During a discussion on the Johnny Carson television show Artie Shaw was asked what, as a child, he had wanted to be when he grew up. 'I want to grow up and be a gentile', Shaw had replied.
Author Mike Gerber is commendably honest in admitting that the theme of Jazz Jews didn't meet with total approval. By Gerber's own account, Artie Shaw quickly asserted his opposition to the title. Shaw wasn't the only one. Several distinguished Jewish commentators, from Loren Schoenberg to Jim Godbolt, are mentioned as having an antipathy towards the idea. Nevertheless Gerber persisted, to the extent that the chapter devoted to Shaw, and the many comments by Schoenberg, go a long way to make Jazz Jews important to the historian and committed jazz listener.
The chapter on Artie Shaw is from an interview conducted in 2002 at Shaw's house. Gerber sketches the Californian background:
'Nice house though not as huge as one might expect, with a swimming pool in the garden which overlooks the surrounding mountains. But the house itself, despite the expensive paintings on the walls, looks a bit seedy now, like an elderly person's place. I suppose that when you're dependent on other people looking after you, as Shaw is at ninety-one, that's what happens.'
The interview with Shaw is characteristically assertive, even combative, on Shaw's part. Further instructive insights come from Gerber's consideration of Jewish tunesmiths and lyricists. For instance, the author draws attention to the JazzStandards.com website, with its Top 1,000 listing of jazz standards. Of the top hundred standards, forty-three were composed by Jewish songwriters. George Gershwin has eleven in the top hundred. Jerome Kern has twenty-one in the top thousand, Irving Berlin twenty-four. Songwriter Dave Frishberg is quoted on the matter of lyric poetry. Good lyrics don't sound like poems, he maintains, believing that superior lyrics should be literate speech that says something in a lyrical way. 'The great songwriters knew that good lyrics come up to the edge of poetry and turn left,' he says.
Frishberg was speaking about Frank Loesser, Yip Harburg, Johnny Mercer, Stephen Sondheim, Hal David and Lorenz Hart. That's some list, and therein lies one of the weaknesses of Jazz Jews. '7,000 names in the index' claim the publishers. The truth (and Gerber admits as much) is that the Jewishness of these musicians is largely irrelevant. For example, by coincidence British musicians Graham Lyons and Dave Bitelli are both mentioned in the same sentence, though they are different in age, and move in different circles. I'm familiar with the playing of both. Nowhere do I hear any Jewish element in their music. Both are mentioned for their race, not for audibly Jewish characteristics in their playing. And this comes across as list-making.
Like many contemporary jazz books, Jazz Jews would benefit from knowledgeable editing. One reads of Jim Goldbolt [Godbolt], Julie Styne [Jule], bone fide [bona fide], Tommy McQuarter [McQuater], Conte Condoli [Candoli], and many more similar gaffes.
Jazz Jews is a fascinating, but flawed book. Let's hope that it runs to a second edition, with tougher editing.
John Robert Brown
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