasts today, one winces at the contrived nature of his speech.
However, he was too respected by musicians for his knowledge and promotion of the music to be viewed as a kind of minstrel. Pianist Cedar Walton recounted that when he heard "Symphony Sid" mention his name on the air, he "thought [he] was in heaven," even if the disc jockey mispronounced his name. (65) Sixties Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael claimed that his "real introduction to African-American experience and sensibility" came through his love of music, nurtured by hours of listening to Torin far into the night as a teenager. According to Carmichael, "Symphony Sid" not only introduced him to the music, but also, through his "erudite" and "interesting" commentary, taught him "a lot." (66) In addition, Torin won several awards from black organizations, including the 1949 "Disc Jockey of the Year" award from the Global News Syndicate for his "continuous promotion of Negro artists." He was also featured in the black magazine Our World. (67) Several jazz compositions were named after him, most famously Lester Young's theme song, "Jumpin' with Symphony Sid."
Rather than adopting hipster language for self-aggrandizement or marketing purposes, Torin used it to spread jazz to young people throughout the country. In addition to inspiring and informing the initiated, Torin helped to create an audience for black music among white teenagers. With his live broadcasts from Birdland, Torin gave those who would never go to New York City a temporary seat, so to speak, at the nightclub. Thus, the Jewish disc jockey acted as a cultural intermediary between whites and black culture, consonant with the idea of Jews' "swing position." Like Mezzrow, he "fought across the no-man's-land between the races."
"Symphony Sid" also blurred racial boundaries by interspersing jive with Yiddishisms, notably his designation of Charlie Parker as "Feigele" (or "Yutfeigel")--Yiddish for "Bird." In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Yiddish in America was the language of second-class, "black" Jews--those from the Pale of Settlement in Eastern Europe who immigrated to America later than their German Jewish counterparts, who considered them hicks and an embarrassment to the Jewish people. (68) German Jews considered Yiddish a barrier to Americanization and thought of Yiddish newspapers as socialist. (69) Although this distinction among American Jews eventually disappeared, Torin's parents, who came from Russia and settled on the Lower East Side, were among these second-class Jewish immigrants.
As oppressed groups congregating in rundown urban enclaves, both blacks and Jews played with language to cement a sense of community in the face of hostility from the mainstream. American Jews spoke Yiddish because it united immigrants from different countries, but they also used it for the same reasons that blacks used jive: to speak in a way that the oppressor couldn't understand, to protect community in the face of those who would destroy their identity, and to signify--inserting themselves into the larger culture and transforming it. Both blacks and Jews were "apostles of the hyphen, grafting idioms to create something new and double-jointed, like Yiddish or the blues." (70) (Interestingly, black musicians like "Slim" Gaillard and Cab Calloway also mixed jive and Yiddish. (71))
Thus, the hybrid identity of "Symphony Sid" as a Yiddish-speaking bebop DJ was a way of holding onto an outsider status shared by Jews and blacks. Rather than rejecting Jewishness for blackness like the young Mezzrow, Torin embraced hybridity: He could be both, in an act of "ethnic self-creation." Here, he anticipated Lenny Bruce, who also mixed Yiddish with jive. For Bruce, to be Jewish meant to resist the mainstream, embracing minority status. As Bruce fancifully put it, "Count Basie's Jewish. Ray Charles is Jewish ... Negroes are all Jews." But Eddie Cantor, the Jewish entertainer (born Isador Iskowitz), was "goyish"--too square. "If you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn't matter even if you are Catholic; if you live in New York, you are Jewish. If you live in Butte, Montana, you are going to be goyish even if you're Jewish." (72) Both blackness and Jewishness were hip, resistant, out of the mainstream. Torin did not limit his identity to one or the other, but combined both, "hippifying Yiddish." (73)
Needless to say, Torin's vision of blackness was a constructed one. He suffered none of the discrimination that African Americans endured. Being black is obviously not simply a way of talking. But the issue was not the authenticity of his blackness, but rather the social context and meaning of his identification with African Americans.
Though Torin's background as a first-generation, Lower East Side, New York Jew influenced his identification with black bebop musicians, no "natural" affinity connected him to the music and the scene. After all, most Jews in his situation did not marry black women and talk jive. He engaged with a (somewhat stereotyped) vocabulary of blackness, but like a good jazz musician, made that vocabulary his own by integrating it with Yiddish. In addition, in the face of Jewish assimilation, he constructed his identity as an outsider by connecting with an outsider music--a music he helped to spread.
"Albino Red" Rodney
On the surface of it, trumpeter Red Rodney should be another prime example of a Jewish white Negro. After all, he is probably best known for the story of how he literally passed for black as part of Charlie Parker's band. Yet his complicated engagement with African-American culture and his reflections on his experience give his story as a Jewish jazz musician more dimensions than that of Mezzrow and Torin.
Rodney was born Robert Chudnick in Philadelphia in 1927 in an Orthodox Jewish family, his Russian immigrant father a descendant of a family of cantors. Rodney's first trumpet was a bar mitzvah present, and he started by playing in the Jewish War Veterans' drum and bugle corps.
His first model as a musician was the Swing Era trumpeter Harry James. However, he was drawn to black musicians early on when, in the African-American apprentice tradition, he gained free entrance to a concert by carrying the horn of Harry "Sweets" Edison. Rodney's "religious experience," upon hearing Parker for the first time, ultimately took him away from James to the black Bird, whose group he later joined.
After his "conversion," Rodney identified with African Americans. According to his son, Mark Rodney, he wanted to be black, and he easily slipped into African-American dialect. For him, blacks represented the essence of jazz, and he wanted to join in. As with "Symphony Sid," using African-American speech was an attempt at identification with outsiders. However, unlike with "Symphony Sid," he paid a price for that identification. According to Mark Rodney, as a white member of a predominantly black band, he was called a "nigger lover" and he took more abuse from the police than the black band members did. (74)
Yet Rodney never thought as himself as black, per se. The way he tells it, he was unwillingly thrust into a Mezzrow-like racial impersonation as "Albino Red." (75) (The veracity of this story is disputed, but even if it is not literally true, it tells us something about his racial identity as he imagined it or wished to conceive it.) As described in Ross Russell's Bird Lives!, Billy Shaw, Bird's manager at the time, proposes the idea for a tour of the Southern United States, casually mentioning that the white trumpet player would have to be temporarily replaced. Bird objects, exclaiming "Ever heard of an Albino Negro? ... We'll bill Rodney as Albino Red. I'll have him sing the blues every set." Hence, the billboards read, "Albino Red, Appearing Exclusively with the Charlie Parker Quintet." As Russell tells it, Rodney "didn't know any real blues," so he sang "The Boogie Blues," once featured by the Gene Krupa Orchestra. "Each set, his face florid with heat, strain, and effort, Rodney dutifully sang, 'Oh, don't the moon look lonesome shinin' up there through the trees,' while Charlie honked outrageously funky figures in the background." (76)
Russell portrays Rodney as an unwilling racial impersonator, and the trumpeter himself said in an interview that it was a "big embarrassment": "I was very embarrassed by it then because racial relations were so bad, and it horrified me to have to do that and to see what was going on down there." (77) Presumably, the embarrassment came from a sense of fakery, especially a false sense of being oppressed (although Rodney also says, "We didn't fool anybody"). But despite Rodney's embarrassment, he finds ways on the tour to play with his racial identity in a variety of creative ways. According to Russell, in order to keep up the masquerade that Rodney was black, in public Parker adopts the persona of the white Southern bigot toward the trumpeter, yelling, "Hey, there, Chood [a contraction of Chudnick and Jew], get a move on. Hustle them instruments up the stage. Get things set up. Give Roy a hand with the tubs. And see to them bags." Comments Russell, "At hotels and rooming houses he struggled with two-suiters while Charlie lorded it over him like a field boss. When Red protested, Charlie said smoothly, 'Now Chood, can't afford to have any of these peckerheads get wise to you being ofay [white]!"' (78) It is a carnivalistic reversal, whereby the black becomes white and the white becomes black.
But then a kind of reversal of the reversal happens; Bird gets sick of staying in fleabag "colored" motels, so he tells Rodney to check into a white hotel with Parker as his valet. So, Rodney says, "I signed the register 'Red Rodney and valet,' and we both got into the hotel." The reversed relationship, in which the white is the black's valet, gets reserved again, with the black as the white's valet, according to social norms. (79) But of course it is reversed only in appearance. It is a fraud that allows Parker to get into a hotel in which he would not normally be permitted to stay.
One could see such reversals and counter reversals as a reinforcement of the racial boundaries they temporarily subvert. But one could more fruitfully say that Rodney and Parker were playing with ethnic identity. Parker's adoption of the "field boss" persona evokes stereotypes in order to signify upon them, to play with and ultimately puncture them. Rodney's movement back and forth between racial identities is consistent with the idea of Jews as racially flexible--as "swinging" ethnic "go betweens," to evoke Don Byron's words once again. Just as Mezzrow celebrated the artificiality of jive and manipulated it to expand his identity, and Torin played with the hipster persona, Rodney used language and role playing to loosen the color line within himself, and, in small ways, with others as well. And all three men were motivated by an intense desire to spread a music that most Americans did not appreciate.
Over time, Rodney came to self-consciously adopt a hybrid racial identity. His perspective was most apparent in later interviews in which he reflected back on the Black Power era of the 1960s, contrasting it with the world of bebop. For Rodney, the bebop world was a racial utopia with "hardly any ill will ... The camaraderie was wonderful. As far as the white jazz musician, this was the one area in American life where there was honestly and sincerely no prejudice whatsoever. Nothing. We lived together. Ate together. Thought together. Felt together." (80) Such harmonious narratives, however, sour with the rise of the Black Power Movement. After bop, he said, jazz "became racial and when it became racial it became very bigoted, reversed bigotry. Now it was the blacks against the whites. And I think that was a bad slap against the white jazz musicians who had been the only people in America who had genuinely and sincerely not been bigoted." (81) Undoubtedly his view of the 1960s was influenced by his utopian fantasy of previous racial harmony in the jazz world. But what is more interesting than the strict accuracy of what he is saying is his vision of race. Celebrating hybridity, he longed for a society in which "everything is not black or white--there's gray, there's blue, there's yellow," looking forward to a day when "there will be 'grays' again and not just black or white." (82)
What do the experiences of these Jewish jazz musicians tell us about the affinity narrative? The version of the narrative that sees Jewish musicians as effortlessly and "naturally" taking on the black jazz persona should be rejected. There is an affinity between Jews and blacks in the jazz world, but it is a constructed affinity. Not only did all three men playfully exploit the constructed nature of racial and ethnic divisions, they used their Jewishness as a way to unhinge themselves from rigid white or black identities.
Mezzrow, Rodney, Sidran, and Feather all saw in the jazz world a vision of a community that rises above racial hatred. To the extent that "Symphony Sid" thought himself a member of the bebop scene, he did, as well. On some level, this is a fantasy. The question is what purpose such fantasies served for these musicians. According to Melnick, such "utopian" thinking is a dangerous mask that hides the reality of racial prejudice and, in fact, gives those engaged in such thinking a license to mistreat African Americans because, after all, there is no prejudice anymore. But such a critique requires dismissing what Jewish musicians actually said as mere false consciousness at best and Machiavellian manipulation at worst, which is then exposed by the superior observer (Melnick himself). (83)
If we take what Jewish jazz musicians were doing and saying more seriously, we can see them engaging in what George Lipsitz calls "strategic anti-essentialism"--using the idea of flexible racial identity, even if exaggerated, in the service of social resistance. According to Lipsitz, this practice has been central to African American culture. "The genius of African-American culture in nurturing and sustaining moral and cultural alternatives to dominant values has made it an important source of education and inspiration to alienated and aggrieved individuals cut off from other sources of oppositional practice." (84)
In addition, Jewish jazz musicians' racial constructions came out of a particular historical situation. To see these musicians as mere imitators or cultural exploiters ignores the situation of American Jews during this period, which encompassed both antisemitism and the pressure to assimilate--for which black identification was one solution. The choices of Mezzrow, Torin, Rodney, and others were limited. Sometimes, they abandoned Jewishness but embraced a role (blackness) that would still allow them to struggle with and fight against prejudice. They were responding to a situation in which, for many American Jews, pursuing Jewishness felt like a dead end. To be Jewish in suburban America in that period was to act the part of a WASP, so that in acting black, they were merely escaping another kind of play-acting. Their experiments in identity were not minstrelsy or exploitation, but attempts to find a platform for resistance against a tranquilized America and Jewishness. In their minds (though not necessarily consciously), their pursuit of the black jazz musician persona was more consistent with what they thought of as the oppositional spirit of Jewishness than with Judaism itself. A life in the world of jazz, with its connection to black culture, helped Jews to maintain this disappearing sense of being outsiders. Yet Jews in jazz did so in a variety of different and instructive ways. They creatively constructed complex racial identities in order to find their way in a world in which they were both at home and strangers--a situation familiar to Jews throughout history.
Furthermore, some of them, Rodney in particular, developed more nuanced versions of their ethnic identity. And their pursuit of this identity was rooted in a passionate love for and appreciation of the music itself--which they furthered at a cost to their relationship to their families and even to their safety and respectability. In the end, Jews in the postwar jazz world negotiated their ethnic identities within the limits of their time, and they did so in thoughtful and creative ways.
(1.) The author wishes to thank Daniel Goldmark, Lily Hirsch, and Brian Weiner for their helpful input in the writing of this essay. Dan Morgenstern and the staff of the Institute of Jazz Studies provided valuable assistance as well.
(2.) Donald L. Maggin, Stan Getz: A Life in Jazz (NY: Quill-Morrow, 1996), 303.
(3.) Milton "Mezz" Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe, Really the Blues (New York: Random House, 1946), 18.
(4.) Existing accounts, while valuable, do not analyze Jewish jazz musicians' ethnic identities in a sustained, scholarly fashion. See Mike Gerber, Jazz Jews (Nottingham, UK: Five Leaves Publications, 2009), a chronological account of Jewish jazz musicians rather than a scholarly analysis; Jeffrey Melnick, "A Black Man in Jewface," in Race and the Modern Artist, ed. Heather Hathaway, Josef Jarab, and Jeffrey Melnick (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 126-39, concerning the stride pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith; Jeffrey Melnick, A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), and Michael Alexander, Jazz Age Jews (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), both discussed here, focusing on popular songwriters such as Irving Berlin and Al Jolson rather than on jazz musicians; Dan Morgenstern, "Jazz--The Jewish-Black Connection" in Creators and Disturbers: Reminiscences by Jewish Intellectuals of New York, ed. Bernard Rosenberg and Ernest Goldstein (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 95-112, a short reminiscence by the renowned jazz journalist; Macdonald Smith Moore, Yankee Blues: Musical Culture and American Identity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985) containing a discussion of views of the role of American Jews in popular music, including jazz, in the early twentieth century; and David Yaffe, Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), containing a chapter entitled "Blacks and Jews in Words and Music" that mainly focuses on writers such as Norman Mailer and James Baldwin. There is also, of course, Norman Mailer's famous essay, "The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster." But Mailer's description of the "White Negro" was, to put it mildly, overblown and flawed, based on romantic but ultimately racist stereotypes of African Americans as uninhibited hedonists, pursuing the "art of the primitive," living in "the enormous present ... relinquishing the pleasures of the mind for the more obligatory pleasures of the body." Mailer also fundamentally misunderstood the complex, disciplined art of jazz as a reflection of such hedonism, asserting that "jazz is orgasm." Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself (New York: Signet, 1959), 306.
(5.) This is not to deny the influence of important white musicians. The role of white musicians in general is beyond the scope of this article, though I have written about it (as well as about early Jewish jazz musicians), in discussing early New Orleans jazz. Charles Hersch, Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).
(6.) In this essay, I sometimes use the term "Jewish jazz musician" as shorthand for Jews in the jazz world. The term thus includes critics, concert promoters, nightclub owners, and disc jockeys, among others.
(7.) In a sense, Mezzrow represents an earlier period, but Really the Blues was published in 1946, and even though it speaks of previous decades, the memoir represents Mezzrow's perspective at the time the book came out.
(8.) Sander Gilman, "The Jewish Nose: Are Jews White? Or, the History of the Nose Job" in The Other in Jewish Thought and History: Constructions of Jewish Culture and Identity, ed. Laurence J. Silberstein and Robert L. Cohn (New York: New York University Press, 1994), 368-69. These views had some acceptance among the public as well. In 1923, antisemitic students at New York University put up a sign reading: "SCURVEY KIKES ARE NOT WANTED ... Make New York University a White Man's College." Eric L. Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness" Jews, Race, and American Identity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), 129.
(9.) Goldstein, Price of Whiteness, 11-12. Jews themselves often approved of this designation; being a "race" gave them a sense of distinction.
(10.) It was originally published in 1850, but put out in expanded form in 1869.
(11.) Daniel Gregory Mason, "Is American Music Growing Up? Our Emancipation From Alien Influences," Arts and Decoration, November 1920, quoted in Moore, Yankee Blues, 145.
(12.) "Jews and Jazz," in chapter 11 of Ford's 1920 book The International Jew. http:// www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/37539/pg37539.html.
(13.) Chan Parker, My Life in E-Flat (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993), 48.
(14.) Goldstein, Price of Whiteness, 370.
(15.) Quoted in Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 128.
(16.) "Jazz Talk: Jews, Blacks, and Jazz," a "Jazz at Lincoln Center" panel discussion with Don Byron, Stanley Crouch, Dave Liebman, Jeffrey Melnick, and Lewis Porter (moderator). New York City, January 9, 2009. https://www.jalc.org/jazzed/streamin/talks09.asp.
(17.) Daniel Itzkovitz, "Secret Temples" in Jews and Other Differences, ed. Jonathan Boyarin and Daniel Boyarin (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 185.
(18.) Daniel Itzkovitz, "Race and Jews in America: An Introduction," Shofar 23, no. 4 (2005), 3. Goldstein, Price of Whiteness, 5.
(19.) Goldstein, Price of Whiteness, 194.
(20.) Michael Rogin, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).
(21.) Judah M. Cohen, "Exploring the Postmodern Landscape of Jewish Music," in You Should See Yourself: Jewish Identity in Postmodern American Culture, ed. Vincent Brook (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006), 108.
(22.) Maria Damon, "Jazz-Jews, Jive, and Gender: The Ethnic Politics of Jazz Argot" in Jews and Other Differences, ed. Boyarin and Boyarin, 157.
(23.) Gene Lees, Cats of Any Color: Jazz, Black and White (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 97, 103.
(24.) Leonard Feather, The Jazz Years: Ear Witness to an Era (New York: DaCapo, 1987), 7.
(25.) Ben Sidran, A Life in the Music (New York: Taylor Trade, 2003), 19, 22.
(26.) Sidran, A Life in the Music, 19, 259.
(27.) Of course, it is at Levy's, a record store in a Jewish district of London, that he gets his fill of jazz, unavailable elsewhere (though he complains of Levy's high prices).
(28.) Nat Hentoff, Boston Boy: Growing up with Jazz and Other Rebellious Passions (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986), 4, 61.
(29.) Ira Gitler, Swing to Bop: An Oral History of the Transition in Jazz in the 1940s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 226.
(30.) Michael Alexander in Jazz Age Jews quotes from a 1927 review of The Jazz Singer in the Morgen Zhurnal: "Is there any incongruity in this Jewish boy with his face painted like a Southern Negro singing in the Negro dialect? ... No, there is not. Indeed, I detected again and again in the minor key of Jewish music, the wail of the Chazan, the cry of anguish of a people who had suffered. The son of a line of rabbis well knows how to sing the songs of the most cruelly wronged people in the world's history." (175)
Although Alexander usefully describes the affinity narrative's influence on singers and songwriters, such as Al Jolson and Irving Berlin, his assertion that such "outsider identification" was a way of "becoming American" (because America stands for the integration of heterogeneous groups) is debatable. African Americans, among others, have not been welcomed into the "melting pot," despite the majority's abstract obeisance to e pluribus unum. Identifying with a group excluded from mainstream America would therefore hardly be a way to join that mainstream.
(31.) Hentoff, Boston Boy, 15, 59. Another musician claims, "[B]lues are only one color, his," but Mingus is more receptive, saying, "[W]ords sure do get in the way of hearing." (15-16) For a humorous discussion of the blues as "krechts," see Ray Charles and Jackie Mason's performance of "Oy Vey Blues" on the Smothers Brothers television program in 1969. raycharlesvideomuseum.blogspot.com/2010/04/ray-charles-on_smothers_ brothers-comedy.html.
(32.) Sidran, A Life in the Music, 4-5.
(33.) Sidran, A Life in the Music, 20, 32.
(34.) Melnick, A Right to Sing the Blues, 206. Though Melnick positions himself as someone who is merely analyzing a discursive formation and its functions while remaining neutral as to the underlying reality, the book's premise is that there is such an underlying reality to black-Jewish relations: economic exploitation. The scare quotes around "facts" pays tribute to his postmodern trappings while not getting in the way of his overall empirical claim.
(35.) Melnick, A Right to Sing the Blues, 36, 37, 196, 176-77.
(36.) See Melnick, A Right to Sing the Blues, 18, 195-96.
(37.) George Bornstein, The Colors of Zion: Blacks, Jews, and Irish from 1845 to 1945 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 139.
(38.) Willie the Lion Smith with George Hoefer, Music on My Mind: the Memoirs of an American Pianist (New York: DaCapo, 1975), 12.
(40.) Melnick, "A Black Man in Jewface," 138.
(41.) Melnick, "A Black Man in Jewface," 135; A Right to Sing the Blues, 121, 180.
(42.) Melnick, A Right to Sing the Blues, 177.
(43.) A relatively recent example can be seen in the stereotypical club owners Moe and Josh Flatbush in Spike Lee's film Mo' Better Blues (1990).
(44.) Though problematic in parts, Randall Sandke's Where the Dark and the Light Folks Meet: Race and the Mythology, Politics, and Business of Jazz (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2010), usefully complicates conventional narratives of exploitation in the jazz music business.
(45.) "Case History of an Ex-White Man," Ebony, December 1946, 13.
(46.) Mezzrow and Wolfe, Really the Blues, 208.
(47.) Mezzrow and Wolfe, Really the Blues, 6.
(48.) Mezzrow and Wolfe, Really the Blues, 111-12.
(49.) Gayle Wald, Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in Twentieth-Century U. S. Literature and Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 75.
(50.) Mezzrow and Wolfe, Really the Blues, 227-28. Jive, in Mezzrow's telling, is a strictly Northern phenomenon, different from the subservient language of Southern blacks. Jive is signifying on both white language and the subservient, Uncle-Tom-like nature of Southern black speech. See pages 221 and 225.
(51.) On "signifying" see Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).
(52.) Mezzrow and Wolfe, Really the Blues, 354-60, 222-26.
(53.) Mezzrow and Wolfe, Really the Blues, 15.
(54.) Mezzrow and Wolfe, Really the Blues, 153-54, 157 (emphasis in original).
(55.) Mezzrow and Wolfe, Really the Blues, 153-54, 210, 323.
(56.) Mezzrow and Wolfe, Really the Blues, 300-7.
(57.) Mezzrow and Wolfe, Really the Blues, 316.
(58.) Mezzrow and Wolfe, Really the Blues, 52.
(59.) Mezzrow and Wolfe, Really the Blues, 18.
(60.) Milton "Mezz" Mezzrow, "Blindfold Test," DownBeat, October 1946, 25. Though he praised this "Oriental flavor" in Ellington, he condemned bebop as "Chinese"!
(61.) "Case History of an Ex-White Man," It.
(62.) Mezzrow and Wolfe, Really the Blues, 5.
(63.) Brian Priestley, Chasin' the Bird: The Life and Legacy of Charlie Parker (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 48.
(64.) Carl Woideck, Charlie Parker: His Music and Life (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998), 39. The "'Sym-phony' Sid" claim is from a forum on the website "All About Jazz": forums.allaboutjazz.com/archive/index.php?t-8673.html. However, I have found no further references to this.
(65.) Ken Micallef, "Backstage with ... Cedar Walton," DownBeat, March 2009, 17
(66.) Stokely Carmichael and Michael Thelwell, Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003), 17. Harry Belafonte also describes Torin as having played a major role in launching his career. Torin and Monte Kay (another important Jew in jazz) were his co-managers at one point; he says that when money was not coming in, they helped him for free. Harry Belafonte with Michael Shnayerson, My Song: A Memoir (New York: Knopf, 2011), 81-2.
(67.) "Disc Jockeys Receive Awards," Atlanta Daily World, December 24, 1949, 1; "Symphony Sid," Our World 5:5 (May 1950).
(68.) John Leland, Hip. The History (New York: Ecco, 2004), 203.
(69.) Irving Aaron Mandel, "The Attitude of the American Jewish Community Toward East-European Immigration as Reflected in the Anglo-Jewish Press (1880-1890)," American Jewish Archives VII (1950), 32. Michael Alexander also emphasizes the importance of Eastern European immigrants, arguing that their experiences of persecution made them more likely than their Western European counterparts to identify with African Americans. (Alexander, Jazz Age Jews, 6, 172.) However, his thesis is weakened by the fact that many individuals he discusses, including one of the three central figures in the book, had Western European roots. See Andrea Most, Jazz Age Jews (review), American Jewish History 89:3 (September 2001), 300.
(70.) Leland, Hip, 203-4.
(71.) See Jonathan Z. S. Pollack, "'Ovoutie Slanguage is Absolutely Kosher': Yiddish in Scat-Singing, Jazz Jargon, and Black Music" in The Song is Not the Same: Jews and American Popular Music, ed. Bruce Zuckerman, Josh Kun, and Lisa Ansell, in the annual review The Jewish Role in American Life 8 (2011), 71-87. There is also a CD of African Americans performing "Jewish music" entitled Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations. (Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation RSR 018; 2010.)
(72.) Jonathan Kaufman, Broken Alliance: The Turbulent Times Between Blacks and Jews in America (updated ed.), (New York: Touchstone-Simon & Schuster, 1995), 19.
(73.) Damon, "Jazz-Jews, Jive, and Gender," 155, 157, 167.
(74.) Telephone interview with Mark Rodney, January 28, 2010.
(75.) Many have questioned whether the "Albino Red" tour ever occurred. There are problems with chronology and named nightclubs that have vanished without a trace. There is no hard evidence it ever happened. On the other hand, Red Rodney's son Mark said that his father told him the story from the time he was a small child. Interestingly, according to Ross Russell, the group's white pianist, Al Haig, had to be replaced because he was "too fair to chance the trip." Ross Russell, Bird Lives! (New York: DaCapo, 1996), 288. On the surface of it, this makes no sense, because being light skinned would be an advantage when playing an albino. Interpreted less literally, however, the quote may be referring to Haig's straight hair and more stereotypically WASP-like facial features, both of which would have made it more difficult for Haig to be portrayed as an albino. (Thanks to Lewis Porter for this last suggestion.)
(76.) Russell, Bird Lives!, 288-89. Russell's account belies the black-Jewish affinity thesis in that it emphasizes the effort Rodney's impersonation required, rejecting a natural connection between the two groups or two kinds of music. Russell's account seems to adhere to rigid racial essentialism in that he implies that Rodney is "faking it"--it requires tremendous effort while presumably it would come naturally to a black man, and it's not a "real blues." (Clint Eastwood's film Bird, with input by Rodney himself, portrays the incident in the same way.)
(77.) Ben Sidran, Talking Jazz, Nardis Music, 2006 (CD). Interview with Rodney. (CD "Trumpet 02")
(78.) Russell, Bird Lives, 288.
(79.) Interestingly, when "Symphony Sid" was accused of cheating the Miles Davis group on a tour he had promoted, he said, "These guys were getting top money. They weren't nice to me. I became Miles's valet instead of his boss." Leslie Gourse, "Still Jumping With My Boy Sid," The New York Times, August 8, 1971, D19.
(80.) Gitler, Swing to Bop, 307.
(81.) Roland Baggenaes, Jazz Greats Speak: Interviews with Master Musicians (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2008), 60.
(82.) Baggenaes, Jazz Greats Speak, 63. Mark Gardner, "Red Rodney Talks," Jazz Monthly, April 1970, 8.
(83.) Most of Melnick's case against Gershwin is premised on things others said about him rather than on his own statements.
(84.) George Lipsitz, Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism and the Poetics of Place (London: Verso, 1994), 62, 54.
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|Publication:||American Jewish History|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2013|
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