Jewish Music and the Blues

Fenster writes:

If you have not seen it, the PBS special on Jews and Broadway is very much worth watching.  It’s entitled Broadway Musicals: a Jewish Legacy.  Jews often seem to want to downplay their prominence in various fields, or at least their cultural influence.  Here, that influence is brought unabashedly front and center.

The full-throated kvelling is well deserved.  There’s no getting around the fact that Jews essentially created and sustained the Broadway musical.

One of my favorite bits in the special concerns the relationship between Jewish composers working in the black vernacular.  What’s especially interesting, and fun to listen to, are the things Jewish and black music have in common.  The clarinet solo that starts Rhapsody in Blue, for instance. Growing up without much in the way of Jewish culture, I understood this as the introduction of the blues idea at the outset.  But it owes klezmer music at least as much.

The clip below includes some interesting commentary on the similar but different use of the minor key in Jewish and black music.

Of the commenters, I liked Marc Shaiman’s take the best.  That Jewish music is “all minor” while the blues plays on the tension between the major and minor keys, with the song itself often being in major with a lot of the melody working with the flatted third (the minor) as well as the flatted fifth and seventh.

I just never heard it explained before as the tension between hope and resignation, which I always more or less apprehended musically but not intellectually.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
This entry was posted in Music and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Jewish Music and the Blues

  1. agnostic says:

    Here’s a really old post on the similarities in black and Ashkenazi music, based on their similar cognitive profiles — tilted way more toward verbal than visual. Their music emphasizes melody more than harmony, more so than in other groups.

    Klezmer is a distinctly Ashkenazi style of music from the past five centuries, not found among the Sephardic or Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) Jews. The Ashkenazim stand out from the other groups in being more tilted toward verbal than visual intelligence, and more neurotic.


  2. Woody Allen said in a recent interview that the only big-budget movie he’d ever be interested in doing is a biopic of Sidney Bechet but that it’ll never happen b/c Hollywood has zero interest.


  3. Will S. says:

    Jon Stewart likes to joke that both blacks and Jews love to complain, but only blacks were smart enough to put it to music, creating the blues.

    I suppose Appalachian Scotch-Irish and WASPs created country the same way… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pangur says:

    “Jews often seem to want to downplay their prominence in various fields.”

    Good one!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s