Academic journal article Shofar

Swinging Hava Nagila: "Jewish Jazz" and Jewish Identity

Academic journal article Shofar

Swinging Hava Nagila: "Jewish Jazz" and Jewish Identity

Article excerpt

Like all ethnic groups, Jews assert their collective identity through music.1 Indeed, according to Marc Slobin, music is "central to the diasporic experience." 2 Yet such musical assertions of identity necessitate exploration of the nature of that identity because, in the words of Stuart Hall, cultural identity is "not something which already exists, transcending place, time, history, and culture," but "undergo[ing] constant transformation."3 For Jews, this instability of ethnic identity is compounded by the inherently multifaceted nature of Jewishness, which can be defined by religious practice, ancestry, and culture, giving it, in the words of Daniel Itzkovitz, a "definitional instability" and "liminality." 4 This is especially true in post-World War II America, when Jews increasingly became secular and assimilated, so that "to be a Jew . . . at this historical juncture, mean[t] to lack a single essence, to live with multiple identities."5

The "Jewish jazz" of the 1960s and beyond is one such exploration of Jewish identity through music. By performing "Jewish music" in a jazz context, musicians affirmed Jewishness in a post-World War II American culture that did not always encourage such assertion. 6 But such performances did not simply assert Jewishness, for group identities are "always relational and incomplete, in process"7; according to Philip V. Bohlman, Jewish music has "assumed a growing importance as a means of establishing identity vis-àvis the Other, that is in the face of non-Jewish society."8 By playing Jewish jazz, these musicians created connections between Jewishness and African American culture, an impulse that has very old roots but accelerated in the 1960s assertions of ethnicity and the later movement for multiculturalism. Jazz has never been exclusively black, of course, but most of its canonical figures are African Americans, and its core musical features have connections to West African music. The way musicians used Jewish jazz to assert Jewish identity and make connections between Jewishness and African American culture is the subject of this essay.

In looking at a variety of Jewish jazz musicians and performances, I ask two questions. First, what model of Jewish tradition is performed? Jewish tradition, like all traditions, is "inherited from the past but . . . also worked on, creatively or positively, reluctantly or bitterly, in the present."9 How musicians approach music traditionally considered Jewish produces in musical form a model of Jewish identity. Second, how fully do the musicians connect Jewish music with jazz? Do they simply add "Jewish" devices to preexisting jazz genres, or do they bring the two kinds of music into dialogue in a way that preserves each yet creates something new, more fully connecting Jewish and African American culture? The answers to these questions, and therefore the vision of Jewish identity contained in particular performances, reflects both the individual musicians' sense of their own Jewishness and the situation of American Jews at the time of the performance.

My analysis begins with the 1960s, when modern Jewish jazz arose, asserting Jewishness in the context of the civil rights movement and the ethnic assertion of that period.10 I then turn to the 1990s and beyond, when a variety of musicians combined Jewish music and jazz to more publicly and self-consciously celebrate Jewish identity. Musicians like pianist and vocalist Ben Sidran; members of the New York "downtown scene" like John Zorn and Steven Bernstein; and African American clarinetist Don Byron took a variety of approaches to musically represent Jewishness through jazz. As multiculturalism emerged in the late twentieth century, Jewish jazz became both brasher in proclaiming its Jewishness and more assertive in creating dialogue with other ethnicities.

For African Americans, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s represented a moment of ethnic assertion, and some black jazz musicians used their music to support this collective affirmation. …

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