The dissolution of Israel's Hed Big Band jazz ensemble strikes a painful chord with its members.

Jazz band (photo credit: )
Jazz band
(photo credit: )
Sixty-two-year-old Mikhail Heybudin considers himself lucky. Employed full time as a handyman at the Hed College of Contemporary Music in Tel Aviv, the former Ukrainian has an aversion for romanticizing the past, when he too made music - back when he was somewhat of a star. Heybudin was not always a handyman. A lifetime ago he was a gifted trombonist, rising in the ranks of the Ukrainian Army's marching band to ultimately conduct it. After the army, he studied at a prestigious music academy and graduated with two degrees in musicology, taking up a teaching position there. He played in several orchestras in the Ukraine and became assistant manager of one of them. But in the past several years Heybudin did something very few musicians from the former Soviet Union ever dreamed they would get to do: he made aliya and played the bass trombone in an Israeli big band jazz ensemble. "There was some jazz in the USSR, especially in the big cities," says Heybudin, but mostly "we had to listen to it in secret." Heybudin, together with three dozen other musicians, mostly from the FSU, comprised the members of what was, until just a few weeks ago, Israel's longest-running big band jazz ensemble: the Hed Big Band. Since its inception in 1991 the band was a miniimmigrant absorption ministry for Russian musicians. The band even had a reputation in the FSU. One of its members is said to have gone straight to a rehearsal after landing at Ben-Gurion Airport as a new immigrant. Performing for the past 18 years here and abroad, the band was a unique Israeli cultural and social institution and a frequent cultural export that managed to carve out a niche in the local music scene. The band was made up of 18 musicians and six technical crew. Its repertoire ranged from Duke Ellington, Elton John, Freddy Mercury, Yoni Richter and Nomi Shemer to more eclectic fare such as Beduin songs and much Jewish influence. But last week, after a long and fruitless battle to secure funding, the band's manager shut down operations after hemorrhaging financial losses over time. Now most of the band's musicians are unemployed. Some, in what has become a cliché of failed absorption of many talented immigrants from the FSU, are sweeping streets, while others make do with other odd jobs. Some have managed to find part-time gigs at weddings and corporate functions, and a few have found teaching jobs. While the new reality is tough for the musicians, the band's demise is even tougher on its musical director Yehuda Cohen, who created the band 18 years ago, was its conductor, composed for it, funded it out of his own pocket when government and corporate sponsorship ran out and, when that wasn't enough, used money from the budget of the Hed College of Contemporary Music of which he is the director. "In 18 years I never missed a salary payment to any of the musicians," he says. The band would rehearse three times a week; the average monthly wage of the band members was NIS 2,000. "It's not a real salary, and even that I can't afford anymore," laments Cohen. The average wage for a band musician is NIS 4,000 or NIS 5,000 a month. Realizing he was funneling too much of his college's finances, as well as his own money, to save the band, Cohen had no choice but to disband the group. Last week he called in the band members to tell them that the show was over. He promised them full severance pay, wished them good luck, and vowed to do all he could to find the money to reconstitute the band. In the meantime, he found jobs for three of the members at the Hed College, one of whom is Heybudin. "It was hard. We were always struggling for money and everyone knew that, but in the past year it got much worse," says Heybudin. "Yehuda loves the band; he's a fanatic." The bitter-sweet soundtrack of the Hed Big Band, Israel's answer to Duke Ellington and Count Basie, was always tinged with a plaintive minor key, inaudible to the generations of audiences who tapped their feet to the upbeat sounds of the 18-piece jazz band playing the songs of the American greats. Sitting beneath an array of diplomas and certificates on the walls of his small office, Cohen is visibly agonized, recalling the many times he tried to get government and corporate sponsors to adopt the band. His agony slips into anger when he speaks of the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, which "failed the new immigrants" in the band [and their families]; the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Science, who "make it almost impossible to get any funding for anything," and Israel's business moguls, who love to attend the band's shows, shower praise on the musicians, and make "grandiose promises for funding that end up as nothing but lies." Ultimately, Cohen had to let go of his beloved band to save his college. He established the Hed College of Contemporary Music and the Hed Big Band to complement each other. Students at the college were required to collaborate with the band, composing tunes, performing as guests, and working on technical production of performances and recordings. "One of the main reasons I established the college was to create an interdisciplinary academic process in which musicians learn everything they need to make it in the music business. Our first goal was to change the image of a musician as someone who just creates and can't manage his or her own affairs," Cohen tells The Jerusalem Post. "The nice thing was that the professional musicians, who have been doing it for 30 and 40 years and who played with the best orchestras in Russia, were happy to collaborate with a 22-yearold Israeli music student." Cohen used funds from the school's budget to finance the band, but never to the detriment of the college. The rest he tried to get from government and private sponsors. Despite the lack of interest by the latter, Cohen believes there is a market for big band jazz music in Israel. But even if such a niche exists, it's unlikely that the void left by the band's departure will be filled by anything as big and formal as Hed. Other Israeli jazz funk groups such as the Apples (some of whom are Hed College graduates) and the Oy Division (mixing klezmer with jazz), whose members are young Israelis and whose sound is more nuanced and popular with the younger audiences, have made massive strides into the Israeli music scene, filling stadiums and churning out albums. Some musicians interviewed said they wouldn't miss the Hed Big Band, saying it was more a "place where amateur musicians got jobs," not an important musical group. For Cohen, the band's dissolution is the end not only of a personal dream but also of a patriotic mission he started 18 years ago in the town of Yehud. "I wanted to instill the big band jazz tradition into Israel. It was also an opportunity to perform a Zionist act by absorbing some of the new immigrants from the FSU. They couldn't hear jazz on public radio there, so they had to listen to it in secret. They would write down the notation they heard of the songs from listening to the music. So if they heard a Glen Miller song, they wrote down each separate band member's notation and built it up that way," says Cohen. What really upsets Cohen is that the government repeatedly missed the opportunity to use the band for important national activities. The band was a regular cultural export over the years, fostering strong ties to communities in America, especially African-American communities, religious leaders, and jazz musicians. The band also performed in schools around the country, where the musicians would explain jazz to the students in an attempt to develop the style here. "I thought this educational activity was one of the most important undertakings we did as a band," Cohen says. "Now some of the musicians are playing in the streets next to an overturned hat, looking for a few shekels. This is the State of Israel, and this is the kind of assistance that is given here. The Israeli symphony gets NIS 10 million a year, and we got only NIS 350,000 to keep the band going," he says. Cohen says that the band was successful, "But you must understand that there is no such thing as a selfsustaining, money-making jazz band. There isn't one artistic group in the world that is a closed financial system. Every group, from the NY Philharmonic to the Berlin Opera, is funded from various sources. For years I waited for someone to come and say they wanted to fund the band. For the past year and a half we haven't received any money from the Ministry of Culture, and I've had to take bank loans to pay salaries," says Cohen. "We're not looking for charity or gifts; we want to perform for the people," he says, adding that it would be so easy for corporate sponsors to fund an in-house jazz band. For Cohen, the band's dissolution is not about money, it's about professional pride. "The musicians have been crushed; they've been forced to take jobs as street sweepers - which is fine; every job is respectable. But on the Hed stage, I gave them a chance to prove that being a musician is a worthy profession. Now that it's over, not only is their livelihood gone but so is their sense of pride in their chosen profession. When I see one of my saxophonists busking at the Nahalat Binyamin market [in Tel Aviv] to get a few shekels a day, my heart bleeds." For more of Amir Mizroch's articles, see his personal blog Forecast Highs