Two Jews, One Was a Role Model

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, July 12, 2019 / 9 Tamuz 5779

Summary: Rabbi Kosak remembers a remarkable man who is forgotten in most circles, and wonders about the scoundrels who occupy the top news stories.

After a long and full week, I sat down to listen to some Jazz and enjoy a can of sparkling LaCroix water—the grapefruit or “Pamplemousse” is my favorite. I pulled out this amazing recording of Oscar Peterson playing—and recreating—the Cole Porter song book. This is an album of strong musicianship, and Peterson runs the keys on his piano with tremendous sensitivity, intelligence and elegant surprise. Ray Brown’s bass playing, meanwhile, is so expressive and anchors the piano even as it offers up a profound counterpoint.

The twelve numbers that make up the album were recorded on Verve.

Verve was once one of the great labels, and what made it great was a Jewish man named Norman Granz. That probably doesn’t mean too much to most people, but Granz is acknowledged as the greatest Jazz impresario of all time. Yes, he started five labels. Yes, he recorded the likes of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, Count Basie and countless others—the greatest names in America’s indigenous classical music.

But that’s not what made him great. His lasting legacy is that he treated jazz musicians as singular individuals worthy of respect. This at a time when the color line meant that black Jazz artists played to white houses. Granz would have none of that. He wouldn’t book his artists anywhere such bigotry existed. He flew them first class and put them up at top hotels. In 1944, he inaugurated JATP—Jazz at the Philharmonic, which raised this “negro music” to the highest level of consideration. It also allowed him to raise legal funds to defend Mexican-Americans who had recently been attacked by white servicemen, then improperly charged in the biased trials that resulted after the “Zoot Suit Riots” in the Los Angeles of 1943.

The most telling form of his respect for these musicians is that he got out of their way. Trumpeter Clark Terry once commented that “Norman gives us the greatest liberty a record producer can give a musician—the liberty to play what we want in the way we want to play it.” He didn’t try to shape the music to fit and exploit a musical trend. That liberty which he bequeathed on his artists produced a catalog of enduring and timeless music.

In the words of Roy Eldridge, “He made sure the cats got a decent living; he was the first to break down all that prejudice, he was the first to put the music up where it belongs. They should make a statue to that cat, and there’s no one else in the business end of this business I would say that about.”

A profound wave of emotion swept over me when I read that Eldridge quote in the album’s liner notes. This, after all, was the same week when we learned of the far darker legacy left by another Jew, Jeffrey Epstein. I lack words to describe my rage for the evil this man inflicted on innocent girls. The residue of brokenness and trauma that they must carry…I can only hope that the moral education we provide our youth at CNS is robust enough to fill them with a goodness strong enough to be proof against the worst of the world.

But that is the enduring mystery. How did two Jewish guys end up so differently? Was it parenting? Did one have greater exposure to the better parts of Jewish culture? Does real evil seek out the most corruptible souls, regardless of upbringing and background? Do some people repeatedly inflict their own trauma on others, unable to come to terms with their own troubled history of loss and pain?

All I can say in the face of such imponderables is that I am grateful to spend this Shabbat at Camp Solomon Schechter. I’m looking forward to it, and to having a break from the news of the world. I am anxious to absorb some of the energy and excitement and to hang out with the campers at play. Play is serious and deeply human work. It’s benefits to children’s cognitive, social and emotional growth and self-regulation is well documented. Play reminds us that trying to control all aspects of our lives is a fool’s mission, and that part of contentment is learning how to embrace the unexpected.

Play offers us more though. Whether the play occurs on a sports field, or in front of Oscar Peterson’s piano, it offers us the opportunity to live in spontaneous joy. That’s something the world, and all of us, could do with a bit more of these days. Here’s hoping you find yours!

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. Do you have an “unsung” role model who continues to inspire you? Who is this person?
  2. This week’s Torah reading is parashat Chukat, which outlines the strange ritual of the red heifer. The heifer must be without blemish, and yet it has been thousands of years since a red heifer has been found. In what ways do we still expect our role models to be without blemish? How tolerant of blemishes are you? What is the line between the acceptable and the unacceptable?
  3. This week in the Torah, Miriam also dies, and the well of water which sustained the Israelites dried up. Where do you turn to be sustained during times of hardship?

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