Q&A with Charles Hersch: Jews & Jazz

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Charles Hersch (Photo: Courtesy of the Author)

Charles Hersch has devoted much of his academic career to examining issues related to creativity and identity. Hersch, a professor of political science at Cleveland State University, is the author of the new book Jews and Jazz: Improvising Ethnicity (Routledge). It took him several years to write, and it fills what he considered a vacuum in cultural analysis.

The new book also segues naturally from his earlier works: Democratic Artworks: Politics and the Arts from Trilling to Dylan (State University of New York Press at Albany, 1998) and Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans (University of Chicago Press, 2007).

DownBeat caught up with Hersch to discuss the motivations and pleasures that inform the new book. Below is an edited excerpt of the conversation.

What motivated you to write Jews and Jazz?

I noticed there were many Jewish jazz musicians, so I kind of wondered what it meant. 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? Did it mean anything?

It seemed an important enough topic that somebody should write a book about it. Given that I’ve 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, and there have been some journalistic treatments, but nobody had actually written a whole book devoted to Jews and jazz in a serious way.

What was your overall approach?

I went with a blank slate, so in a way everything was kind of a surprise. I guess the surprise was that you couldn’t just tell one story about Jews and jazz. Obviously there’s not just one story, anyway, because each person’s an individual. But what I found was—and this is kind of the structure of the book—how the Jewish musicians engaged with jazz differently depended on the situation of American Jews at the time. So in the 1920s and ’30s, when Jews weren’t really considered fully American by many people, [musicians] like [George] Gershwin and Benny Goodman used jazz to sort of become more fully American.

Then in the postwar period, Jews are accepted in America, but then [they ask], “Do we want to melt into the melting pot?” Some people resisted assimilation, so my argument is people like [clarinetist] Mezz Mezzrow and [trumpeter] Red Rodney and some others used jazz to sort of, I say somewhat facetiously, become black. They used it to “reminoritize,” to engage with jazz and then explore relationships with African Americans, play with a black identity to some degree—the whole “white Negro” phenomenon. They used jazz to sort of resist assimilation.

The third period is beginning in the 1960s, when you have this push for ethnicity, starting with the “Black Is Beautiful” thing, and Jews engage with jazz to explore their Jewishness. This is the so-called Jewish jazz.

The surprise was, 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 is one era. The three parts of the book are [titled] “Becoming American,” “Becoming Black” and “Becoming Jewish.”

Was there other territory you now wish you’d covered?

I feel pretty happy with the territory I covered. I could have said more about Jews in jazz in countries other than the U.S., but to do that fully would have been a completely different book, one at least twice as long. I could have, I suppose, said more about klezmer; but that would have been a digression from my main topic—jazz. So I did talk about klezmer to the extent that it intersected with jazz, particularly in the neo-klezmer movement, but not so much as a genre in itself.

My purpose was not to cover every possible topic related to Jews in jazz, or every Jewish jazz musician, but to look at the meaning of Jewish involvement in jazz through the lens of the evolution of Jewish ethnicity in America, which is a more specific focus. To me, there’s a lot more value in looking at something from a specific angle, rather than trying to cover a topic in a general—and usually fuzzier—way.

Were there people in the field you wish you would have interviewed?

I suppose I could have interviewed more of the musicians involved—Don Byron, John Zorn, Lee Konitz, Steven Bernstein, Paul Shapiro—but most of them have been extensively interviewed elsewhere, so I wasn’t convinced I would necessarily come up with anything new.

What topics did you particularly like writing about?

Writing about African American musicians doing Jewish music was very enjoyable. It’s so playful, in a way, what they were doing—“Bei Mir Bist Du Porkchop,” you know?

And then even the Jewish jazz stuff, too, because it’s about playing. That’s one of those words you can apply to music but also it’s about being playful.

So Jews played music and with their ethnicity, especially by the time you get to people like [Steven] Bernstein and [Paul] Shapiro saying, “Yes, I’m Jewish.” But Bernstein lived in Spanish Harlem for a while; they’ve lived in these areas where they have contacts with different ethnicities—it’s a multicultural identity. Yes, it’s a Jewish identity, but unless you’re ultra-Orthodox you live in a multicultural society.

Part of what I think they’re trying to do with their music is explore modern Jewish identity in America, which means an identity that’s intertwined with other kinds of identities and other ethnic groups. And they do that in a very playful way, which was fun to think about and write about.

For more information on Hersch’s book Jews and Jazz, visit the Routledge website. DB