For Jana Herzen, Jazzy Creativity Is in Jewish Bloodline

Recording Impresario Comes From Long Line of Innovators

Daughter of Fortune: Jana Herzen’s parents founded a science lab at Stanford University.
Courtesy of Jana Herzen
Daughter of Fortune: Jana Herzen’s parents founded a science lab at Stanford University.

By Harold Heft

Published January 15, 2014, issue of January 17, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Jana Herzen, whose jazz record label Motéma Music celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2013, confides that the Forward played an important role in her family history. Her great-grandmother walked out on her family when Herzen’s grandmother, the eldest of six, was 11. One day she just disappeared from their home in the Bronx and was gone. Even at 11, her grandmother knew that her own mother “never started a day without reading the Forward,” says Herzen. “So she put a want ad in the paper saying ‘Mom, we need you. Please come home.’” And her mother came home. “She walked in the door, hung up her hat, put on her apron, and took over,” recalls Herzen. “Never talked about it.”

This is only one remarkable anecdote from Herzen’s family history that inspires her work. Her parents, scientists Leonard and Leonore Herzenberg, founded the Herzenberg Lab at Stanford University, where they were responsible for some major scientific discoveries of the 20th century, including fluorescence-activated cell sorters, which allows scientists to sort samples of human blood cells, revolutionizing stem cell and cancer research. Leonard was awarded the Kyoto Prize, known as Japan’s Nobel Prize, in 2006.

Herzen says that her parents’ achievements guide her work in running a record label: “When my dad passed, we had this gathering at the house and a lot of his students said how much he inspired them to live their best life, to reach as far as they could, to live a broad life,” she recalls. “And I thought, ‘Well, in a small way I am in the family business then.’”

This example has guided Herzen to create a different type of jazz label, one that favours art over commerce. Motéma comes from a Congolese word for ‘heart.’ “The whole record label model is based on, ‘Let’s see if we can make a bunch of money off the backs of these artists,’” says Herzen, herself one of Motéma’s original recording artists. She says she sees herself not in the music business but the inspiration business.

One of Herzen’s inspirational Motéma stories of 2013 is that of Jaimeo Brown’s debut album “Transcendence,” which features the renowned Gee’s Bend Singers of Alabama, a community of African-American quilters who sing while they quilt. “This a good example of what I consider a great Motéma project experience,” she says. Brown listens to the Gee’s Bend Singers “whenever he has a meditational need,” says Herzen. “It speaks to his heart. Next thing you know, he wakes up one morning and goes, ‘I can improvise to that. I can make music using that as the background… Let’s use these samples as backgrounds for improvising and that will make a different kind of jazz.’” The record has been lauded as “an urgent, expressive debut” by The New York Times.

Herzen marvels at Brown’s artistry. “He really invented something very new,” she says. “Getting these things out the door to sell them is not easy. But I can tell you from the bottom of my heart, with my total intuition… it’s important to make the record. It doesn’t matter if it sells. The artist is contributing in a big way to the community with it.”

“I think it is a Jewish thing,” she says. “It’s like, ‘I back it because it’s good. Because it’s good for the world.’”

Harold Heft writes frequently about the arts for the Forward.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.