‘Jazz for my soul’

In this exclusive interview, Israeli jazz legend Shlomi Goldenberg tells all: The series of coincidences that almost didn't happen and how the Tel Aviv jazz scene would be totally different.

 SHLOMI GOLDENBERG gets into the jazz groove at the Boulevard Festival – International Jazz Day, Tel Aviv, 2014. (photo credit: PETER VIT)
SHLOMI GOLDENBERG gets into the jazz groove at the Boulevard Festival – International Jazz Day, Tel Aviv, 2014.
(photo credit: PETER VIT)

Shlomi Goldenberg will release his 13th album, Spiritual Light, on April 30, on International Jazz Day. 

A well-known Israeli saxophonist, composer, producer and lecturer, he is manager of Hasimta Jazz (Jazz Alley) Club in Tel Aviv and musical director of jazz at the Boulevard Festival.

In this exclusive interview with the Magazine, he shares everything that happened and how, if not for some coincidences in his life, it might not have happened at all; and how the jazz scene in Tel Aviv would be completely different.

Goldenberg has been surrounded by music since his early childhood. When he was four, he heard the opera Porgy & Bess when his father was practicing George Gershwin’s music at home. 

The second crucial encounter with Gershwin’s music was a few years later at his school, when he heard Sidney Bechet’s interpretation of Summertime. From that time, though still a child, he began to listen to jazz and collect records. 

 WITH THE writer at the Ginsburg historical musical instruments store. (credit: BASIA MONKA) WITH THE writer at the Ginsburg historical musical instruments store. (credit: BASIA MONKA)

But it wasn’t until his early twenties, when he followed an American girl to Seattle after falling in love with her at a kibbutz, that he started his jazz education. If not for love, music might have stayed just his hobby.

Fortunately for jazz enthusiasts, it became his profession.

Preparing for this interview, I listened to “Summertime” in the interpretation of Sidney Bechet from 1939; the one that opened the door of jazz to you as a child. The sound is incredible (it made my morning, so thank you for that), and I can imagine it was magical for the sensitive child you must have been.

Yes, this specific album of Sidney Bechet is what turned me toward jazz. It changed my life, that unbelievable sound. I was 10. My music teacher at a public school was giving us different records to listen to, usually of classical music: Rachmaninoff, Beethoven; that day it was jazz.

Many years later, when I was teaching a course on the history of jazz at Ben-Gurion University, I was looking for material about Gershwin and his music, and I came across the lead sheets (that’s how the jazz music was written originally, on large pieces of paper: piano parts, vocal parts and lyrics). 

Looking at them, I could remember my father playing the same music manuscripts of “Summertime” by George Gershwin in 1962. When the production [of Porgy and Bess] came to Israel and they hired my father, who was a classical pianist. He was practicing music at home.

… and you remember this?

I was too small to see the show, but I remember the music.

It entered your musical DNA. Your parents did not send you to a music school, however, you received a musical education. 

My father was, as I said, a pianist. My mother and stepfather were great enthusiasts of Baroque and classical music, so we heard a lot of classical music at home. I learned classical oboe, I took private lessons for eight years, and I also played drums. 

My mother, who came here as a child from Sieradz in Poland, before the State of Israel, was an entrepreneur. She did not encourage me to be a musician, but she said that if I would ever decide to become one, she will support me. I loved music, but I thought of it rather as a hobby, not a profession. I was more into mathematics.

You were raised in Old Jaffa (where now you run the Jazz Alley Club at Hasimta Theater), surrounded by the sounds of the Orient. But this music did not influence you as much as jazz did. Why is this, do you think?

Wow... this is a very good question. I think I was quite independent from the age of nine or 10. I started to buy records and I had pretty much decided that I love jazz since I heard that Sidney Bechet record.

And when did you decide to play the saxophone?

I used to be a drummer until my army service and having the classical training in oboe, I started to play jazz on the oboe.

This is not a very typical instrument to play jazz.

Yes, it’s unique. When I was almost done with the army, I decided that I wanted to get a saxophone and I bought a secondhand tenor saxophone.

Why tenor? If Bechet was your inspiration, why not a soprano, like he used to play?

Because the guy was selling a tenor one – the only one available at that time. I started to play saxophone with a blues band, without knowing how to play it. But, I decided that if I could play the oboe, I could also play the saxophone. Although, I did not know that I put the mouthpiece upside down. I learned about this only when I arrived in Seattle, sometime later.

That definitely had to affect the sound... I read there was a love story behind you moving to Seattle, you leaving Israel and the university. Is that true?

I was just after the army. I was 21 and did not really know what I was going to do. But at Kibbutz Amit, in the north of Israel, I met this beautiful American girl, a volunteer, and when she went back to the US, my heart was broken. I knew I must follow her.

Did she know about it? Sounds like a movie script…

Of course, we exchanged many love letters... In those days people were writing letters. But I was preparing for university studies in Israel, still. The night before my exam to the Academy of Music, there was a terrorist alert at the kibbutz. I spent the whole night at the guard post. 

The next day, after a sleepless night, when the professor asked me, is this: a C major or C minor, I could not hear anything, I was so exhausted, that I failed the exam (I am telling this for the very first time).

Soon, I got accepted to the computer science department at Tel Aviv University. But after two weeks of studies, I decided to reclaim my money and to go after my love to Seattle. The relationship did not survive, but I found the incredible music school there, Cornish College of the Arts. The greatest jazz musicians at the time were living in Seattle and were teaching at this school.

So the love for the woman shifted to the love for jazz and opened you to the possibilities you could not have in Tel Aviv, back then. Over there they told you how to switch the mouthpiece of the saxophone?

Yes [laughing], they did and almost immediately, I started to write my own music. You can guess in which room I wrote my first compositions.

It must be something related to Bechet or Gershwin.

It was called the Blue Room, dedicated to George Gershwin! I did not know much about music, but it was something meant to be and sometimes it is something very intuitive.

How would you describe the process of composing? What is happening?

It’s a methodical process. You need to put yourself in the state of mind, which for me is always like letting water come through… You just close your eyes and listen. Suddenly, the music will be there. I am doing it all these years.

What is the difference in the experience of playing your own music and someone else’s?

There is a great difference and this is a great question. When you play a standard, you can put your own feelings. It’s a matter of interpretation. It is less… of playing your own blood.

When I lived in the US, for almost 10 years (in Seattle, Boston and New York), I played mostly my own music. I never focus on playing the Great American Songbook (jazz standards of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and others). 

But when I came back to Israel in 1991 and I opened my first club, Uppercellar, right away I connected with the jazz radio station at the time, 88 FM, and one of their leading editors told me, “You should concentrate on Sinatra and Gershwin”.

So the public could refer to something that is already known?

Exactly. So, I decided to take her advice and half of the sessions I dedicated to jazz classics. I started to work a lot with singers. It was new to me. Each singer has her/his own musical range; they are limited in their range, but that gives a lot of space to individual interpretation. I had to learn all those songs in all the different keys. Only in some radio sessions – my original music.

Improvisation is a big part of jazz. But when you play your own music, obviously you don’t play by yourself, you play with a band. Do you let your fellow musicians find their way or do you have a specific sound you want to hear?

Well, you have very interesting questions. It really depends on the musicians I work with. In my band, The Little Big Band (still active, founded in 1985 in Boston), musicians are changing, but I had the privilege to play with the best. To name just a few: Bob Moses, Path Matheny, Gary Peacock and John Medeski. 

So with these great musicians, I wrote sketches of music and they just played. When the level of musicians is really great, you can open it up; their creativity leads the way to some great music.

You really play with the crème de la crème of the jazz world. But going back again to your time spent in the US, how did they accept the young Israeli?

It was amazing. I really felt admiration for my music. I just felt I was doing music. And after seven, eight years in the US, I became a little bit American.

It what sense?

I started to dream in English. The way I acted… I realized that when I got back.

And why did you return to Israel?

Again, it is one of these things that just happened. When I finished my MA at New England Conservatory of Music (my BA I did at the Berklee College of Music), my teacher wanted me to stay as his assistant. We wrote an application to the Immigration Office. While waiting for the answer, I took my band on a tour to Israel and unfortunately, or fortunately, the response was negative. So I said, “Maybe, it’s just for the best.”

You are very good at accepting rejection.

[Laughs] Yes, because I always believe there is something greater waiting. But, I really felt American when I came back. This is very interesting about the American culture. They really have acceptance of new ideas and all you have to do is prove your idea is good. When I came back to Israel, no one wanted to even look at my ideas.

But still, you managed to open your own jazz club in Tel Aviv.

I was around 30 years old. It was amazing. I had it for four years.

What was the jazz scene like back at the beginning of the ’90s? Now in Tel Aviv, I can easily think of at least three good clubs. How was it back then?

It was different. First of all, there was no Rimon School of Music at that time. Jazz was less popular. Maybe there was one place in 1992 that was playing jazz in Tel Aviv. But most places where they played jazz were pubs. You just had to buy a beer (not a ticket) and the jazz band was playing along. 

I really wanted to change that. I felt that people should be paid for their efforts and skills, for their music. So one of the reasons for opening a club, apart from promoting my music, was to promote jazz in general.

When did you establish the jazz club at Hasimta Theater in Jaffa?

In 2005 or 2006 the manager of Hasimta Theater called me and offered to try to do some jazz shows there.

Sixteen years later, I have just heard you playing there “My Funny Valentine” with the Carmel Big Band from Haifa, there. The club is vibrant. But besides managing the club, you also organize various jazz festivals and you are musical director of jazz at the Boulevard Festival. 

You just told me that you wanted to establish paid jazz shows in Israel, but this festival is open to the public for free. I have my own theory about jazz, that people either love it or don’t know it yet and you introduce jazz to a wider audience. How did it start?

Another funny story… Yedida Bar Zvi from the Tel Aviv Municipality contacted me with an unusual request. She said, [Tel Aviv Mayor] Ron Huldai plays flute, so let’s arrange 50 flutists who will walk down Dizengoff Street. That’s how it started [laughs].

But the project fell through and I was very mad because I put a lot of effort into it. Six months later, she called me again and said, “Let’s do jazz instead.” It’s already been 16 years for this, as well.

Jazz is the essence of your work, but you did not leave classical music completely. In your PhD, you combined both.

Also during my Master’s studies, I was in Israel for a year, where I studied symphonic orchestration. I wrote a composition called “Cool as Ice” for a symphonic orchestra and a jazz quartet.

So, I decided to go back to university (this time Bar-Ilan in Israel) and do a doctorate in composition. I also focused on both genres. My doctorate had two parts. One was an essay on two composers: Igor Stravinsky and Duke Ellington. Stravinsky was trying to write jazz (“Ebony Concerto”), and Ellington was trying to write classical (“Perfume Suite”). So I investigated those two pieces.

Did they ever meet?

Both pieces were premiered in Carnegie Hall in 1944. Obviously, they knew about each other, but I don’t know if they met. I actually never thought of it… They were very similar. They were bigger than life. The second part of my doctorate was a composition. I wrote for a classical string orchestra and a big band, and the narrator was reading the “Songs of Songs.”

Why after all these years of an amazing career was writing a doctorate (in 2016) important to you?

I think because I was bored of being a professional. I was working, I had so many students, but I realized I wasn’t doing anything for my soul. What I love the most is writing music and I decided maybe I should take time off from all these hectic actions.

During the last two years, the pandemic forced a break onto many of us. How did it affect you?

Corona was very challenging for me, but I discovered the possibilities of online connections with other musicians from all over the world. Nine of us recorded the song “Stay Positive.”

Unfortunately, this word doesn’t have positive connotations anymore…

Yes, it was funny. I recorded the song. I sent it to Tel Aviv Municipality and I said it could be the anthem of Tel Aviv. And they said: “Shlomi, being positive is very negative.” I said OK, but I want to stay positive. And during the lockdowns, every morning I went to my piano and started to write a new composition, and music came naturally.

In April 2020, I called my friend Tamir Miler and I said let’s work on something. I found my way to his house and worked together.

… and this is how your 13th album Spiritual Light was born. Will they be any singers, like in the jazz standards you played when you first came back to Israel?

Yes, my colleague and amazing singer Rinat Mesika also wrote some lyrics and my daughter, Inbar Goldenberg, will sing on this album. The album will be released on April 30, International Jazz Day.

Like many jazz fans, I am looking forward to your newest album and the celebrations of Jazz Day in Israel, in which you will also be involved. Thank you for talking with me. ■