Pianist Les Block will present a show of music and history following Or Emet’s Humanistic Shabbat service on May 6
By ERIN ELLIOTT BRYAN / Community News Editor
A portion of the song “Holiday Mambo” by Machito and His Afro-Cubans uses the melody from “Hava Nagila.” The basis for Benny Goodman’s “And the Angels Sing” was “Frailach in Swing” by Goodman’s trumpeter Ziggy Elman. And Jacob Jacobs and Sholem Secunda’s “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” became a hit for the Andrews Sisters with the rewritten English lyrics, “By Me, You Are Beautiful.”
Most popular music from what is known as the Great American Songbook does not borrow that overtly from Yiddish and Hebrew melodies. But, as pianist Les Block explains, many of the most beloved American songs have roots in early Jewish music.
“I got very interested in this,” Block told the AJW. “I started looking into which songs that became popular American songs came out of or were influenced by the music that these [songwriters] heard as kids. Irving Berlin’s father was a cantor. The guy who wrote ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow,’ Harold Arlen, his father was a cantor. And some of them attended services; they were listening to chants.”
Block will present “From the Shtetl to Broadway: The Jewish Roots of American Popular Song” 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 6 in the auditorium at the Sabes JCC. The program, which is hosted by Or Emet, will be preceded by a short Humanistic Shabbat service at 7 p.m. It is free and open to the public.
Block will be joined by singers Heidi Ziman and Momoko Tanno.
- Les Block and Heidi Ziman (Photos: Courtesy of Les Block)
Block grew up on Cherry Street, in a Jewish and Italian neighborhood on the Lower East Side of New York — the same street on which Berlin lived. Around the age of five or six, Block began to pick out notes on the piano and started taking lessons.
He attended the High School of Music and Art in New York, now part of the LaGuardia School of the Arts, from 1948-1952. He began performing swing and jazz, the “music of the day,” as a junior in high school.
But it wasn’t until he was required to take a music appreciation class in college that he learned the far-reaching influence of Jews on the entertainment industry.
“We had this teacher, who was not Jewish but he loved American popular songs, and he said something like ‘If it weren’t for the Jewish songwriters, we wouldn’t have the kinds of songs we have, because the vast majority of those people were, or are, Jewish,’” Block said.
Block presented a program for Or Emet about two years ago that was dedicated to those Jewish writers and composers. Though Jews wrote most of the songs featured in this new show — informally known as “Act II” — the focus will be on the Jewish musical influence.
“We’re not repeating ourselves, this is something we haven’t done before,” Block said.
Block said the program will include about 15-20 songs that will be performed by Ziman and Tanno. He will provide the accompaniment and offer commentary about the music’s origins.
- Momoko Tanno
Margo Fox, president of Or Emet, said that Block’s first show attracted more than 100 people.
“A lot of people didn’t know that so much of our music has Jewish roots,” Fox told the AJW. “It wasn’t supposed to be Act I and Act II, it was supposed to be a [single] program, but there just wasn’t time to do it all. There was just so much material.”
Fox’s husband, David, said that he is “surprised all the time” to discover songs that were composed by Jews.
“This is where Les Block is like an encyclopedia,” he said. “This is about learning, in a more profound way, about the Jewish influence on American culture.”
Fox said the program will be a way for members of the community to get a sense of what Or Emet is. Block has “a very strong feeling for what they’re trying to do” and this show, his third for the congregation, fits Or Emet’s focus on Jewish culture and identity.
“They’re going to hear great songs, great talent,” Block said. “I think it will be informative and they’ll learn something about the history of the music business and the people that were in it. It will just be good entertainment.”
Les Block, with Heidi Ziman and Momoko Tanno, will present “From the Shtetl to Broadway: The Jewish Roots of American Popular Song” 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 6 in the auditorium at the Sabes JCC, 4330 Cedar Lake Rd. S., St. Louis Park.
The program, which is hosted by Or Emet, will be preceded by a short Humanistic Shabbat service at 7 p.m. It is free and open to the public.
For information, call 651-699-6302, e-mail: email@example.com or visit: www.oremet.org.
(American Jewish World, 4.15.11)