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CSU professor explores musical bonds in ‘Jews and Jazz’ | Music | clevelandjewishnews.com

CSU professor explores musical bonds in ‘Jews and Jazz’ | Music | clevelandjewishnews.com

CSU professor explores musical bonds in ‘Jews and Jazz’
Writing about Jews and jazz was a natural for Charles Hersch, a political science professor at Cleveland State University. It took him several years to produce “Jews and Jazz: Improvising Ethnicity,” a slim but dense work of cultural analysis, but the investment was rewarding, producing the book as well as insights into what it means to be Jewish.
In tracing the evolution of that relationship, Hersch’s book suggests ethnic identity may be as mutable as jazz itself.
A Chagrin Falls resident who occasionally attends Kol HaLev in Pepper Pike, Hersch has written two other books: “Democratic Artworks: Politics and the Arts from Trilling to Dylan” and “Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans.”
In an interview in his office at CSU, where he has taught since 1991, Hersch said his new book reflects ongoing interests.
“I just noticed there were so many Jewish jazz musicians, white jazz musicians, so I kind of wondered what it meant,” he said.
“Did their Jewish identity play a role in deciding to become a jazz musician, did it affect how they played the music or how they pursued their life as a jazz musician? What did it mean? Did it mean anything? It just seemed an important enough topic that somebody should write a book about it. Given that I spent most of my career writing about politics, ethnicity and music, it seemed like I was the right person to do it. There have been some articles, there have been some kind of journalistic treatments, but nobody had actually written a whole book devoted to Jews and jazz in a serious way.”
The book, which costs $44.95, is studded with names of Jewish and African-American musicians. Some of the former are well known, like George Gershwin and Benny Goodman; jazz fans will better know others, like contemporary saxophonist-composer John Zorn, trumpeter Steve Bernstein and saxophonist Paul Shapiro. Yet others, particularly African-American forebears like the bassist Slim Gaillard, the pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith and the trumpet player Red Rodney, will be familiar to jazz historians.
Each gets his or her well-deserved moment in Hersch’s spotlight, as does Roz Cron, who had to negotiate particularly slippery slopes.
“Another Jewish musician to ‘play black’ was saxophonist Rosalind ‘Roz’ Cron, who played with the (theoretically) black ‘all girl’ International Sweethearts of Rhythm in the 1940s,” Hersch writes. “Cron’s passing was made easier by the band’s ‘international’ label, which signified that although all members were ‘black’ some were of mixed race and nationality.”
The story changed over time, Hersch said. “So in the 1920s and ’30s, when Jews weren’t really considered fully American by many people, people like Gershwin and Benny Goodman used jazz to sort of become more fully American. And then in the postwar period, Jews are accepted in America, but then (they asked themselves), do we want to melt into the melting pot? Some people resisted assimilation, so my argument there is people like (the clarinetist) Mezz Mezzrow and Red Rodney and some others used jazz to sort of, I say somewhat facetiously, become black.
“They used it to ‘reminoritize,’ to sort of engage with jazz and then explore relationships with African Americans, to play with a black identity to some degree, (leading to) the whole ‘white negro’ phenomenon. They used jazz to sort of resist assimilation. The third time period is beginning in the 1960s, when you have this sort of push for ethnicity, starting with the ‘black is beautiful’ thing and Jews engage with jazz to explore their Jewishness.
“The surprise was that to really understand Jewish engagement with jazz you have to look at the time period. My thesis is that Jews engage with jazz to explore their Jewish identity. They do so differently depending on the era. The 1960s to the present are sort of one era. Becoming American, becoming black and becoming Jewish are the three parts of the book.”
Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer from South Euclid.


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