'Every Time I Try to Play Black, It Comes out Sounding Jewish': Jewish Jazz Musicians and Racial Identity

By Hersch, Charles | American Jewish History, July 2013 | Go to article overview

'Every Time I Try to Play Black, It Comes out Sounding Jewish': Jewish Jazz Musicians and Racial Identity


Hersch, Charles, American Jewish History


"Every time I try to play black, it comes out sounding Jewish." (2)

--Stan Getz

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. …

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