Straight from the temple of bebop
Since every show is different, Ben Sidran can’t promise what songs he’ll perform at this year’s Jewish Music Festival. But he does make one promise.
“I’ll make new mistakes,” says the famed jazz pianist, former NPR radio host, author and Jewish music raconteur. “I always make mistakes.”
Hey, it’s jazz. That’s how it goes when riffing on Gershwin, Berlin and Bob Dylan — some of the artists Sidran analyzes in his show, “Jews and the Great American Songbook.” Part concert, part lecture, it blends Sidran’s talents for playing and storytelling.
Tabbed “the original Jewish hipster” by Tablet magazine, he will make his debut in the festival on March 30 at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley.
For decades, Sidran, 70, has studied Jewish American music, seeking common threads between, say, cantorial trope and a Rodgers and Hammerstein score. He even wrote a book on the subject, “There Was a Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream.”
In his show, Sidran reveals his conclusions about what makes a work quintessentially Jewish. And it has little to do with playing in a minor key.
“The minor mode exists all over the world,” Sidran says by phone from his home in Madison, Wis. “There’s nothing specifically Jewish about it. What Gershwin and his compatriots did is find a way to contextualize the major scale and the minor mode. It’s what [Russian composer] Dmitri Shostakovich referred to as the Jewish penchant for smiling through the tears.”
As much an educator as an entertainer, Sidran spins a few juicy tales in his show and plays a few musical mashups, such as morphing “Oseh Shalom” into Ray Charles’ classic “What’d I Say?” or the melody of the Torah blessing into George Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”
As for the latter, he doubts Gershwin deliberately borrowed the cadence of the Torah blessing chanted when someone is called up to the bimah for an aliyah. That’s because the emphasis of all the great Jewish American composers was to assimilate, Sidran says.
“Irving Berlin was asked what being a Jew had to do with his success,” Sidran says. “He said absolutely nothing. As I was writing my book, I asked well-known Jews in music [the same question] and they all said the same thing. It dawned on me that’s a very Jewish thing to say in America in the 20th century.”
That doesn’t mean the great Jewish American composers did not elevate music to a higher plane. Sidran thinks the credit goes all the way back to the Torah and its emphasis on both narrative and social justice.
“These things are deeply embedded in the Jewish experience,” he says. “One of the contributions of Jewish composers in the 20th century is bringing this elevated history into pop culture. It was not trivial; it was profound.”
Since the 1960s, Sidran has been contributing to that culture, first as a rock songwriter and performer, then as a jazz musician and recording artist. The native of Racine, Wis., grew up in a secular Jewish home, but remembers well the Old Country melodies of his father’s generation.
During the High Holy Days, he would find himself “in synagogue with maybe 75 Yiddish-speaking refugees from the Pale of Settlement. I heard that music.”
It seeped deep into his bones, but after bar mitzvah age, Sidran began attending “the temple of bebop,” having fallen in love with jazz. While still in the Midwest, he started collaborating with future rock stars Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs (he co-wrote Miller’s classic hit “Space Cowboy”).
He moved to the West Coast at the height of the ’60s rock scene, but ended up moving back to Wisconsin because his wife hated Los Angeles. After that, he earned a doctorate in American studies, produced such artists as Van Morrison and Rickie Lee Jones, and became a solo artist. He has 30 albums to his credit.
But despite his love of rock and jazz, something haunted him. The Jewish musical influences of youth could not be denied.
“You can run,” he says, “but you can’t hide. Your best shot is to reach inside yourself and use that in your creative work.”
He recorded one album of Jewish music, and also delved into researching the subject, even as he was hosting “Jazz Alive” — and interviewing stars such as Miles Davis — on NPR from 1981 to 1983.
Sidran still makes music, and still finds connections between Jewish culture and the rest of the world.
“I’m at the point where I think the Jewish experience is a meme,” he says, “meaning an idea that runs through the culture like a virus. I think in many ways the meme lives on through the way we respond to life.”
“Jews and the Great American Songbook,” 7 p.m. March 30 at St. John’s Presbyterian Church, 2727 College Ave., Berkeley. $22-$25. https://www.jewishmusicfestival.org