Our jazz roots

A beautiful new book takes a deeper look at the inception of Israel’s jazz scene.

Platina playing at the Tzavta theater in 1976 – including drummer Araleh Kaminsky and flute player Roman Kunsman (photo credit: AVRAHAM KABILIO)
Platina playing at the Tzavta theater in 1976 – including drummer Araleh Kaminsky and flute player Roman Kunsman
(photo credit: AVRAHAM KABILIO)
There is a saying in Hebrew that goes something along the lines of: “If it didn’t exist, someone would have had to invent it.”
That may sound a mite long-winded in translation, but it is certainly a saying that suits the publication of Yair Dagan’s Jazz in Israel: The First 50 Years.
The tome in question is a coffee table- proportioned work recently published by the 59-year-old Dagan, who has a daytime job in the hi-tech sector. He invested two years – and quite a few dineros – in making Jazz in Israel a corporeal and aesthetic reality, and his sweat and elbow grease have not gone to waste.
Dagan clearly mined numerous archives and many sources of original material.
While Israeli jazz is currently in burgeoning health, with our boys and girls regularly flying the improvisational musical flag across the globe, that is all a relatively recent development. For most local fans, the jazz scene starts with the founding of the Red Sea Jazz Festival in 1987 – if they remember that at all.
The titular half century to which Dagan refers begins way, way back, when the Brits ruled the roost here. The first chapter covers the 1930s through to 1950.
That is an expansive temporal slot, and there are numerous issues to be addressed from that era. It was a time when jazz was pilloried by the Nazi regime in Germany as being “degenerate”; coincidentally, the Israel Museum is currently running a fascinating exhibition of paintings also deemed by the Nazis to be unfit for public consumption. It was also a time when pre-state Palestine was temporary home to thousands of British soldiers who pined for the dance-oriented sounds of jazz from “Blighty.”
Dagan’s whole Jazz in Israel escapade began from home. “My son attended Thelma Yellin [High School of the Arts] and I’d suggest we go to a show by [British-born octogenarian saxophonist] Merton Cahm or to hear [Jerusalem-born trumpeter and saxophonist Orpheus] Mamelo [Giatanopolos] – he had no idea who I was talking about,” recalls Dagan. “That really frustrated me because these were my culture heroes.”
The man has a point. In simple terms, without the two said gents and their ilk, today’s Israeli jazz scene would probably be much the poorer, and it is fair to say that Dagan’s alma mater, which has a strong jazz department, would not have existed.
“I told my son I’d collect information about all those jazz artists and I started checking out what was around,” Dagan continues. “I started with the Facebook pages of the artists and I soon saw there wasn’t much material to be had. I checked out newspaper articles, and that wasn’t enough either.”
It was clearly time to dig deeper.
“I wondered when the whole jazz thing started in Israel,” says Dagan. As aforenoted, Israeli jazz aficionados who are, say, in their 40s, probably only go back as far as the start of the Red Sea Jazz Festival. Those of an older vintage, or with a more historical viewpoint, might even go all the way back to Mel Keller, the New York-born saxophonist and clarinetist who made aliya in the early 1950s and singlehandedly breathed new life into the close to brain-dead local jazz scene. He guided the initial improvisational steps of the first bona fide generation of Israeli players, such as pianist Danny Gottfried, who went on to found the Red Sea Jazz Festival; drummer Araleh Kaminsky; and saxophonist, flutist and clarinetist Albert Piamenta.
Dagan soon discovered that Keller had not invented the local jazz wheel.
“Mel Keller was an important milestone but, don’t forget that during the British Mandate jazz was the pop music of the day.
There was no rock and roll. There was jazz.”
Dagan sets the scene of yesteryear in succinct and sumptuous fashion in the first chapter, with delightfully evocative shots of the wonderfully titled Palestine Police Syncopated Orchestra, taken in the late 1930s and in the mid-1940s. We are introduced to key figures of the nascent jazz scene in pre-state Palestine, such as the first conductor of aforementioned ensemble, a British Jew called Aubrey Silver, and compatriot co-religionist clarinetist and dance bandleader Harry Roy.
The buzz of yore evoked by the photographs is complemented by a vast collection of posters, programs, newspaper ads and articles in English and Hebrew.
In March 1943, for example, The Palestine Post – the forerunner of this publication – ran a review of “an unusually entertaining concert” by the R.A.D. No. 1 Command Band overseen by Frank Cordell, a British bandleader who was dispatched here during World War II in an effort to keep the troops’ spirits up. The review closes by noting that the band was “now touring Syria and Palestine.”
Interestingly, as the seat of Mandatory power, Jerusalem was the cultural center of the era. Shows took place at numerous venues around town, including the Talpiot restaurant-bar at 11 Ben-Yehuda Street, and the Queen’s club at 12 Princess Mary Avenue (now Shlomzion Hamalka Street). There was also plenty of jazzy derring-do on offer in Tel Aviv and Haifa.
The British players soon inspired local artists to try their hand at the dance music entertainment skills. These principally include Eric Teich and his Israeli Air Force Orchestra, Naftali Aharoni and Haim Alexander.
The local jazz arena lost much of its sheen after the departure of the Brits, although foreign stars such as pianist-vocalist Hazel Scott, vibraphonist-pianist- drummer Lionel Hampton and iconic trumpeter-singer Louis Armstrong all made it over to the Holy Land in the 1950s. In 1956 the country’s first jazz club opened at ZOA House in Tel Aviv, and the above foreign luminaries, and many more, all played there.
Jazz in Israel is neatly, and naturally, arranged in chronological order, and Dagan lovingly unfurls the evolving growth of the Israeli jazz continuum through the decades up to 1980, with each time slot divided between the local leading lights and their illustrious visiting colleagues.
Importantly, Dagan even finds room to note the trailblazing efforts of some of the pioneers of the avant-garde community here, including American-born reedman Stephen Horenstein and maverick South African-born clarinetist Harold Rubin.
As fascinating and alluring as the visual aesthetics of Jazz in Israel: The First 50 Years may be, jazz also needs to be heard and Dagan has peppered his weighty tome with links to You Tube and other Internet and non-virtual sources, as well as a list of important numbers. It is a book that should be savored.