Jazz Jews

by | Apr 30, 2012 | Book Reviews

Jazz Jews
Mike Gerber
Five Leaves Publications, 2009
628 pages.

Fifty-eight year old Brit Mike Gerber has done a superb job of assembling information and opinions, and stating them in a readable manner.
This book is of special interest to jazz fans, including fans of traditional jazz/Dixieland fans, but also will be of much interest to students of Jewish history and culture. Gerber does a very thorough job of covering the United States, plus places other than those that are usually identified with Jewish presence. Jazz students will have gotten their money’s worth by the half-way mark at this point. Unless the reader is very interested in Jewish history and culture, the worldwide portion is of diminishing interest. However, Europe, Canada, and Israel still present some familiar names. Surprise inclusions: Shanghai, South Africa, and New Zealand; Gerber is thorough! Sections about Germany and Russia abound with unpleasant examples of discrimination and worse.
Ironically, some of those tales are not without ”humor:” legendary alto man Herb Geller lost a gig in modern Germany at a tribute to Jewish jazz because he doesn’t look Jewish enough! So, what does constitute qualifying for this book? The author usually specifies when a person involved is half-Jewish, or a secular, ethnic Jew, versus religious, but this presentation lacks the space or need to become that detailed. American Jews of Russian or eastern and central European descent, have made disproportionate contributions.
Another dividing line is that of nmes. In many cases, especially in Europe, it was wise to change one’s name; fear was so great that many Jews could not determine who was “safe to tell.” Some presenters removed Jewish names from printed-programs, for various reasons. Stateside, many singers went by “vanilla” names: Jolson, Kitty Kallen, Fanny Brice, Fran Warren, Helen Forrest, Georgia Gibbs, Dinah Shore, Sylvia Syms, Frances Faye, Teddi King, Judy Holliday, Harry Connick ,Jr.; Mel Torme, Eydie Gorme, and hubby, Steve Lawrence.
Among instrumentalists, people using non-Jewish-sounding names included pianists Barbara Carroll, Andre Previn, Benny Green, Art Hodes, Ralph Sharon; bassists Chubby Jackson, Jay Leonhart, plus Satch’s man, Irv Manning (who helped me immeasurably upon hitting New York); guitarist-singer Ray Benson (Western Swing); drummers Buddy Rich, Shelley Manne, Duffy Jackson, Mel Lewis; vibists Terry Gibbs, Teddy Charles; reedmen Paul Desmond, Eddie Daniels, Artie Shaw, Woody Allen, Bud Freeman, Georgie Auld, Herbie Mann, Kenny G (?); trombonist/leaders Buddy Morrow, Will Bradley; trumpeters Red Rodney, Ruby Braff, Shorty Rogers, Herb Alpert, Ziggy Elman; and composer/arrangers Ralph Burns, Raymond Scott.
Those retaining ethnic names include: Joe Bushkin, Dick Hyman, Dave Frishberg; the incredible Shelley Berg; guitarist Barney Kessel; drummers Ben Pollack, Stan Levey; reed players Serge Chaloff, Stan Getz, Al Cohn, Benny Goodman, Mezz Mezzrow , Lee Konitz, Anat Cohen, Gary Smulyan; trumpeters Lou Soloff, Max Kaminsky; film composer/arrangers Johnny Mandel, Lalo Schifrin, Lennie Niehaus, Elmer and Leonard Bernstein, Dave Grusin.
Sometimes, unwittingly, non-Jews such as Frankie Trumbauer were unintentionally discriminated against because of their Jewish-sounding names.
Songwriting has too many Jewish names even to think about, although many fine jazz players were successful at both. The same applies to facilitators, such as businessmen and DJs. However, I must mention promoters Norman Granz and George Wein, plus critic/historians Leonard Feather, George Simon, Barry Ulanov, Nat Hentoff, Dan Morgenstern, Ira Sabin, Will Friedwald, Scott Yanow,Dick Sudhalter, and Charles Delaunay.
Blacks include Willie “The Lion” Smith, Slim Gaillard, Joshua Redman (but not his father). Undetermined: John Levy, bass, and O’Donnell Levy, guitar, who were not mentioned by Gerber. Jazz is widely conceded to be created by, and dominated by, African-Americans; but Jews have played an unmistakably disproportionate role among whites.
And Gerber’s book is a jewel!

—Eric Stevens