Jazz, Blues, and Rock in the Service of God


From the curator

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."

Swing His Praises takes an opposite approach, and looks at how jazz (as well as blues and rock) has been incorporated into Jewish liturgical and sacred music. That is, how composers and musicians have put jazz—according to this volume’s subtitle—in the service of God.

 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, as Neil W. Levin observes in his introduction to this volume, while there is no jazz or blues basis in the history of synagogue music, there are parallels in musical practice—especially in improvisation—and "extramusical" function.


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Most of the work featured here comes from the latter half of the 1960s and reflects the era’s characteristic open attitude toward experimentation.

Jonathan Klein’s Hear O Israel: A Sabbath Service in Jazz was composed in 1965, when the composer was just seventeen years old, and was recorded two years later by an ensemble that included Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and several other prominent jazz artists. "The ritual act of creating this music during worship seemed most appropriate for the Sabbath," Klein has said of the work, "when each week, according to Jewish mystical traditions, we re-create the world." Klein is also featured in a podcast about Hear O Israel produced by the Milken Archive.

Charles Davidson’s …And David Danced Before the Lord and The Hush of Midnight reflect the composer’s wide-ranging musical interests and deep knowledge of cantorial art. The former combines typical jazz and cantorial idioms while the latter is more firmly rooted in folk rock. Davidson has described The Hush of Midnight—a complete reimagining of a s’liḥot) service—as "a combination of traditional cantorial chant with the musical vernacular of our day."

The two services by Cantor Raymond Smolover are also rooted in folk rock, while those by Gershon Kingsley are performed almost entirely on Moog synthesizers. In an oral history with the Milken Archive, Smolover recalled being inspired by the Bob Dylan records his son often played in the family’s home. Kingsley was an early adopter of the Moog synthesizer and is still known in the popular music world for his work on that instrument.

In the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement, there was much dismay at what had become tense relations between the African American and Jewish communities. To help mend that rift, Dave Brubeck composed a work exploring the historic and spiritual parallels of Jews and African Americans. The result was The Gates of Justice, a massive cantata emphasizing the theme of universal brotherhood and drawing from the bible, Hillel, Martin Luther King, Jr., and African American spirituals.

Jazz remains a strong force within the world of Jewish sacred music, illustrating the genre’s endless capacity to enhance the religious experience in ways that are both artistically interesting and spiritually fulfilling.

–Jeff Janeczko

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