FrequenciesBy Josh Kun
It's safe to be like the others. I want to be liked.
Leonard Zelig, under hypnosis
HE SAID HIS name was Roscoe Chandler. He carried himself with a refined air, spoke with a snooty accent, and wore a tuxedo that didn't look rented. He was, after all, a distinguished art dealer, a man at home in high society. That is, until Chico and Harpo Marx showed up.
When the Marx brothers meet Chandler in their 1930 film Animal Crackers, they notice a birthmark on his arm and realize he's not who he says he is. He's no gentile aristocrat but a humble Jewish workhorse from the old country, Abie the Fishman. When they discover they know the impostor, Chico and Harpo taunt him with a song that simply repeats his name over and over.
"Abie the Fishman" might be the first anthem of Jewish outing (penned by Jews, that is), leaving poor Abie as the ultimate symbol of the exposed ethnic lie, the hidden Jew gone public.
On his new album, Ivey-Divey (Blue Note), jazz clarinetist Don Byron keeps the Abie legend alive with his own version of "Abie the Fishman." It's one of the few original compositions Byron tackles on Ivey-Divey, which is mostly a series of sideways meditations on the techniques of Lester Young and Miles Davis.
His "Abie" has none of the nagging mischief of the Marx Brothers' "Abie," nor does it extend the dissonant mania of guitarist Gary Lucas's 1998 "Abie the Fishman," on which Lucas anchored his repetitions of Abie's name with pulsing guitar plucks and piano outbursts until it became a frenzied mantra for the unassimilated. But Byron's clarinet does plenty of nervous bobbing and weaving, dodging Jack DeJohnette's drum fills and Jason Moran's piano chases like a clever, kinetic chameleon. Byron makes the Abie story into a playful cat-and-mouse game, a nail-biter that ends as abruptly as it begins.
Byron and Abie are perfect for each other. Whether it was on his 1990 Tuskegee Experiments debut (Elektra/Nonesuch), where he tackled medical racism against Southern blacks, or 1998's Nu Blaxploitation (Blue Note), where he linked Hendrix, Mandrill, and hip-hop to riff on race in post-civil rights America), Byron has always been interested in how music performs identity and how identity performs music. But the last time he dealt specifically with Jewishness was on 1993's Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz (Elektra/Nonesuch). There his subject was Katz, the clarinetist and comedian, an out Jew in the '50s when being an out Jew wasn't kosher. Like the Marx brothers, Katz ambushed the mainstream with Jewish madness. He would have gone after Chandler too.
The issue of passing and assimilation that "Abie the Fishman" crystallizes has long been a prominent feature of Jewish cultural life. Most literally, there were the crypto-Jews, the progeny of expelled Spanish Jews who kept their Jewishness secret out of fear of further persecution and treated blending in as a survival tactic. And more figuratively, there's all of American theater, TV, and film, which for Jews amount to an ongoing battle between visibility and invisibility: is it better to disappear into the crowd or to get all Jackie Mason on everyone? Or for that matter, to be like the Cohens of The OC, or Bob Dylan, whose new Chronicles memoir never addresses how Robert Zimmerman became a wandering folkie?
Woody Allen captured the dilemma best in his 1983 film, Zelig, where he introduced us to a shape-shifting Jew who, due to a psychological disorder, is anyone but himself: a black trumpeter, a white gangster, Pagliacci. To truly be a Jew, Zelig suggested, was to never be a Jew at all.
Of course, it's Hollywood that's always been seen as this country's most productive Zelig factory, the very place where Abie the Fishman goes to become Roscoe Chandler. On trumpeter Steven Bernstein's new album, Diaspora Hollywood (Tzadik) the third in his "Diaspora" series exploring Jewishness through jazz culture clashes he focuses not on producers or actors but on the Eastern European composers who came to Hollywood in the '40s. Instead of the soundtrack to assimilation, Bernstein gives us the opposite, the soundtrack of ethnic retention. There's a Jewish temple on the album's cover, not a film studio, and save for three arresting Bernstein originals, most of the album is made up of traditional Jewish melodies he radically overhauls (with mood-oozing vibraphone help from X drummer DJ Bonebrake).
The album closes with a smoky take on the liturgical Hebrew folk song "Havenu Shalom Alechum," which sounds as much like a synagogue as it does a '50s West Coast jazz club with Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden onstage. In Bernstein's interpretation, there's enough room for both Chandler and Abie to feel at home. The song's age-old refrain fades into a hushed sax solo and, at least for a few minutes, nobody is hiding from anyone.
E-mail Josh Kun at firstname.lastname@example.org.