On Sunday, February 14, people from all across Louisville braved the wintry, snowy weather to come to the “Stars of David: Jewish Voices from the American Songbook” concert at Keneseth Israel. In addition to myself, the concert featured world class jazz pianist Harry Pickens, Cantor David Lipp, Jennifer Diamond, piano accompanist Angie Hopperton, and Brigid Kaelin, Laura Ellis and Susan Crocker of the local Andrews Sisters style trio, The Birdies.
Harry Pickens gave a wonderful talk, interspersed with outstanding piano playing, about the Jewish influence on what we commonly refer to as The Great American Songbook. At the turn of the last century, when there was a mass influx of new immigrants coming together into the crowded urban neighborhoods of our major cities, the various musical styles that the immigrants brought with them combined with the jazz that was forming in the African American communities to create something entirely brand new. The most famous “crucible” for this new, American brand of music was Tin Pan Alley, centered on West 28th Street between Sixth and Broadway in Manhattan.
I happen to have a great affinity for the music from this era, specifically the songs George Gershwin created with his brother, Ira. But beyond catchy rhythms and fun lyrics, I am drawn to the stories behind the music. The stories of African Americans and Jews working together, influencing one another and eventually giving rise to the new music that has entertained and inspired us as Americans for over a century.
I am inspired by the fact that Louis Armstrong, the great jazz trumpeter and singer, wore a Jewish star around his neck for the better part of his life as a way of honoring the Karnofsky family who took him in as an orphan, gave him a job and invited him into their family.
At a time when Yiddish and Jive, the urban slang spoken by the “hepsters,” were synonymous with “cool,” Cab Calloway recorded his hit song, “Abi Gesunt” which moved seamlessly from one language to the other. Calloway was said to have known enough Yiddish to be able to communicate with his Jewish immigrant fans.
George Gershwin was uniquely adept at blending jazz sounds he heard around him with the traditional music he heard in the synagogue. He incorporated those elements in his first job as a pianist and “song plugger” for a Tin Pan Alley music publishing firm as well as in his later works.
I find these stories of cultural collaboration to be so uplifting in these troubling times in America when stories of fear and mistrust of “the other” dominate the headlines. That is why I chose to create this musical program of songs from The Great American Song Book. The overarching theme of the concert was that music has served as a bridge between the various ethnic communities in America.
Here in our own Jewish community, music has certainly served as such a bridge. Since I began serving as cantor of Keneseth Israel 8-1/2 years ago, I have always been able to count on my fellow sweet singers of Jewish music from throughout the city to join me in performing in our KI musical programs and, many times, I have been graciously invited to sing in their houses of worship.
The effect of this musical cross-fertilization here in Louisville has been significant in warming our relations with one another and strengthening our ties to our fellow congregations.