A native of South Africa, Saul Kaye was smitten by the sound of blues music at an early age
By MORDECAI SPECKTOR
Jewish musicians were prominent among the Americans and Brits who popularized blues music back in the ’60s. The late Mike Bloomfield, from Chicago, played with the renowned Paul Butterfield Blues Band (and on Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited album), then formed a group called the Electric Flag, which also featured Barry Goldberg and Harvey Brooks.
The electrified blues with horns concept was given new luster by a group called Blood, Sweat and Tears, which featured Al Kooper on keyboards. Recalling all of the Jews in blues would entail a lengthy article, or book; but, for an article in the Jewish World, Mark Naftalin, another Butterfield band alumnus, should be mentioned. The keyboardist — son of the late Minneapolis mayor Arthur Naftalin — moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he performed, recorded other artists, and produced concerts, radio shows and festivals.
“There’s a long list of Jewish musicians who played blues — and certainly jazz,” agreed Saul Kaye, who has recorded his own brand of “Jewish blues” on two albums.
Kaye will perform in concert Sept. 15 at the St. Paul JCC. A blues band comprised of Twin Cities musicians will back him.
Kaye spoke with the AJW last week from Petaluma, Calif., after a show.
“There’s no shortage in history of Jewish musicians playing the blues,” Kaye continued, and added, “I think that I’m really the first one to sort of coin the genre of ‘Jewish blues’.… It’s the style I’m playing; but also, I was going for a more organic weaving of the style and the fact that the blues comes from slavery.”
Thinking about the Jewish and African-American experiences of slavery provided the “initial impetus for the first record,” Jewish Blues, Volume 1, Kaye explained. “It just opened up this whole vast array of material. I’m fascinated by characters and character studies; and the Tanach is just rife with these incredible characters that had really hard times, which is what the blues is about often.”
Thoughtful and voluble, Kaye mentioned that, in addition to the first two albums in his patented genre, he has already recorded Jewish Blues, Volume 3, and written material for volumes 4 and 5. “I’m going to do 10 volumes — I want to have a minyan, a boxed set.”
“It’s just been a wild, unexpected ride,” said Kaye, regarding his musical career, which started in clubs and on campuses, and now involves mostly Jewish venues.
The Jewish Blues albums deal with the biblical Exodus story — a story of liberation that inspired slaves in the American South to seek their freedom — in such songs as “Go Down Moses,” “Sea of Reeds,” “Wade in the Water” and “Desert Blues.”
Kaye knows his way around a 12-bar blues on the guitar, and his expressive voice is well suited to telling stories that evoke lore of the Mississippi and Nile deltas.
“Jews know the pain of spiritual crisis and call to Hashem with their own form of blues,” Kaye writes on his Web site (saulkaye.com). “You can hear it in the synagogue when the Torah and the books of Prophets are read, chanted in tropes passed down through time, recounting forbearers’ sorrows on days of tragedy like Tisha B’Av, or remembering celebrations of freedom on Passover, when Jews recall the Israelites’ ‘Song at the Sea,’ as the waters of freedom parted.”
A native of South Africa, Kaye moved to the United States with his family as a youngster. “I came over here early enough to leave my accent on the plane,” he commented.
(Kaye mentioned traveling to the Twin Cities to attend a cousin’s Bar Mitzva at Temple of Aaron Synagogue in St. Paul. He added that his grandmother and an uncle, Dr. Peter Wilton, live here.)
At the tender age of 10, Kaye got a tape called Blues Classics, which delivered a dose of Percy Mayfield, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon. “I’d never heard anything like it,” he recalled. “I just couldn’t get enough of it.”
The budding blues boy also tuned into a Monday night radio show called The Blues Train. The exotic sounds of Robert Johnson, B.B. King and other blues practitioners kindled his ongoing interest in the music. “It left an indelible impression on my young spirit,” he wrote in his Web bio.
Traveling and performing across the country over 15 years, Kaye said that he has done some “shul hopping.” He moved to San Francisco in July, and davens at a nearby Chabad house and with the Mission Minyan, which, as its name suggests, meets in San Francisco’s Mission District. He also plays at services each month with a band at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo, Calif.; Kaye also is recording an album for the synagogue’s cantorial soloist, Elana Jagoda.
Kaye’s upcoming St. Paul JCC gig represents his current focus on the Jewish circuit.
“A few years ago I was just playing colleges, resorts, clubs, festivals; and now I rarely play a non-Jewish venue,” he said. “It’s for many reasons, but really one of them was that after achieving some success in the secular world, and the club circuit, at the end of the day, all you’re doing is selling alcohol. They don’t care what you play, how you sound, as long as you bring in people to drink. That’s what your job is, period.”
Kaye added that once he “started making music that had spiritual content, and wasn’t just about partying, it didn’t make sense to play those rooms anymore.”
He recalled playing a “great club,” the Torch Club, a Sacramento blues joint that dates back to 1934. The place was packed and everyone had a ball. However, the club owner told Kaye after the show, “We love your music, but your fans don’t drink enough.”
“That was kind of a deciding factor for me,” Kaye said.
Bluesman Saul Kaye and his band will kick off the St. Paul JCC Jewish Cultural Arts Season 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 15 at the JCC, 1375 St. Paul Ave. Tickets are $15 for JCC members; $20 for the community. For information, call 651-698-0751, or go to: stpauljcc.org.
(American Jewish World, 9.2.11)