Jews and Jazz

A longtime love story

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Marbin, a Chicago-based jazz fusion band on tour in St. Louis, Mo. (Credit: Marbin)

In 1922, the centennial anniversary we celebrate this year, jazz legend Louis Armstrong arrived in Chicago. His music would soon fill venues like Dreamland Cafe, Lincoln Gardens, Sunset Café, and Vendome Theatre. What many may not know is that Armstrong had strong Jewish influences in his life-most noticeable by the Star of David that hung around his neck- which inevitably played out in his music.

His longtime manager, Joe Glaser, was Jewish. Additionally, the Karnofskys, a Jewish Lithuanian immigrant family, employed Armstrong for their peddling business in his struggling New Orleans neighborhood. But they also often provided him meals, and even loaned him the money to buy his first instrument. Since Armstrong, many musicians have carried the jazz tradition forward.

The venues may have changed to Andy's, Jazz Showcase, and The Green Mill, but the sound of jazz, in all its complex and varying forms--be it modern jazz, free jazz, gypsy jazz, or jazz fusion--still pours onto the streets every weekend in Chicago. Jewish and Jew-ish jazz musicians make up part of the scene, adding their own elements to the style, which cannot always be separated from their Jewish background. 


Shared history of suffering

Howard Levy (harmonica, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones) explains, "Jews have their own blues." The Holocaust, the pogroms of Europe, forced migration to new and unfamiliar places, and antisemitism all serve to provide Jews with a shared history of suffering. The collective sorrow plays out in jazz, which is in part derived from the blues. Ted Sirota (drummer, Rebel Souls) references Stan Getz, who writes in his biography about the "Jewish moan" that can be heard in his music. Getz, an American saxophonist, helped popularize bossa nova, a combination of samba and American jazz, in the United States with his hit cover of "The Girl from Ipanema." 


The places to which Jews migrated  

Dani Rabin (guitarist, Marbin) and Danny Markovitch (saxophonist, Marbin) both agree that being Jewish, but even more so, being Israeli, influenced their jazz fusion style of music. They grew up with strong elements of Israeli folk music, which combined eastern Jewish music with classical music. A lot of the harmonic and melodic ideas in their song composition draw from that music just as much as from American jazz. Noah Plotkin (percussionist, Bowmanville, Imperial Boxmen) similarly mentioned that "spending a year in Israel defined the kind of musician [he] is today." As he traveled and met various musicians, he was "drawn towards the rhythms of Turkey and Morocco."  


Jewish tradition and emphasis on music education 

Boleszek Osinski (guitarist and trumpeter, La Tosca), says he was exposed to music in the Jewish and Polish traditions and that "his musical thread" comes from his maternal grandmother, a Holocaust survivor and self-taught musician. She encouraged his mom to study violin at the Paris Conservatory, emphasizing the importance of music education.  

Jon Nadel (bassist, Marbin and Jon Nadel Trio) also grew up in a family of musicians. While they focused on the classical style, Nadel fell in love with modern jazz, a style defined by the implementation of popular music rhythms coupled with the improvisation of jazz traditions. He was raised in the Jewish tradition, which also played a role. "I'm innately more comfortable playing certain scales because of hearing them in synagogue."  

Nadel is referring to the modes of harmonic minor that play over dominant chords, like the 5th mode of harmonic minor, also known as the 'Jewish scale' because of its use in " Hava Nagila ." "It's not a scale used exclusively in Jewish music though; it's found in gypsy jazz and in American Songbook, otherwise known as standards from the 20s, 30s and 40s," he explains.  

Armstrong helped imprint the sound of jazz on the hearts of Chicagoans, and a century later, Jewish musicians are among those to carry on the tradition. 


Check out the jazz-rock band Marbin at,, and 


Soraya Fata is a Chicago-based freelance writer and attorney. 

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