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How Pianist Irving Fields Redefined Jewish Music

Irving Fields, the songwriter and pianist who died on August 20 at age 101, revealed talent that transcended the question of what is authentic Jewish music. Born Yitzhak Schwartz in New York to parents from Minsk and Pinsk, he was raised in Coney Island and Bensonhurst. An amateur choir singer, his father got him involved in the musical performances of the celebrated Ukrainian chazzan Yossele Rosenblatt (1882-1933). From this early musical influence, Fields advanced to juvenile roles in the Second Avenue Yiddish theater. As he recounts in a racy memoir, by age 18 he was traveling as a cruise ship pianist to Cuba and Puerto Rico. From this sonic melting pot would emerge the album “Bagels & Bongos” (1959), reinventing Jewish standards by adding a Latin beat and sometimes grievous puns: “Hava Nagila” became “Havannah Negila.” In his prime, the pleasure principle radiating from Fields’ performance style was quintessential American Jewish post-war exultation, like the Miami Beach hotels of architect Morris Lapidus, where excess in design was all-important.

Through the 1950s, Fields developed a no-more-tears formula, so that even the most lachrymose songs of the Yiddish stage kvelled with added Latin spice. In “More Bagels and Bongos,” (1961) the Yiddish song “Papirossen” is reinvigorated from a grief-stricken plea by a street vendor of cigarettes (papirosen) as filtered through a serpentine Latin beat into a seductive tango. Latin style added to Yiddishkeit strengthens confidence and assertiveness, removing inward-looking tragedy. Of course, Latin music, especially the tango, has its own tragic content and tradition, but Fields preferred to overlook these depths in his let’s-have-fun esthetic.

Earlier, in 1948, “Rozhinkes mit mandlen,” (Raisins and Almonds) a lullaby arranged by Abraham Goldfaden for the Yiddish musical “Shulamis” (1880) was transformed by Fields. Bongo drums and schmaltzy, decorative keyboard noodlings were added. New English lyrics changed the scene from a synagogue where a widow sings a poignant lullaby to a flashy expression of nuptial devotion suitable for an Elvis chapel in Las Vegas. Fields may have betrayed originals, but he also understood them implicitly. He grasped the practical purpose of music on the Yiddish stage where songs did not exist in a vacuum, but were performed to convey a message or mood. He applied this point of view to a later generation of Jewish pleasure-seekers looking to appear trendy on the dance floor. With the stamina that would lead him to perform past his centenary at New York restaurants, Fields played with his trio or as a solo in venues ranging from Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo hotel in Las Vegas and the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach – a masterpiece by Morris Lapidus – as well as New York’s exclusive El Morocco, Copacabana, Latin Quarter, and Stork Club. The last-mentioned was owned and operated by the notoriously anti-Semitic Sherman Billingsley,.

No matter. Club-owners and audiences were dazzled by overtly inauthentic jollity in tunes such as “Israel Fiesta” from Fields’ 1954 album “Melody Cruise to Israel.” In its own modest way a declaration of the survival of a spirit less than a decade after the Second World War ended, this album – overdue for CD transfer – was a pleasure cruise indeed. Fields was perpetually booked on his own compositional love boat. As elsewhere, Fields understood that melding two celebratory traditions validated both, rather than compromising either one.

Just as Fields embraced Latin music, leading lights of that idiom accepted his compositions as authentic expressions and performed them accordingly. Sometime in the late 1950s, Fields and his trio played his 1946 hit “Miami Beach Rhumba” in a Soundie film short. His piano accompaniment has flashes of Russian-style virtuosity vaguely reminiscent of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee,” with some bluesy chords recalling Jewish music. Fields pronounces Miami as “Miama,” as if deliberately signaling his inauthenticity. Yet the bandleaders Edmundo Ros and Xavier Cugat embraced the song with passionate credibility and sprightly good humor, respectively. The Yiddish crooner Seymour Rexite (1908-2002) recorded “Miami Beach Rhumba” in Yiddish. No tug of war of allegiance, asking to which tradition Fields’ music genuinely belonged, was needed over a song that belonged to both. In a 2011 performance, “Miami Beach Rhumba” was introduced by the Puerto Rican jazz flautist Néstor Torres as a Latin classic, which it became in a perfect assimilation of musical verve.

Fields’s impish trickster approach of blending cultures with high spirited musical japes was also expressed in a book of raucous humor, as described in his autobiography:

“A few years ago, I created an idea for a character called Joe Putz. I even recorded an off-color X-rated album as Joe Putz. It’s not just a lot of dirty words but stories of things that happen to all people every day but they may not like to talk about. Joe Putz sings the songs that Irving shouldn’t play!”

This alter ego was preserved in book form as “XXXX Rated Odes For Degenerates” (2011) by Joe Putz. Yet the elderly devotee of rough humor was also capable of meditative statements, such as a wistful “Oifin Pripitchik” (On the cooking stove) from the 2007 CD “My Yiddishe Mama.” The scene depicted in the original Yiddish lyrics of a humble house where a rabbi teaches children their ABCs sparked a nostalgic response from Fields. After a wistful solo prelude, drums enter with less bold revelry than muted respect for a past era and its people. Even a segue into the irresistibly catchy “Tumbalalaika” retains retrospective tenderness, like a photo by Roman Vishniac.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

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