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Chuck Israels' sideman duties make for impressive reading. Most jazz bass players would give their eye teeth to have chalked up anchor roles with the likes of pianist Bill Evans, saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Stan Getz and diva Billie Holiday. But, for 73-year-old Israels, who will be in this country next week for a three-gig tour, anchoring the efforts of stellar frontliners was never enough, especially when fusion came along in the Seventies.
"The bass player's position was relegated when fusion started," said Israels in a telephone interview to Paris, France where he was touring prior to his visit here. "It became more difficult for bass players to express themselves. That got to be frustrating and I eventually stopped performing altogether." Considering his career path up to that point, with synergies with bebop founding father pianist Bud Powell, reedman Eric Dolphy and saxophone titan Coleman Hawkins along the way, that must have been a difficult juncture in Israels' professional trajectory.
Israels also got a dream start to his musical education. His stepfather Mordehai Bauman was a singer and part-time cantor, and music was a major ingredient of everyday life at home. Renowned spirituals and folk singer Paul Robeson and folk icon, and political activist, Pete Seeger were frequent visitors and Israels met some of the jazz pantheon members in person as a 12-year-old when his parents produced a concert series which featured Louis Armstrong and his All Stars ensemble. Israels was indeed destined to become a professional musician.
"I suppose it would be remarkable, with that background, not to give back something to the world," says the bassist-composer, adding that events outside his home also had a strong bearing on his later development. "I grew up at a time when the world was rich with musical culture, and American musical culture was thriving. In many ways we are long past that unusually good time and I used to look at it as if something terrible had happened to destroy that artistic climate. But now I am beginning to think that the conditions in the world today are more normal. Back then it was just an unusually rich time, just like the era of Elizabethan theater in England. I was very lucky to be growing up then."
For all the "destined" elements of his early life Israels' eventual choice of instrument was more a matter of circumstances than anything else. "I'd played guitar and cello as a kid but when I walked into the music room at MIT University, where I was studying engineering, I saw 12 cellists there," Israels recalls. "I thought I'd better take up a different instrument if I wanted to play in the orchestra. There was a bass so I went for that."
Mind you, Israels doesn't perceive all his childhood musical experiences in a positive light. "I think of Pete Seeger as an important person socially and politically, but I can't live in what, to me, is an excessively naÃ¯ve musical world, in which he lives. For a person who is as socially and politically aware as he is, it's a dichotomy for me to see how he remains in a kind of underdeveloped world. That's why I became a jazz musician, and didn't carry on playing guitar and singing folk songs. I outgrew it."
Although Jewish by birth, Israels says he feels more American than Jewish and, in fact, his impending visit will be his first to this country. Still, he feels that Jews, along with African-Americans, have made a significant contribution to contemporary American culture. "My interests are in American jazz and the popular music of the mid-20th century, that's a world unto its own," he notes. "Displaced European Jews had very important input into all American culture. There are two enormous lines of immigration into the US that create American culture - those who were chased out of Central and Eastern Europe, and the Africans who were kidnapped. Those two combined cultures created American culture."
Having given up on performing and recording jazz in the 1970s, Israels turned to composing and teaching as a daytime job. He'd abandoned his engineering studies after one year, during which he accrued a wealth of gigging experience on Boston's lively jazz scene, and transferred to Brandeis University where he continued his studies in music. Despite his eschewal of hands on stage jazz endeavor Israels gained notice through his chart work with the National Jazz Ensemble. In the early Eighties he moved to California, after his singer wife Margot took up a position with the San Francisco Opera Company, and Israels earned his crust arranging and composing for local big bands and for a nine piece group.
In 1986, Israels moved to Bellingham, Washington to start work as Director of Jazz Studies at Western Washington University, a post he still holds. Thankfully, he has also resumed his playing activity, and added conductor duties, and regularly tours both inside and outside America. A mid-Nineties trip to Europe produced the acclaimed Eindhoven Concert CD with the Metropole Orchestra and he has also recorded orchestral material with the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra (NDR) and the Hannover Radio Philharmonic.
Now Israels' travels have finally brought him here. "I've waited 73 years to come to Israel and I'm really looking forward to it," he says. "I've also got another working visit to Israel lined up for February." Watch this space.
The Chuck Israels Trio, with Alec Katz on piano and Yonatan Rosen on drums, and with guest vocalist Simona Arones, will appear at Shablul Jazz Club at Tel Aviv Port on November 19 at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m., and at the Shuni Milestone club near Binyamina on November 20 at 9 p.m. Israels will also perform with local artists at Jerusalem's Yellow Submarine on November 17 at 9:30 p.m.