UCLA launches Center for American Jewish Music

The center “has the potential to become a national leader in the exploration of Jewish music.”

Milken Archive of Jewish Music. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Milken Archive of Jewish Music.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
LOS ANGELES – UCLA has broken new ground with the establishment of the Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience, launched with a $6.75 million donation by the Milken Family Foundation.
The center “has the potential to become a national leader in the exploration of Jewish music,” Milken observed in an interview.
While a number of departments at American universities focus either on the academic study of music or prepare future performing artists, the UCLA center will be the first to combine both functions, plus public education, observed Marc Kligman, the director of the new center at the Herb Alpert School of Music.
Milken, who Worth magazine described as “one of America’s most generous philanthropists,” had previously founded the Milken Archive of Jewish American Music at UCLA.
Established in 1990, the archive holds more than 600 recordings, 200 oral histories and 50 albums, all documenting the Jewish contribution to American music, from the liturgical music of Sephardi immigrants during the colonial era through the hits of the Yiddish stage and the jazz, blues and rock eras.
Milken came to his love of music at an early age. When he was five or six years old, his father implanted in his son a lifelong love of music, initially with a devotion to jazz.
Unlike most of his young Jewish friends, young Lowell loved going to the synagogue and listening to the cantorial chants, he recalled.
What is “Jewish music”?
Kligman, himself, has a definition. Besides directing the new center, he serves as chairman and professor of Ethnomusicology, Kligman also holds the Mickey Katz Endowed Chair in Jewish Music and directs the Lowell Milken Fund for American Jewish Music. In addition, he is the author of five books, of which the most popular traces the Arab and Jewish influences in liturgical music.
“Jewish music,” he observed during an interview, “shows the vitality and vibrancy of Jewish life and represents new ways to explore American Jewry through its music.”
Not included in the definition of “Jewish music” are all the popular Christmas songs, predominantly composed by Jewish talent, from Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” to Mel Tormé’s “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.”
To reciprocate, some works by Catholic composers in the archive include Dave Brubeck’s ”Commandments” and Thomas Beveridge’s “Yizkor Requiem.”
Also absent from the “Jewish music” category are the compositions of George Gershwin, arguably the most popular Jewish American composer of all time, whose works are classified under “Popular Music.” However, observed Kligman, the long wailing clarinet solo which opens “Rhapsody in Blue,” shows the influence of Klezmer music.
From a different perspective, Eileen Strempel, dean of the Alpert School of Music, noted that the new Milken Center “will unite the academic and the artistic, showcasing the artists, scholars and educators who reveal to us our shared humanity and the inexhaustible call toward our noblest self.”
Lowell Milken graduated from the UCLA law school and went on to an international business career. He now is chairman of the National Reality Trust, the largest property owner of early childhood centers in the US, as well as London-based Heron International, a worldwide leader in property development. He is also a benefactor of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and of Ariel University in Israel.
A festive public inaugural for the opening of the new center had to canceled due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, although a home audience appreciated the streamed world premiere of the oratorio David’s Quilt, a concert work by 15 composers of different backgrounds and styles.
Once the all-clear is sounded, the center expects to celebrate its opening before a large, live audience.