Thursday, May 30, 2013

Jewish American Composers for the Stage and Screen

American popular music owes much to the music of Broadway, and then later to the film industry, and these genres owe a huge debt to Jewish American composers, past and present.  From the 1910s to the 2010s, Jewish composers have been shaping the theatrical experience behind-the-scenes.  Even with major "talent" in the footlights, the music is the true star of the Broadway musical, and in some cases the music of film.  What would Hitchcock's "Psycho" be without the screeching of violins in the famous shower scene?

Jerome Kern (1885-1945) composed the music for Show Boat (1927), one of the first true musicals of Broadway, and one of the first musicals translated to the big screen (1936).  The show's most famous song, Old Man River, was sung by Paul Robeson

Irving Berlin (1888-1989) was a mature songwriter by the time sound was added to motion pictures, so he naturally became one of the first composers for films.  He also wrote the lyrics for many of his songs.  His film musicals include hits such as Top Hat, Easter Parade and Holiday Inn, which features one of his biggest hits, White Christmas.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) began his career as a classical composer in the romantic style, then composed for many films, and ended his career as a concert composer.  Coming to the U.S. to compose music for The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn, saved him from Nazi aggression in Austria.  He remained in the U.S. and became a citizen in 1943. He won an Academy Award for best film score for the film.

Harold Arlen (1905-1986), the son of a cantor, was the genius behind the music for The Wizard of Oz and seven of the songs for A Star is Born (1954), also with Judy Garland.

Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975) collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock on such classic films as
  • The Man Who Knew Too Much
  • North by Northwest
  • Psycho
  • Vertigo
  • He also composed the music for Citizen Kane, Cape Fear, and Fahrenheit 451.

    Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) is known primarily for his years conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, but he also composed the music for one of the most iconic stories of Broadway and film, West Side Story.

    Elmer Bernstein (1922-2004, no relation to Leonard Bernstein) was a prolific composer of diverse film scores, including Cecile B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments, The Magnificent Seven, To Kill a Mockingbird, True Grit, My Left Foot, and Airplane!, as well as some television music and the classic short film, Toccata for Toy Trains.

    Stephen Sondheim (1930-) is one of the most successful musical theatre composers of recent times.  He wrote the lyrics for West Side Story, and he wrote both lyrics and music for the following: 

    Alan Menken composed the music for some of Disney's most recent films as well as several others.  His hits include Sister Act and Little Shop of Horrors (also for Broadway) and for Disney: Aladdin, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Beauty and the Beast

     Stephen Schwartz has written the music and lyrics for such diverse shows as Godspell, Wicked, Pippin and Disney's Pocahontas.



    John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, both Jewish, collaborated on some of the best kown modern musicals, including Cabaret.

    Monday, May 20, 2013

    Jewish American History Month: Jews in Jazz

    Jazz is the quintessential American musical form, developed by African Americans in New Orleans and popularized through recording and radio.  Musician of other ethnicities have also contributed to the art, including many Jews:

    Woody Allen, actor, director, and avid amateur jazz clarinetist.  He plays the New York clubs when he's not busy with his film career.

    Herb Alpert, (b. 1935) is a famous trumpet player and crossover artist best known for his hits with the Tijuana Brass (none of whom were Mexican!)

    Brecker Brothers (Randy, b. 1945 and Michael, 1949-2007)  Trumpeter Randy and sax man Michael have been two of the most influential musicians of the late twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first.  They have performed with each other as The Brecker Brothers and have collaborated with the leading musicians of our time.

    Harry Connick, Jr. (b. 1967), pianist and crooner, is the son of an Irish-American father and Jewish-American mother.  He won a Grammy award for his work on the soundtrack to When Harry Met Sally, establishing him as America's top jazz vocalist.

    Sammy Davis, Jr., one of the famed "Rat Pack" Las Vegas crooners, converted to Judaism after a near-fatal car wreck.

    Leonard Feather  (1914 - 1994) wrote reference books and was also a performer and songwriter.

    Béla Fleck  (b. 1958), banjo player, is the leader of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones.

    Stan Getz
    Stan Getz, (1927 - 1991), played tenor sax with a suave, cool sound.  His is best known for his Latin-themed recordings including his collaboration with João Gilberto on the song,"The Girl from Ipanema."

    Garry Giddins (b. 1948) is a writer who has covered jazz for decades in The Village Voice.  His books cover all of jazz history and include biographies of great jazz artists.

    Benny Goodman
    Benny Goodman (1909 - 1986) was the leader of the Benny Goodman Orchestra, one of the leading big bands of the 1930s and 1940s.  He was also an accomplished soloist on the clarinet.

    Norman Granz (1918-2001) was an influential producer, who helped the cause of civil rights through jazz.

    Nat Hentoff (b. 1925) is a prolific writer about jazz and civil rights.  Well into his 80s, he continues to contribute a column to Jazztimes.  He has written several books and penned the inserts for many recordings.

    Harry James (1916-1983) was the featured trumpet soloist with the Benny Goodman Orchestra and then started his own band with a young Frank Sinatra as his lead singer.  He is still revered today for his impeccable tone and virtuosic technique.

    Kenny G
    Kenny G (b. 1956) is the top-selling jazz instrumentalist of our time.  His soprano sax solos are the epitome of the "smooth jazz" style.  He is also known for his unique off-center embrochure.

    Lee Konitz  (b. 1927) has played alto sax as a soloist and with almost every famous jazz musician of the past 60 years.

    Mel Lewis
    Mel Lewis (1929 - 1990) was drummer and co-leader of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, then performed weekly at the Village Vanguard after Jones' departure.

    Herbie Mann (1930 -2003) fused jazz with world music, especially Latin rhythms.  He was a popular crossover artist and one of the few artists of any style to perform regularly on the flute.

    Buddy Rich (1917-1987) was one of the best drummers of history, starting out in the big band era and continuing his career as a leader.  He frequently appeared on television during the 1960s and 1970s.

    Artie Shaw
    Artie Shaw (1910-2004, born Abraham Arthur Arshawsky) was a clarinetist and bandleader of the Big Band Era who also wrote short stories and studied mathematics.

    Mel Tormé (1925 - 1999) was a singer nicknamed "The Velvet Fog" for his smooth vocal tone.  His best-known song is "The Christmas Song" (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire).

    Paul Whiteman (1890 - 1967) was one of the first bandleaders, leading record sales in the 1920s when bands were still called "dance bands."  His band backed Paul Robeson's famous recording of Ole Man River.

    Friday, May 10, 2013

    May is Jewish American Heritage Month

    What would American music be without the Jewish composers who helped define it?  Many of American's most famous and innovative composers are of Jewish heritage, thought not necessarily religious.  Several were also New Yorkers who both inspired and were inspired by the creativity of the country's largest and most creative city.  Others came to the United States to escape Nazi Germany and the freedom the found here.
    Milton Babbitt  (1916 - 2011) Composer of electronic music.  His famous essay, "Who Cares if you Listen," defined the rarified experimentalist atmosphere of midcentury composition within academia.
    Leonard Bernstein
    Leonard Bernstein's (1918 - 1990) recasting of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet as a battle between ethnic groups in New York is the famous West Side Story.  He conducted the New York Philharmonic for many years and appeared in a series of televised Young Peoples Concerts for children.

    Aaron Copland

    Aaron Copland's (1900 - 1990) "Appalachian Spring" is perhaps the quintessential sound of Americana.  He collaborated with dance troupes and frequently conducted his own works with orchestras around the country.

    Jacob Druckman (1928 - 1996) worked in electronic music as early as the 1950s, long before digital audio workstations were a compositional commonplace!

    Morton Feldman (1926 - 1987) is known for his work in indeterminacy, or chance music

    Leo Ornstein (1893 - 2002) was born in Russia then migrated to the Lower East Side.  He pioneered the tone cluster, close-knit groups of notes with a harsher sound than traditional chords.
    Leo Ornstein

    Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) was an Austrian Jew who migrated to California when Hitler rose to power in 1933.  His twelve-tone serial technique ushered in a new era of musical aesthetics, and would have been suppressed by the Nazis.  In California he was free to develop it further and teach it to others.  His influence is still felt and heard today.

    Morton Subotnick (1933 - ) was a pioneer of multimedia and electronic music in San Francisco.

    Kurt Weill
    Kurt Weill (1900 - 1950) trained as a classical composer in Germany, and fled to the United States because of Nazi persecution.  He embraced the musical theatre style of his adopted country.

    John Zorn (1953 - ) blends popular music genres with classically-derived forms in experimental music.  He has also composed film scores.