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The Jewish-Black Connection in Jazz

IT is one of the odd little footnotes to jazz history that Louis Armstrong, the greatest of African-American musicians, wore a Star of David around his neck for much of his life.

Armstrong was not Jewish. He wore the star, biographer Gary Giddins says, in homage to a Jewish influence that dated to his childhood. Mr. Giddins offered some persuasive evidence last Thursday night at a concert called "The Jazz Connection: The Jewish and African-American Relationship."

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The concert at Avery Fisher Hall, part of New York's week-long JVC Jazz Festival, began with contrasting performances by a Jewish cantor and a black gospel singer. The idea was to highlight the similarities in their melodic styles, each infused with a mournfulness born of centuries of exile and suffering.

The audience was treated to a snippet of a tape-recorded interview with Armstrong in which he recalls a Jewish family that befriended him during his childhood in New Orleans. The parents used to sing a Yiddish lullaby. On tape, in his soulful, gravelly bullfrog voice, Armstrong sang a few bars.

Jews have played an influential role in jazz - second only to that of black Americans, Giddins says. More important, a number of Jewish composers embraced jazz. "Clearly," he says, "the dominant Jewish part in the equation is in the songwriting." George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern - the list includes most of the great American songwriters of the first half of the century. Their work was also performed at the concert.

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