At 91, Mildred Kayden Is More Successful Than Ever

Jazz and Judaism Enliven Her Musical 'Storyville'

Telling the Whole Storyville: As a Jew, composer and lyricist Mildred Kayden says she feels a special connection to jazz.
Courtesy of York Theatre Company
Telling the Whole Storyville: As a Jew, composer and lyricist Mildred Kayden says she feels a special connection to jazz.

By Simi Horwitz

Published August 02, 2013, issue of August 09, 2013.
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Music is part of a collective unconscious?

Yes, I believe it is.

What do you think of rap?

I dislike it. They took the music out of the rhythm. It’s all words. “I hate this ho. She is a bum.” When Ed and I wrote about the whorehouse in New Orleans, we wrote about it with humanity, not vulgarity.

Wasn’t Ed Bullins an odd choice for you? He had a reputation as an anti-Semite.

I was never afraid of Ed, and in 40 years of working with him I never saw any evidence of anti-Semitism. He’s a pussycat, and it’s been love, love, love.

Did you ever talk with him about his ideology?

We only focused on the work.

Were you a supporter of the Black Panther movement?

No, I was always anti anti-white.

How do you define your politics today?

I’m afraid of the extreme right. But I’m also afraid of the extreme left. I’m pro-Israel, but not enough to become an Orthodox Jew who supports [Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin] Netanyahu.

How do you define your Jewishness?

I’m religious in my soul, and I fast on Yom Kippur. But I don’t have to go to temple every Friday.

How did your background inform your ambitions?

My father made $50 a week as an embroiderer and instead of spending all the money on food, my mother took the money and bought an upright piano so that she and I could take piano lessons. She hired a teacher for both of us, and three months later [the teacher] told her that she was not good enough to continue but I was. She enrolled me in the Brooklyn Music School and took me there every Thursday after school. Later I studied music at Juilliard. My parents were always supportive and loved what I was doing.

Did you ever suffer sexism in your career?

Yes, of course. If you have an adequate-looking face, you’ll experience sexism. But I never took it seriously. I nipped it in the bud, and it never got in the way of my career. Also, the fact that I’m very businesslike may have discouraged it.

What about ageism?

I’m 91 now and more successful than ever.

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