Ornette Coleman, one of the greatest musical innovators of the 20th century and the man who coined the term “free jazz,” died this morning in Manhattan of cardiac arrest. He was 85.
A saxophonist, composer and bandleader, Coleman, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2007 for his album, “Sound Grammar,” began playing jazz in the bebop era in the 1940s and ‘50s. His playing even then was noted for straying from the chord structures and harmonies upon which his fellow players based their music.
By the mid-late 1950s, Coleman’s groups were playing free jazz, a music based upon his own vocabulary, called “harmolodics.” While some heard this style of group improvisation as a chaotic free-for-all, in fact it was based on clear rules that Coleman had developed for his players. Coleman was influenced by a panoply of different styles, including blues, R&B, folk, and spirituals, and melody was always essential to him. It’s just that he heard melody in a different way from the prevailing pop and jazz conventions of the time.
In a revealing interview with Ben Ratliff of the New York Times in 2006, Coleman – a spiritual man - gave an indication of where some of his unconventional melodic ideas came from. It turned out that when he was young, a friend once played Coleman a recording by Josef Rosenblatt, the Ukrainian-born cantor who moved to New York in 1911 and became one of the city’s most popular entertainers.
Ratliff quotes Coleman: “He put on Josef Rosenblatt, and I started crying like a baby. The record he had was crying, singing and praying, all in the same breath. I said, wait a minute. You can’t find those notes. Those are not ‘notes.’ They don’t exist.”
That’s pretty much how many people would describe Coleman’s music. And the notes he was hearing that “don’t exist” were the cantor’s bent, achy, “blue notes” called krekhts, kneytshn and tshoks – the very accents that define cantorial music.
Ratliff and Coleman listened together to Rosenblatt’s recording of “Tikanto Shabbos,” a song from Sabbath services. Coleman said, “I think he’s singing pure spiritual. He’s making the sound of what he’s experiencing as a human being, turning it into the quality of his voice, and what he’s singing to is what he’s singing about. We hear it as ‘how he’s singing.’ But he’s singing about something. I don’t know what it is, but it’s bad.”
In this episode, Coleman totally got what classic cantorial music is about – how, when performed by a truly great cantor, it combines a text and a melody with pure spirit, channeling devotion and soul. It’s no wonder Coleman responded so strongly to it, and that it influenced his own music.
And in a full turn of events, in the early 1990s, Jewish avant-garde saxophonist John Zorn, a devotee of Coleman’s style and approach, formed his own Masada Quartet modeled on Coleman’s late 1950s ensembles. Since then, Zorn has written hundreds of works which are often rendered in Coleman-style free-jazz arrangements.
Willie Smith at his Manhattan apartment. Photo by William P. Gottlieb.
Barney Josephson opened Cafe Society in 1938, but the music he featured (and is featured in the play “Cafe Society Swing”) has been around much longer.
Jazz originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in African-American communities — most notably in New Orleans. As it spread, the music began to draw on different traditions, including the work of Jewish composers who populated Tin Pan Alley.
Because it took in so much from so many places and changed so much from its origins, Jazz might easily be called the Yiddish of musical forms. It includes everything from ragtime to be-bop to big band, and in most of these incarnations the Jewish impact was large. Here are 9 Jewish artists who helped shape the many different sounds of jazz:
1. Willie “The Lion” Smith (1893-1973)
An early jazz great, pianist Smith was the son of a Jewish father, Frank Bertholoff. He apparently learned Hebrew from a rabbi for whom his mother worked, and according to all accounts was a bar mitzvah at age 13. In fact, he told Nat Hentoff, “People can’t seem to realize I have a Jewish soul and belong to that faith.” According to his autobiography, later in life he served as a cantor for a black Jewish congregation in Harlem.
2. Teddy Charles (1928-2012)
Photo by Carol Rosegg
“Cafe Society Swing,” a new musical that opened in New York on December 21, has so many good parts it’s a shame they don’t fit together.
The play tells the story of Barney Josephson, the son of Latvian Jewish immigrants who scrapped together a few thousand bucks and, in 1938, opened a Greenwich Village nightspot he called Cafe Society. A fan of jazz, he wanted to bring downtown the music he’d seen uptown at Harlem’s Cotton Club.
But with a difference: In Harlem, the audiences were almost all white (black customers were seated in the back behind partitions) and the entertainers all black. Even legendary musicians such as Duke Ellington had to come in through the back door.
Influenced by the political cabarets of Prague and Berlin, Josephson integrated both the Cafe Society entertainers and audience. Billie Holliday, bluesman Big Joe Turner, gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, folk singer Josh White, Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughn graced the club’s stage. Jack Guilford was a long-time MC, as was Zero Mostel. Imogene Coca and Carol Channing, among others, also appeared there.
This year, we ventured to create a set of five memorable 2013 releases that are not easily defined either as “Jewish music,” jazz, or klezmer, but represent alternative, thought-provoking musical experiments, rooted in yet transgressing Jewish musical traditions.
Please note that the works below are listed in alphabetical order — there’s no ranking here.
“Pillar Without Mercy”
In this release, young klezmer trombonist Dan Blacksberg dredges up heavy metal’s darkest essence, situating it within the klezmer/niggun vocabulary. Thrashing, and not even ironic? And yet, the heavy metal uninitiated (myself included) may just come to realize how oddly soulful this music is, and how profound a catharsis it may engender. This is not about exorcising your demons, nor about teenage angst, but a truly intelligent — even intellectual — encounter with massive noise that surrounds us and that we’ve been absorbed into. So much so that, as niggun references and melody lines emphasize, the very spiritual essence may just be bound-up somewhere deep in this register. See some recent footage here.
The name “Rothschild” means different things to different people.
In 1902, Sholem Aleichem wrote the monologue “Ven ikh bin Rothschild” (“If I Were a Rothschild”), which would be famously turned into the song “If I Were a Rich Man” by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock for “Fiddler on the Roof.” To Sholem Aleichem and generations of Jews before and since, the name signified the wealthiest of wealthy Jews.
There are those who don’t think highly of the family at all. A quick Google search reveals dozens of sites claiming that it controls the world financial markets, and several other conspiracy theories ranging from true (the family did back the British war effort against Napoleon) to totally bonkers (no, David Icke, Hitler wasn’t a Rothschild that was given power to help reshape the world in the family’s vision).
When I was growing up in the early 1980s, my mother would emphasize the fact that my pediatrician was a Rothschild, though not one of the Rothschilds. But it was still worth mentioning. When people talk about a cabal of Jewish bankers, they’re usually talking about the Rothschilds.
The book “The Baroness: The Search for Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild,” gives us a different sort of Rothschild. Pannonica, the rebellious daughter of Charles Rothschild, gave up the life of a European aristocrat to move to New York and support jazz icon Thelonious Monk. What makes “The Baroness” even more intriguing is that it was written by Nica’s niece and fellow Rothschild, Hannah, and is one of the few books on the family written by an actual Rothschild.
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