Jazz Blues and Rock in the Service of God

American vernacular music and Jewish sacred experience

A Virtual Exhibit
Curated by: Jeff Janeczko


A great religious leader is a 'master of ecstasy.'  He evokes emotions that move beyond the rational onto the mystical. A jazz musician does something the same.

—Ralph Ellison

From Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Ziggy Elman to Lee Konitz, Shelly Manne, and John Zorn, the annals of jazz are filled with musicians of Jewish descent. And while the Jewish presence in jazz is perhaps no more pronounced than in other circles, some have speculated—with varying degrees of credibility—as to the extent to which jazz or other genres might be considered "Jewish."

Beyond the freylach tune that forms the basis of "And When the Angels Sing" (adapted by Ziggy Elman from an old klezmer tune), there has been a more explicit intertwining of the two fields—beginning with Kurt Weill's 1946 “Kiddush" and carrying through to the present day with such artists as the Afro-Semitic Experience.

In Paul Berliner’s ethnography, Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation, jazz musicians most often likened improvisation to having a conversation or going on a journey. There is an interesting parallel here with the cantor, who serves as the messenger of the congregation (sheliaḥ tzibbur) and is charged with enhancing its spiritual journey. So, if some might see the two fields as an unlikely pair, there is common ground in that the cantor and the jazz musician each utilize improvisation—and generally toward the similar end of facilitating the transcendence of the here and now, or what Ralph Ellison has described as “beyond the rational onto the mystical.”

Composers, too, have hypothesized connections on many levels. Jonathan Klein, whose sacred service Hear O Israel is featured here, has likened the act of improvising during worship to the mystical notion of re-creating the world on the Sabbath. Dave Brubeck’s The Gates of Justice is founded not only on the spiritual and historical parallels betweens Jews and African Americans, but also on perceived musical ones. “I think they are related,” the composer responded when asked about the commonalities among Hebrew chant, spirituals, and blues. “Africa isn’t that far from Jerusalem.” In the realm of more popular- and folk-oriented expressions, when Cantor Raymond Smolover first heard Bob Dylan he perceived a man deep in the act of davening.

Though the kiddush by Weill appears earlier, the other works included here date to the 1960s. They reflect that era’s openness and display a range of artistic approaches, liturgical orientations, and performance contexts. But all are rooted in American vernacular musics and display how music has left an indelibly American stamp on the American Jewish experience.

Artie Shaw (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives, 1940)


Dave Brubeck's "musical bridge" draws on King, Hillel, spirituals and the cantorial tradition


The Civil Rights Era witnessed a great deal of cooperation between American Black and Jewish communities. But by the late 1960s, especially following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., relations between the two groups had cooled. Dave Brubeck composed The Gates of Justice to help ameliorate the rift that had developed by highlighting the two groups’ common histories of oppression and injustice.

The twelve-movement cantata draws on texts from the Bible, Hillel, Martin Luther King, and original words by Dave and Iola Brubeck, and juxtaposes two distinctive vocal traditions: Black American spirituals and cantorial art, or hazzanut.

“The essential message of The Gates of Justice is the brotherhood of man,” Brubeck wrote in the opening of his program notes to the 1969 recording. “Concentrating on the historic and spiritual parallels of Jews and American blacks, I hoped through the juxtaposition and amalgamation of a variety of musical styles to construct a bridge upon which the universal theme of brotherhood could be communicated.”

Brubeck built The Gates of Justice around three related choral movements connected by improvisations, solos, and choral responses. II. Oh, Come Let Us Sing is straightforward and relatively traditional. VII. Shout Unto the Lord is expression of diversity and communal joy. It combines and juxtaposes many musical styles to mirror the diversity of congregations. Brubeck described XII. Oh, Come Let Us Sing a New Song as “the enumeration of the attributes of God in whose image we are created, is a reminder of man’s potential.” (This final movement is often shortened due to its technical difficulty.)

Brubeck and Martin Luther King shared the ideal of equality and brotherhood. And both of them shared a dream that Brubeck’s articulated in The Gates of Justice.

—Rabbi Charles Mintz

But several movements contain both choral and improvisatory elements, and many combine texts from multiple sources. “Shout Unto the Lord” exemplifies the moments in this work where Brubeck has brought nearly all of the work’s constituent parts together. If there’s a defining moment in Gates it is surely this longest of the work’s movements where the one of the work’s central themes—freedom—is most emphatically expressed.

The Milken Archive’s recording features Cantor Alberto Mizrahi in the cantor’s role and Kevin Deas as the black baritone. Brubeck specified in the score that the singing roles should be cast as such whenever possible. The recording also features the Dave Brubeck Trio and Russell Gloyd conducting the Baltimore Choral Arts Society.



Kevin Deas, Cantor Alberto Mizrahi and Dave Brubeck recording The Gates of Justice for the Milken Archive.

The essential message of The Gates of Justice is the brotherhood of man.

—Dave Brubeck

Why Brubeck?

The question of why Brubeck was chosen for the commission is a fair one. As a white Catholic from rural California, Brubeck might seem an odd choice given the aim of the commission to unite African and Jewish American communities.

Brubeck developed a distaste for racism early on in his life. In the oral history excerpt featured here, he recalls the shock he felt when he saw branding marks on one of the African American employees on his father’s ranch. The experience had a profound effect on the young boy. Later, when his quartet, which included black bassist Eugene Wright, was on tour, Brubeck refused to play at segregated venues.

“Brubeck and Martin Luther King shared the ideal of equality and brotherhood,” said Rabbi Charles Mintz of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which commissioned the work. “And both of them shared a dream that Brubeck’s articulated in The Gates of Justice.”


A Sabbath Service in Jazz

In 1965, a teenaged musician composed a sacred service for his local youth group in Worcester, MA. In 1967, it was recorded by some of the greatest jazz musicians of the era.

When 17-year-old Jonathan Klein was asked to compose a contemporary sacred service he wasn’t thinking beyond his Massachusetts youth federation for which it would be performed. He was thinking about jazz—the primary focus of his musical studies. And he was thinking about the common link between jazz and Jewish liturgical music: improvisation.

At the request of one of his father’s colleagues, Klein composed a sacred service meant to resonate with a younger audience. The initial performance was well-received, and he was asked to perform it at other synagogues in the region. Shortly thereafter, the father’s colleague, Rabbi David Davis, suggested he make a recording.

Davis had been Klein’s father’s assistant rabbi in Worcester. But by this time he had gone to work for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism).

Arrangements were made for a recording session to take place in New York. The composer Charles Morrow was hired as producer and Klein was asked whom he might like to have at the session. When the session date finally arrived the studio was filled was some of the leading jazz musicians of the era: Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Grady Tate, Jerome Richardson, and Thad Jones.

To Klein’s recollection it was simply a matter of phoning the musicians union, which he believes Morrow did. “Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter were playing with Miles [Davis] at the time,” Klein recalled. “They were part of that famous quintet. But it didn’t mean they wouldn’t do other work.”

Also in attendance at the recording session were singers Phyllis Bryn-Julson and Antonia Lavanne, both of whom went on to have successful careers in classical music.

Herbie Hancock (Photo by Douglas Kirkland)

When Klein recalls the session today it is bittersweet. He remembers the rehearsal the night before recording session. He can’t remember if Hancock had the music in advance or not but he remembers being blown away at the session. He describes Hancock as a “genius” and an “unbelievable player.” He remembers the trio of Hancock, Carter, and Tate sounding particularly “locked in.”

But there were other aspects that didn’t go as well. The tempos and arrangements weren’t quite right. The operatic style of the female singers didn’t mesh well with the overall aesthetic of the piece. Klein blames himself for most of this. He was young and inexperienced. He also played at the session (French horn), which prevented him from paying attention to the bigger picture.

“It was a special day, but it wound up being a little disappointing because of what I thought it could have been,” he recalls. He described the recording in a later interview as “unlistenable.”

The URJ went forward with the recording despite these issues. Copies were pressed and sold mostly regionally. Then everyone moved on. Klein became a professor at the Berklee College of Music and continued composing.

Ron Carter (Photo by Hans Speekenbrink)

Twenty-five years later Klein got a second chance. At the suggestion of Michael Isaacson and under the aegis of the Milken Archive, Klein revised Hear O Israel and re-recorded it with colleagues and students from Berklee.

“As a teenager, there were sounds in my head that I just didn’t know how to let out and onto paper so that they could be performed,” Klein reflected. “There should be a b’rakha for being given the chance finally to more or less get something right!”

For the revised work, Klein tightened up some of the horn arrangements, expanded the vocal parts to include four-part harmonies, added woodwinds, and revised the tempos. And he was happy with the results. “Certain things just didn’t sound the way I imagined them, he said in reference to the 1967 recording. “And I have to say, the 1992 recording sounds like I imagined it.”

But before the new recording was released, the original one would be resurrected.

Album cover from the 1967 recording of Jonathan Klein's Hear O Israel.

Trunk Records is a strange British boutique label. From the looks of their website they specialize in the bizarre, with a penchant for partial nudity on album covers and an aversion to coherent structure. The label’s owner caught wind of the 1967 recording of Hear O Israel from a friend and was inspired to reissue it. After phoning the URJ and connecting with the right people, he secured the rights and released the album—before the new Milken Archive recording was released.

Klein was interviewed about the re-release, which he was not involved with, in 2008. He was not enthusiastic. “It was not put out with my blessing. I never wanted it reissued.”

He feels different about the Milken Archive recording, which was released in 2011. He was able to preserve what he felt were some of the best performances from the 1967 recording and splice them into the new recording made with his Berklee colleagues. Klein was especially pleased to have Boston trumpet legend Herb Pomeroy perform on the recording.

Album cover from the 2008 re-issue by Trunk Records.

This setting of Sh’ma yisra’el from Hear O Israel illustrates how Klein merged the best of both recordings sessions. It begins with an improvisation by Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Grady Tate, and then segues to the full ensemble recording made in 1992.

You can hear the full story, told in Klein’s own words, with illustrative musical excerpts in the Milken Archive podcast: Jonathan Klein’s Hear O Israel—Herbie Hancock’s maiden voyage with Jewish music.


Praise Him with Moog and Trumpet

When Gershon Kingsley arrived in New York in 1946 his dream was attend Juilliard. But he was self-taught and lacked a high school diploma. Juilliard would not accept him. So, at age 24, he moved to Los Angeles, finished high school while attending Cal Arts, and supported himself by playing organ in synagogues.

“They asked me to write a small liturgical setting—for bar’khu or sh’ma,” he recalled more than fifty years later, “so I became a ‘Jewish composer’ by default!”

Before his arrival in the United States, Kingsley was born in Germany and had witnessed the rise of Nazism. At age 11 he joined a youth Zionist group in Hamburg. Then, at 16, he travelled on his own with a faction of that group to Palestine and spent two years on kibbutz. He later lived in Jerusalem, studying music and playing jazz in between stints of military service.

While the few liturgical settings he composed in Los Angeles provided an initial foray, a summer spent under the tutelage of Max Helfman at the Brandeis Arts Institute inspired the composer to remain connected Jewish music for the remainder of his life.

Of equal importance to Kingsley’s development as a composer, however, was his early fascination with the Moog synthesizer. Kingsley recorded several albums featuring his own compositions and arrangements, many of which reached international audiences and remain popular among Moog enthusiasts today.

Kingsley’s worlds of electronic and Jewish music came together on multiple occasions. He composed several works of Jewish connection utilizing the Moog as a primary—sometimes even only—instrument, including several sacred services.

Gershon Kingsley in 1990.

Sing a New Song Unto the Lord

Composed in 1968, Kingsley’s Shabbat for Today emerged at a time when youth culture had become extremely powerful, and when synagogues were becoming increasingly concerned about attrition rates among young Jews. But it was also a time when musical experimentation was not wholly unwelcome within synagogues. A Sabbath eve service cohosted by two New York Reform congregations in 1967, featured gyrating dancers, rock singers, electronic sound tracks, accompanying synchronized film projections and intermittent slide shows, flashing strobe lights, taped electronic music improvised by Kingsley, and, in place of a rabbi, the non-Jewish extreme avant-garde composer John Cage on the pulpit—in a new form of sermon based on the words of Buckminster Fuller.

“They asked me to write a small liturgical setting—for bar’khu or sh’ma, so I became a ‘Jewish composer’ by default!”

—Gershon Kingsley

Rabbi Charles Akiva Annes of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in East Orange, New Jersey held a genuine interest in contemporary music and was familiar with Kingsley’s work. He invited Kingsley to compose a new Friday evening Sabbath eve service specifically geared to the younger generation. The result of that invitation was Shabbat for Today (subtitled on the original score Sing a New Song Unto the Lord), written for cantor, mixed choir, and rock rhythm ensemble. It was premiered at that synagogue in 1968 by Cantor Theodore L. Aronson and an all-black choir, with electric guitar, double bass, rhythm section, and organ.

A Moog synthesizer was used in that first performance only as a soft background for the spoken parts, but not to accompany any of the singing. Shortly afterward, however, a recording was made that used the Moog for the entire service, replacing the live ensemble; and the work was associated thereafter with the Moog. On the Milken Archive recording, all instrumental parts were synthesized using a Moog and other sound modules.

Kingsley recalled that although many congregants were fascinated by the new sound, that first performance—together with the publicity it generated—was even denounced by some rabbis and cantors as sacrilegious and irreverently sensational. But that controversy only added to the intrigue. Eventually the work gained wider acceptance for its “current sound” and received more than 150 performances in synagogues and on television—usually using the Moog and sometimes with additional multimedia elements. A telecast from Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City, for example, featured dancers on the pulpit.

At the beginning of the 21st century there were still requests for its presentation.

Shabbat for Today 214

Davening with Dylan

The 1960s Folk Movement and Sacred Services for “Our Time”


The Hush of Midnight

If it is clear at this point that the experimental attitude of the 1960s profoundly influenced American synagogue music, readers would be forgiven for wondering about the folk movement that provided most of that era’s definitive soundtrack.

That influence would be most forcefully felt in the following decade. With Debbie Friedman’s harnessing of the folk sound for the sake of creating original music for Jewish worship, the course of Jewish music in America changed dramatically. But before Debbie Friedman, there were two cantor-composers who looked to 1960s folk music to demonstrate Judaism's continued relevance and usefulness to the era's most pressing concerns.

Charles Davidson first manifested the spirit of the 60s in a modern s'lihot service titled The Hush of Midnight. As Neil Levin explains in his notes to this piece:

The Hebrew word s'liḥot refers to the collective penitential liturgy, the daily recitation of which commences prior to Rosh Hashana and continues through Yom Kippur. The s'liḥot are generally recited just prior to dawn as vigils (ashmurot), preceding shaharit, or the morning service. In Ashkenazi custom (outside specifically Hassidic circles and some communities in Israel), the first such recitation has come to take the form of a formal service, beginning at or just after midnight on the Saturday night—technically, Sunday morning—prior to Rosh Hashana. It thus serves as an inauguration of the penitential season.

For The Hush of Midnight, Davidson took portions of the standard s'lihot liturgy and combined it with liturgical poems by Ruth Brin (1921–2009), a poet of the post-War era whose work exerted significant influence on modern Jewish liturgy. Davidson set the combined texts to original music.

At the time of its conception, Davidson referred to this work as "a service for our time," calling for an "assembly youthful in spirit," cantor or cantorial solo, guitars, piano, and drums. "The poignant cries of past suffering and the suggestion of bodies swaying in prayer do not lurk unabashedly in the background," he has explained. "They proclaim themselves over the beating of drums and the throbbing electric guitars."

Charles Davidson 175
Composer Charles Davison, ca. 1970s.

Living on the Edge

For Cantor Raymond Smolover (1921–2015) the revelation came from the Bob Dylan albums his son David played in the home:

“David at that time was a high school student, and learning to play guitar and turning on Bob Dylan records. And I’m listening and saying ‘He’s davening, very often, in some of his music. It’s almost recitative in parts.’”

Smolover was thus inspired to compose a sacred service that would draw on the style of Bob Dylan and other folk musicians of the era. The result was Edge of Freedom, which premiered at the Biennial of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1967 and was recorded the following year. In explaining the motivation behind this service, Cantor Smolover wrote "I realized that we had been asking our children to accept our God and the God of our fathers, and what He sounds like. I realized after almost twenty years of teaching them the sound of my God, that I must listen to the sound of theirs."

For a time this service was a popular at summer camps sponsored by the National Federation of Temple Youth of the Reform Movement (NFTY). Smolover followed Edge of Freedom with a complete Torah service titled Gates of Freedom (also included in the Milken Archive), based on traditional motifs of the Sabbath liturgy and the cantillation motifs for biblical readings or chant.

“They proclaim themselves over the beating of drums and the throbbing electric guitars.”

—Charles Davidson

It is important to note that both Davidson and Smolover viewed their work in the folk realm as part of a larger body of repertoire. Both were diversely skilled musicians and pedagogues whose work spanned many genres and contributed greatly to the composite body of American Jewish music, and both served cantorial posts for decades. Smolover also sang for the Metropolitan Opera.

In an oral history session with Milken Archive, Smolover lamented the “takeover” of the folk-oriented approach to Jewish liturgical music. “I feel kind of guilty,” he said. Guilty because, though he had in part inspired it, his goal was to write something that spoke to the times and added to the repertoire. “You don’t take over,” he said. “You add.”

Cantor Raymond Smolover

Links & Credits

Featured Recordings:

The Gates of Justice
Hear O Israel: A Sabbath Service in Jazz
Shabbat for Today
The Hush of Midnight
Edge of Freedom

Featured Composers:

Dave Brubeck
Jonathan Klein
Gershon Kingsley
Charles Davidson
Raymond Smolover

Related Content:

Podcast: Jonathan Klein’s Hear O Israel
Kurt Weill’s Kiddush
Oral History with Cantor Raymond Smolover
Volume 15: Swing His Praises


Liner notes by Neil W. Levin
Exhibit curated by Jeff Janeczko
Photo of Artie Shaw: Michael Ochs archives, 1940.
Photo of Herbie Hancock by Douglas Kirkland
Photo of Ron Carter by Hans Speekenbrink
Photo of Bob Dylan by Chris Hakkens
Shabbat for Today artwork: Design by Daniel J. Surak, Courtesy of Gershon Kingsley


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The playlist below includes selected tracks from the works featured in this exhibit. Much more is available on our Spotify Channel.