Earl Hines, Billy Eckstine, Art Blakey, Stanley Turrentine, Ahmad Jamal, George Benson — from the earliest days of jazz, Pittsburgh has contributed some of the biggest and brightest stars of the genre. Whether it was hot jazz, big band, bop, hard bop or smooth jazz, the clubs that populated the Hill District and East End, the North Side and downtown incubated names that became synonymous with the art form.
While there is no question that jazz is primarily an African American form of expression, other minority and immigrant communities have contributed to the development of what has been called “America’s classical music.” Jewish songwriters and band leaders have written and performed some of the best-known songs in the jazz catalog. Indeed, without the contributions of artists like George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Benny Goodman and Buddy Rich, the landscape of jazz and the Great American Songbook would sound very different today.
David Fabilli, known to Pittsburgh jazz fans as David Jaye, has produced more than a dozen albums and written liner notes for artists such as David “Fathead” Newman, Kenny Blake and Jimmy Ponder. He feels that there is a connection between the genre and Jewish American musicians.
“When you look at the Jewish tradition, you can’t miss some of those notes and intervals and some of the rhythms that are in it — they’re woven in there. It’s huge. You look at the songwriters, the players, the band leaders — the influence was pervasive. What was so attractive to Jewish Americans and Israeli American musicians is not only did jazz have the magnetism and draw of the music, but it had the draw of the American freedom of speech, the freedom of expression. I think that’s probably why today’s Israeli musicians — Avishai Cohen, Yotam Silberstein, all these great players — are attracted to it. It’s not just expressive, it’s self-expressive.”
Perhaps the best-known contemporary Pittsburgh Jewish jazz musician is guitarist Ken Karsh. Karsh has been playing guitar since the age of 9 and attended both the Berklee College of Music and Duquesne University. He counts Pittsburgh legend Joe Negri as one of his early instructors. When Karsh isn’t gigging at the various clubs dotting Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods, he can be heard in musicals like “Grease” and “Fiddler on the Roof” staged by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.
Speaking of the influence his Jewish heritage has had on his music, Karsh said it’s one piece of the puzzle rather than a guiding force.
“There’s always a connection,” he said. “Is it religious? No, not really. It will have an impact, though, on any music I come up with.”
This is especially true for him when it comes to klezmer music, including one of his biggest influences, Argentinian klezmer clarinetist Giora Feidman.
“If there’s any kind of connection, it’s to klezmer music. I listen to it today because I have that connection. There also may be some Jewish influence from the Broadway shows I’ve done. Certainly, no doubt, ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’”
This fall, Karsh has a number of shows on his schedule, including gigs with John Burgh’s Jazz Allstars on Sept. 14, at the Washington Jazz Society on Sept. 15 and at the Mt. Lebanon Artists Market on Sept. 21. (A complete list of performances can be found at kenkarshguitar.com.)
To see another Pittsburgh Jewish jazz guitarist’s work, albeit of a different kind, pick up the recent book “Narrative Complexity: Cognition, Embodiment, Evolution,” out from University of Nebraska Press, to which Martin Rosenberg contributed the chapter “Jazz as Narrative: Narrating Cognitive Processes Involved in Improvisation.” Despite the heady content, Rosenberg, a well-known Pittsburgh scholar of science, philosophy and the arts, doesn’t take himself too seriously: “I’m not a real guitarist,” he said. “I just play one on TV.”
The humility is misleading. The guitarist-composer has had a standing gig at Riley’s Pour House for five years and also performs occasional shows at Elwood’s Pub, BackStage Bar, Wallace’s Whiskey Room Kitchen, playing with well-known Pittsburgh names like Mark Strickland and Don Aliquo. But playing jazz, for Rosenberg, is always in service to his scholarship.
“With jazz, you’re dealing with complex processes involving a number of people and unpredictable behavior,” he said. Order emerges spontaneously — “much like it does in nature.”
This fall will also see at least one non-local Jewish jazz musician bring her talents to the Pittsburgh area when the City of Asylum’s 15th Annual International Jazz Poetry Festival welcomes pianist Mara Rosenbloom and the Flyways on Sept. 13. The native New Yorker performed at the Shadow Lounge almost a decade ago.
Rosenbloom grew up going to a Reform temple and isn’t sure how much the Jewish melodies influenced her work, though “singing, dialogue and critical thinking were all important things reinforced by it, as well as installing the importance of ritual in my life. I think it’s something important in an artist’s life, if not everyone’s life. Maybe that connects directly to this group. The name of the band is Flyways, which are the patterns of migratory birds, so there’s an element of that. What are these pathways and cycles we go through, year after year, and how do we navigate them together and continue to make these same journeys every year?”
The pianist and her group will perform a piece by the Jewish poet Adrienne Rich, “I Know What I Dreamed,” which they set to music, as well as collaborations with poets Roy Guzman, Natalie Scenters-Zapico, Corrine Jasmin and Toi Derricotte. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at drullo@