Jews and Jazz

Improvising Ethnicity

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Charles B. Hersch
Transnational Studies in Jazz
  • New York, NY: 
    , October
     196 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Intersectional studies, whether crossing ethnicity, religion, gender, class, expressive genre, or any of the numerous cross-sections of human life, are difficult to accomplish. Charles Hersch’s Jews and Jazz: Improvising Ethnicity is one such difficult study that aspires to something big and, in many ways, delivers. With the goals of exploring “the meaning of Jewish involvement in the world of American jazz” (1) and contextualizing the rich contribution of Jews within the global canon that originated within American Black diasporic communities, Hersch sets a course not only to define “Jewishness,” but also to share the fruit of his laborious research and captivating analysis.

Through the course of this 172-page journey, Hersch argues that Jews within the jazz scene have used, and perhaps continue to use, jazz “to become more American, to emphasize their minority outsiderness, and to become more Jewish” (4). Despite the challenges of navigating rich yet complex multilayered relationships between Blacks and Jews, the book makes a positive and productive contribution to an ongoing and much needed conversation.

A good book is never without its challenges. Any study of jazz during the 1920s and 1930s without mention of the influence and impact of the Negro Renaissance that occurred and moved throughout Harlem, Chicago, Detroit, and Washington, DC, leaves a few questions for the informed reader. Similarly, mention of George Gershwin without the influence and impact of William Grant Still, or mention of the Israel Zangwill/Horace Kallen debate without the E. Franklin Frazier/Melville Herskovits debate creates an imbalance in a study that has its roots and grounding in Jewish-Black relations.

Yet, the work does create eyebrow-lifting intrigue worthy of consideration, regardless of one’s (dis)agreement. Two assumptions that flow throughout the prose are wonderful examples of such ocular captivating moments. The first is the assumption that jazz is an exemplar of American culture and that adoption or appropriation of jazz equates to being “more American.” One could argue that jazz was created out of the social, economic, political, and physical conditions of Blacks who were systemically demeaned as non-American and jazz emerged as a cry for and towards reconciliation to “becoming” American. Secondly, the assumption that jazz equates to freedom and opportunity as an exemplar of an “American way of life” (56) again is predicated on an aspiration, but not an actual practice, benefiting or honoring the Black musicians and communities from whence the expression was birthed and gifted to the world. Yet, Hersch’s clever and consistent voice offers the reader a wonderful invitation to a conversation much bigger than the scope of this magnum opus.

What this book does really well is position the contributions of composer-musicians (Gershwin, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, “Mezz” Mezzrow, Red Rodney, Roz Cron, Shelly Manne, Terry Gibbs, Stan Getz, Michael Brecker, Lee Konitz, Dave Liebman, John Zorn, Steven Bernstein, Paul Shapiro), industry leaders (Norman Granz, Barney Josephson), and famed announcers (“Symphony Sid” Torin) within the larger history of jazz to reveal the rich influence of Jews on jazz. Equally compelling is Hersch’s observations and analysis of Black jazz legends Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith (also known as Willie “the Lion” Smith), Slim Gaillard, Cab Calloway, and their unique and nuanced engagements with the Jewish faith, culture, and repertoire. Regardless of (dis)agreement, the thesis and convictions of this monograph are captivating, appealing, and an asset to ongoing conversations within the realms of (inter)cultural studies, (inter)religious studies, and, of course, jazz studies. Jews and Jazz is well constructed, well written, and well worth the read!

About the Reviewer(s): 

Emmett G. Price III is Professor of Worship, Church, and Culture, and the Executive Director of the Institute for the Study of the Black Christian Experience (ISBCE) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
May 15, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Charles Hersch is Professor of Political Science at Cleveland State University. He is also the author of Democratic Artworks: Politics and the Arts from Trilling to Dylan and Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans.


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