The Show | Author - Joseph Vass
Joseph Vass conceived and wrote The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of An American Klezmer. He is the guiding spirit behind Klezmerica, the contemporary Jewish music ensemble that has performed all across the US and at the International Klezmer Festival in Israel. Vass wrote all the original music and lyrics for all five of Klezmerica's CD's: Bulka's Song, Gershwin The Klezmer, Pintele Yid, Jerusalem of Blue, and Live from Klezmerica! Vass also wrote the book, music and lyrics for the stage musical Mishegass!, produced by the ActorsTheater of Minnesota for a four-week run in 2004. He composed, performed and recorded all the music for Park Square Theater's 2007 production of the play, The Chosen. Vass is a member of The Dramatists Guild and American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). He lives in Maplewood, Minnesota, with his wife, comedian Susan Vass.
THE SOUL OF GERSHWIN
By Joseph Vass
I first heard George Gershwin's music as a child. I loved it immediately. Much later, when I began to listen to traditional Jewish music, I made the connection. To me, Gershwin's music is Jewish. At first, I knew this merely in a purely subjective, spiritual sense. It sounded Jewish to me. Then I learned that Gershwin himself labeled his own melodies as Jewish "according to the deep emotional element that flows in them."
But, back in 1997, when I proposed to the Jewish Community Center of St. Paul a concert entitled Gershwin the Klezmer, I confess that's about all I knew. I did not yet know:
• the extent to which other Jewish-American songwriters (and at least one gentile, Cole Porter) attributed their inspiration to the Jewish tradition;
• the depth of Gershwin's natural immersion in the Jewish culture from which he came; and
• the astonishing degree to which Gershwin music sings in the melodies and dances and in the rhythms of the Jewish tradition.
Of course, once I tagged Gershwin with the provocative label "klezmer," I complicated the issue. Not all Jewish music is "klezmer." The Jewish musical tradition extends over thousands of years and styles, including not only Torah chant and cantorial singing but also the music few American Jews recognize, like Bukharan and Ethiopian. These days, the word klezmer usually signifies a few 19th Century Eastern European dance styles. Any association with purveyors of American "show tunes" like Gershwin's will horrify some folks. Most klezmer bands routinely perform show tunes – but only from the Yiddish theater. Apparently, being sung in Yiddish certifies these songs as "authentic".
But originally, a klezmer is a person; in Hebrew, an instrument of song—in other words, a musician. Klezmers play all kinds of gigs. They play their own core Jewish styles, but also perform other music an audience will pay to hear, whether polkas, Romany (so-called "gypsy") music, or for that matter, show tunes – just as rock bands at weddings play Hava Nagilah and The Hokey Pokey. In our generation, American musicians began to reconstruct the almost-lost music 19th Century Eastern European klezmers played at Jewish events. Then people began to use the word klezmer as an adjective to describe a musical style.
So, a klezmer is a person. So what? Does that make George Gershwin a "klezmer?" I'm not going to repeat the show here. Enjoy, and judge for yourself.