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Tales of the Hasidic Jazz Masters

Mikhail Horowitz
January 31, 2018

Text and Visuals by Mikhail Horowitz

from the Winter 2017-18 issue of Jewish Currents, our art calendar



WHEN LESTER YOUNG had finally become Lester Altacocker, he rued having worn a porkpie hat for so many years. After giving it away to a Polish trombonist, he asked his rebbe, “What should I wear in its place, Lady Mordecai?” The sage answered, “Nu? Try a hat made of bacon fat.” Said Lester, “But isn’t that the same thing, man, the same kind of treyf?” Reb Mordecai replied, “Honey, anyone who can play like you should not have to worry about keeping kosher. You are not of this world, my man!”


BACK WHEN prebop hit the shtetls in the 1840s, Dizzy Gefilte had a steady gig at the Blue Blintz. One night, in the middle of a blistering solo, he took the trumpet out of his mouth and stopped the band. The club owner, as confused as he was angry, said, “Fish — why’d you stop playing?” Replied Dizzy, “To your ears, the music has stopped. But to God’s ears, the music continues, and its beauty is undiminished.” The club owner mulled this over and finally said, “That’s cool. But I’m still taking eighty percent of the gate.”


ONE EVENING at the 3 Dybbuks, a Talmud scholar who had been sitting at the bar approached Cabala Calloway after the first set. “Man,” he said, “the band was so hot on ‘Ruby, My Rebbetsn’ that I began to tremble. I was shaking all over, and my right hand lost its cunning, and I dropped my Manischewitz. And in that instant,” he continued breathlessly, “I saw a pillar of fire ascend from the stage, and seven seraphim wheeling above the bandstand, each of them bearing the sacred letters yod, hey, vav, hey in blazing gold.” Reb Calloway eyed the young man for a long moment. Then he said, “We didn’t play ‘Ruby, My Rebbetsn.’”


Mikhail Horowitz, our contributing writer, is a performance artist and poet, the creator of Big League Poets (City Lights, 1978), and two CDs and a DVD with Gilles Malkine: Live, Jive & Over 45 (2000), Poor, On Tour, & Over 54 (2007), and Too Small to Fail (2011).