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Roy Nathanson and Radical Jewish Culture

Marty Roth
January 17, 2018

by Marty Roth


There is a life of tradition that is not just about conservative preservation, about the constant continuation of the spiritual and cultural goods of a community. There is also something like a treasure hunt in the tradition that establishes a living relationship with tradition and that is committed to much of what is best in contemporary Jewish consciousness--even if it is expressed outside the orthodox framework.  --Gershom Scholem


THE MID-1980s music and theater scene in New York’s Lower East Side was located at clubs like The Knitting Factory, a hotbed of creativity (and gay liberation) that was devoted to experimental music and performance art. The slogan for the club was “Downtown is more than a zip code -- it’s also a state of mind.”

After years of sponsoring subversive Jewish bands and events (like the annual Jewsapalooza festival), the “Knit” staged a project in Germany in 1999 entitled “Jewish Alternative Movement,” which included four younger Jewish-American groups: Hasidic New Wave, Uri Caine, Matt Darriau’s Paradox Trio, and the Roy Nathanson/Anthony Coleman Duo.

Roy Nathanson, 66, is a saxophonist, composer, songwriter, writer, and actor with a strong inclination for fun. He has suggested that both his playing and his compositions were influenced by the rhythms of music he heard in synagogue, and that, as a result, “I play in a cantorial, keening, querulous way that, hard as I try, isn’t black.” William Sharlin calls it “unsophisticated davening.” The cantorial keening can be heard on “Tikkun.”

Nathanson played in one of the earliest versions of John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards, and left that group to found The Jazz Passengers in 1987, one of the best groups to emerge on the new music/avant-garde scene. The Jazz Passengers slowly morphed into a new ensemble, Sotto Voce. Almost everyone who writes about them mentions that their playing is edged with wild comedy — variously called “avant-garde merrymaking,” “a new vaudeville” or “Dadaesque wit,” borrowing from Spike Jones or Victor Borge, with Nathanson channeling Groucho Marx. Writing in the New York Times, Peter Watrous said, “That natural connection between vaudeville and theater and music used to really exist with Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller; they knew that connection and took advantage of it. The worst thing to have happened to jazz has been its subservience to the academy. The academy killed jazz’s trashiness.”

Among the titles of Nathanson’s pieces are “Birds/Jews,” a comic narrative of Jewish history that slides into a carefree (somewhat traditional) duet with Anthony Coleman on piano; “The Nearness of Jews,” “Song for the Ram’s Horn,” “Bubbas” and “We’re All Jews” which takes off from “Lenny Bruce’s perfect description of New Yorkers,” says Nathanson.

Recently he has been taking on larger and more unusual projects. One of them, “The Rock Concert” was about rocks, not rock ‘n roll. The University of Wisconsin was celebrating a piece of zircon found in western Australia, dated at 4.4 billion years, .6 billion years older than the oldest piece of geological material found to date. Nathanson says he mixed humor, jazz music, computer-generated beats, and the occasional rocks being banged together.


JEWISH ALTERNATIVE MOVEMENT was just one expression of a larger movement of new Jewish music. Another was Radical Jewish Culture, centered mainly on the composer and performer John Zorn. Both “schools” gave their names to record labels and brought Jewish music, however defined, into an experimental phase influenced by jazz, rock, free improvisation, and avant-garde concert music: “neo-klezmer, hardcore and acid rock, neo-Yiddish cabaret, free verse, free jazz and electronic sound canvases,” as its historian Tamar Barzel puts it (in her book, New York Noise: Radical Jewish Music and the Downtown Scene). Jewish Alternative Movement was also an attempt to give voice to a post-Holocaust culture. “This may now be a way for the Jewish arts to leave behind the period of grief,” Greg Wall of Hasidic New Wave declared,” that has long had a restrictive effect on them.”

What the “Jewish” of Jewish music means is not clear. It is not klezmer per se, not anything coherently traditional. “My Jewish experience is little bits of things. A song here, a comedy routine there. A coupla Yiddish words there,” Coleman has said. In his composition, “Hanukkah Bush,” he says,

the melodic and harmonic material is derived from very simple serial procedures applied to two songs, ‘Hanukah, O Hanukah Come Light the Menorah’ and ‘Raisins and Almonds.’ My project is/was an attempt to thematize the particular palimpsest of my particular real-life Jewish experience. Huge holes, really huge ones, but plenty of allusive signposts along the way . . . . Having the Christmas tree, knowing it wasn’t ‘my’ holiday symbol, but at the same time, not finding the proffered symbols of ‘my’ people nearly so seductive, and not particularly encouraged to do so . . . a weird retrospective sadness, a dreamy longing for a world where I could have been more active as subject--but at the same time, a recognition that the life I led was a fundamental American-Jewish experience.

The title of the piece is an index of assimilation, the rueful name American Jews gave to the Christmas tree. The antecendents most often mentioned by the musicians -- Lenny Bruce, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Paul Celan, Heinrich Heine, Jacques Derrida -- are all marginal figures in a Jewish religious context.


PERFORMANCE SEDERS began to appear at the Knitting Factory from 1995 to 1998 as part of the Queer Yiddishkayt movement. As New York–based music journalist Howard Mandel observed (quoted in Barzel’s book):

Here was [vocalist] Shelley Hirsch offering the age-old blessing over the ritual dinner’s first cup of wine, with splatter/squeak/wail obbligato from clarinetist David Krakauer . . . . Behind banquet tables jammed to overflowing on the Knit’s balcony, trombonist Art Baron . . . played tuba in a standup trio with soprano saxophonist Steve Elson . . . and accordionist Ann DeMarinis to accompany the tradition dipping of vegetables in salt water . . . . Roy Nathanson . . . sniggled the Pink Panther theme on his alto . . . trumpeter Frank London spun out rampant klezmer licks while a video of Brooklyn Hassids baking the holiday’s unleavened bread was screened . . . . Bassist Mark Dresser and his daughter introduced the Four Questions . . . followed by [vocalist] Laurie Anderson. . . . Then Steven Bernstein with a pocket trumpet and his toddler came on. . . . Finally John Zorn, drummer Joey Baron smiling broadly behind him, unleashed an ear-piercing alto sax howl as the Rude or Rebellious Child, who demands pointedly, “What does this service mean to you?”

Hasidic New Wave (Frank London and Greg Wall) feature on one of their albums, Jews and the Abstract Truth, a piece called “Welcome to McDonald’s in Dachau.” Guitarist Marc Ribot performs a piece titled “Yo! I Killed Your God.” Two of Coleman’s groups were called Sephardic Tinge and the Selfhaters, and Anthony Coleman’s CD, Shmutsige Magnaten [Dirty Tycoons] features interpretations of the songs of the Yiddish poet and songwriter, Mordechai Gebirtig, who was murdered in the Krakow Ghetto under Nazi rule.


In addition to The Rock Concert (2005), Nathanson’s more recent projects include The Fire at Keaton’s Bar and Grill (2000), a song cycle about a fire in a mythical bar; You’re the Fool (2001); and Subway Moon (2006), subway stories written and scored by the students at the Institute for Collaborative Education where he teaches. At last report, Nathanson, Bill Ware and the Jazz Passengers were at work on a new project, “Trashed Out,” a story of the foreclosure crisis in Florida after the housing crash of 2008.


Marty Roth is an expatriate American who left the U.S. with the installation of George W. Bush (which seems like relatively small potatoes now). For ten years he was part of the editorial collective of Outlook: Canada’s Progressive Jewish Magazine. He recently appeared here with an essay about Heinrich Heine and Karl Marx.