Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Jazz and Judaism



I'm Jewish. Though I'm not sure what that means. I listen to a lot of jazz. Though I'm not sure what that means either. I don't want to believe I like jazz because I'm Jewish. There is no reason to think that. But within the last few years, I have become, let's say, confused, by my Jewishness and my attraction to jazz--not necessarily the link between the two, but the similar confusion I feel about both.

There are some easy, mainly trivial, connections to be drawn between jazz and Jews: the Eastern European Jews of Tin Pan Alley (the Gershwins, Kern, Hammerstein, Berlin, Arlen, et al.) wrote the tunes jazz musicians would expound on indefinitely; a hefty number of jazz critics and historians are Jewish--including Nat Hentoff, Leonard Feather, Lewis Porter, Ira Gitler; jazz is a minority music (in the popular sense) and Judaism is a minority religion.

There is an important difference between Jewishness and Judaism. Jewishness denotes a cultural sensibility while Judaism denotes a religion. I am not a religious Jew, but I am Jewish nonetheless. Jazz is not a religion, although some may think of it as such. But jazz is a liminal music. What leaves me pondering are the tenebrous forms of jazz and Jewishness, whose margins are, to me, as indistinct as territorial waters.

Lately, though, I have been thinking about the inherent worth of such unanswerable questions as "What is Jewishness?" or "What is jazz?" They are clearly important questions, but I find myself caring less and less about them. (If you are not satisfied with my insouciance, however, read Isaiah Berlin's essay, "Benjamin Disraeli, Karl Marx, and the Search for Identity" for the best response I have found to the first question, "What is Jewishness?")

The best answer I have found to "What is jazz?" is: Jazz is what jazz musicians do. This may not satisfy you. But to me, it says much more than any more scholarly answer could ever say. It is an affront to all those who think these grand questions matter, that historical synthesis is more important than our immediate, day-to-day experiences, which might harbor more answers than we think.

As I write this entry in a coffee shop down the street from my apartment, I am learning from the barista who brought me my coffee and sandwich; the two young women sharing apple pie to my left; the cyclist who just walked in for an iced drink, perhaps a gelato. They don't have all the answers. But it's a start.

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