A mainstream embrace

Master jazz clarinetist Harold Rubin is finally riding the avant garde music wave and receiving Israel's Landau Award.

music note 88 (photo credit: )
music note 88
(photo credit: )
They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks - not that Harold Rubin is old. Approaching his 76th birthday, the South African born master jazz clarinetist, raconteur, poet and painter displays boundless energy and an irrepressible zest for his craft. "I am not serious about too many things," he confesses, "but I am serious about my music and my art." That is evident from his growing output of albums - 12 to date. Despite being on the fringes of the mainstream for the past four decades, he is finally achieving recognition for his creative efforts. Tomorrow Rubin will receive the Landau Award for his jazz endeavors at a ceremony to be held at the Suzanne Delal Center in Tel Aviv. The award, funded by Mifal Hapayis (the State Lottery) and worth NIS 50,000, has been a long time coming. Rubin moved here from his native Johannesburg in 1963 full of ideas to further his musical career. "I'd played swing jazz in dance bands in South Africa, but then I started getting into the so-called avant garde, free jazz thing." These days there are jazz festivals, series and concerts galore up and down the country and around the calendar. But, back in the early 1960s, the local jazz scene was still in its infancy. "There were guys like Mel Keller, Danny Gottfried and Areleh Kaminski around, and there were a few venues like Beit Lessin on Rehov Mazeh [in Tel Aviv]," Rubin recalls, "but they didn't get what I wanted to do." Frustrated by the lack of like-minded players around Rubin gave up music all together for 12 years and worked in his chosen daytime profession, as an architect. "I never took my clarinet out of its case. I wasn't excited by the music that was being played here back then." However, he maintained his artistic endeavors in other fields. "I was asked to give some classes at the Bezalel arts school." It was there that he came across Oswaldo Romberg, head of the arts department who, it transpired, was a keen amateur jazz trumpeter. Before long, Rubin was taking his clarinet with him to Jerusalem. "After we'd finished teaching we'd have a jam session somewhere," says Rubin. "It was great fun." It also rekindled Rubin's desire to renew his musical explorations. "One thing led to another, and I got back into playing." Rubin was soon making the most of his spare time to polish up his clarinet playing. "I'd hear him playing scales when I got up to go school and he'd still be playing scales when I got home in the afternoon," says Rubin's daughter Yasmin, who just finished three years' work on a documentary about her father which was funded by the Second Broadcasting Authority. In the 1980s Rubin founded the Zaviyot jazz band together with British born Mark Smulian, and American guitarist Tommy Balman and drummer Reuven Hoch. The band played at all the major events here for seven years, including the inaugural Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat in 1987. However, they disbanded when Hoch returned to his native New York. Hoch was in town last week for a brief visit during which Zaviyot performed at the Levontin 7 music venue in Tel Aviv and the band spent a few hours in a recording studio. "I don't know how it all came out," says Rubin, "but it would be nice if we could make a CD out of it." Considering Rubin's checkered past, his acceptance "into the fold" with the Landau Award, is somewhat ironic. Back in South Africa he often risked the wrath of the apartheid regime by playing jazz with black musicians in the Sophiatown township near Johannesburg. "We'd pay some kid a few pennies to keep a watch for the law," Rubin recalls. "If the police got close, I'd jump off and hide under the stage." Once, one of Rubin's paintings got him into serious trouble. "It was a picture of Jesus which had just a hint of an erection. The writing on the painting said: 'I forgive you O Lord, for you know not what you do.' That was just at the time when the apartheid authorities were getting very strict about Christianity and religion." A lengthy trial ensued, but luckily Rubin was exonerated. He moved to Israel shortly afterwards. After so long spent on the margins of public acceptance, Rubin feels gratified both by the currently flourishing avant garde music scene and by the award itself. "There are lots of people - like [bassist] Jean Claude Jones and [saxophonist] Yonnie Silver - who are doing very good things with experimental music these days. And, yes, I'm happy about the award. Maybe they thought I was getting on and they'd better hurry up and give me a prize. Anyway, I would be very disappointed if I didn't have some money to pay for my funeral."