Jazzman Strikes a Chord at Community Programs

By Andrew Muchin

Published December 26, 2003, issue of December 26, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

He has hung out with Dizzy Gillespie, played piano with the Rolling Stones, written three books, hosted national radio and television shows, co-run a jazz record label, produced albums by top jazz and pop performers and composed a Grammy-nominated film score. But what’s tickling Ben Sidran’s ivories these days is the Ben Minkoff Volunteer Service Award that he and his wife, Judy, received last month from the Madison, Wis., Jewish Community Council.

Perhaps the first jazzman to receive a federation’s top prize, Sidran was cited for pro bono performances at programs for Hadassah, Jewish Social Services of Madison and the Madison Jewish Community Council and for accompanying alternative High Holy Day services. His wife was honored for her service as president of Jewish Social Services and a longtime leader of Jewish Community Council programming and fund-raising.

“Judy has done the heavy lifting,” Sidran explained in an interview with the Forward. “My contributions are to make myself available to play music, which I love to do anyway,” he said.

Indeed. Sidran, 60, leads his jazz combo — sometimes including his son, Leo, on drums and guitar — in performances throughout the United States and Europe. He also produces albums by diverse artists — from pop diva Diana Ross to blues crooner Mose Allison — and has written three books, the most recent, “Ben Sidran: A Life in the Music” (Taylor Trade Publishing, 2003), includes a CD of some of the most important songs from his career. His first book, “Black Talk: How the Music of Black America Created a Radical Alternative to the Values of Western Literary Tradition” (Holt, 1970), grew out of his dissertation for a doctoral degree, and he also authored an oral history titled “Talking Jazz” (Pomegranate Artbooks, 1992). Between books, he co-founded the Go Jazz label, hosted “Sidran on Record” and the Peabody Award-winning “Jazz Alive” for National Public Radio and the Ace Award-winning “New Visions” for VH-1, and wrote the music for the documentary “Hoop Dreams.”

Sidran also is a pied piper for his Jewish colleagues. His critically acclaimed CD, “Life’s a Lesson” (Go Jazz, 1994), combined his philosophical material, including the title song, with jazz-rooted interpretations of Jewish songs such as “Ani Ma’amin” and “B’Rosh Hashana.” He developed the music while playing at prayer services in Madison led by Hannah Rosenthal, now executive director of the national Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

To back him on the CD, Sidran recruited a Who’s Who of Jewish jazz and pop musicians, including saxophonists Joshua Redman and Lee Konitz, trumpeters Randy Brecker and Lew Soloff, drummer Danny Gottlieb, harmonica player Howard Levy and singer Carole King.

Though enlisting nonreligious Jewish musicians could be challenging, Sidran recalled, finding them wasn’t. “Jews make up less than 3% of the population, but have made up — and this is my number — 80% of the music business at various times,” he said.

“Most of the independent record labels in the 1940s were owned by Jews. Most of the songwriters in the Brill Building in the 1950s were Jews. Most of our popular songwriters in the 1930s were Jewish,” he recounted. “You have a few who weren’t, but even Cole Porter said the secret to his success was learning to ‘write Jewish.’” Porter meant that he employed a minor scale and, as Sidran explained, a technique that Jewish writers dubbed “smiling through the tears” — moving in the song from minor to major and back again, which created emotional tension.

The Madisonian is no jive cat when it comes to musicology. Last spring, he taught “Jewish Popular Music in America: Berlin to Kravitz,” a course he designed for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Interdisciplinary Arts Residency Program. This winter, he is transposing the course into a popular book that will feature a CD of relevant songs that Sidran and others presented in concert in Madison last spring.

Sidran finds that Jewish music can speak to Jews. “The idea that you have prayers like the ‘Barchu,’ the music and the function of that prayer have informed a lot of composers. That’s alive. That melody is alive, and that melody is connected with meaning in the Bible,” he said. “That combination of meaning and music is part of the Jewish experience.”






Find us on Facebook!
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • 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.