Dr. Harold Brackman
The Simon Wiesenthal Center
October, 2010
From slave spirituals, to blues and jazz, and beyond, African Americans have created a great
popular music that has become America’s gift to the world. Yet even during the worst days of
racial subordination, black music transcended the color line. Slaves created spirituals and work
songs by fusing their African heritage of drums, banjos, dances, and complex rhythms with
stories of freedom’s ultimate triumph drawn from the Hebrew Bible’s narrative of Moses and
Joshua leading their people into the Promised Land.
After the Civil War, as ragtime, the blues, and urban jazz
developed, black music continued to change by incorporating
European melodies and piano orchestrations. Along the way,
black composers and performers entered Tin Pan Alley and on to
the Broadway stage. They became professionals even as they
struggled against hurtful stereotypes rooted in the minstrel
tradition of whites, including some Jewish performers, “blacking up” to caricature African
Though racist practices undercut their bargaining power inside as well as outside show business,
black musicians nevertheless collaborated for the first time with a melting pot of Tin Pan Alley
and Broadway composers and performers that included many Jewish immigrants and the
children of immigrants. From this creative interaction emerged Jewish composers Irving Berlin
and George Gershwin, Jewish performers Al Jolson and Fanny Bryce, and African Americans
musical greats Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller,
Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. This illustrious list is
greatly expanded.
In the history of Black-Jewish relations in the popular music
realm, friendship counterbalanced frictions, and African
Americans and Jews shared the experience—as Louis
Amstrong put it—of cats of any color grooving together.
Unfortunately, this complex history of Black-Jewish mutual inspiration and borrowing has
become the stuff a conspiracy industry that pictures Jews as—in the words of Nation of Islam
leader Louis Farrakhan—“the bloodsuckers of black people.” Farrakhan dusts off, and trots out,
all the decrepit stereotypes of Jews as gouging ghetto merchants to apply them to Jewish sports
and entertainment industry agents in this new era of Jerry Maguires.
Surprisingly, the lyrics (so to speak) for Farrakhan’s hateful chorus are being written by an
influential coterie of academics, many of them Jewish, who use the latest in postmodern theories
about race to give trendy respectability to age-old anti-Jewish defamations. Professor Jeffrey
Melnick is representative of this trend. In his book, The Right to Sing the Blues (1999), Melnick
admits that “any chronicle of Jews making money out of African Americans . . .
flirts uncomfortably with conventional anti-Semitic stereotypes,” yet he devotes
page after page to repackaging anti-Semitic libels—from Richard Wagner’s Jews
and Music to Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent claiming that jazz was
“Yiddish moron music” manufactured by Jews who “do not create; they take what
others have done, give it a clever twist, and exploit it.” In a moment of ironic
candor, Profess Michael P. Rogin—Melnick’s inspiration—admitted that he and his
disciples may simply have find another way of “putting blackface on” in order to
privilege their dubious interpretation attempting to discredit that Jews were African
Americans’ partners for civil rights.
Following in Rogin’s footsteps, Professor Melnick writes that Jews “certainly were using the
mask of blackness as part of a claim for their own whiteness, which was predicated on erasing or
persecuting African Americans.” Jews were guilty of “the rip-off of African-American culture.”
“Jews [were] responsible for perverting ‘authentic’ African American music.” “[A] commercial
taint . . . looms as the terrifying repressed of Black-Jewish relations” and resulted in “the Jewish
takeover of popular music.” Indeed, “Jews had come to function as modern-day slaveholders.”
These and other sad but sick interpretations advanced by Melnick would have his readers believe
that Jewish entertainers, with the approbation of their predominately Jewish audiences, hid
behind black masks because that somehow protected them from “the widely believed strange
sexuality of the Jewish man” and reduced the likelihood that they, too, would suffer the fate of
lynching victim Leo Frank’s fate!
The purpose of this report is to return some sanity to a field of scholarly research that displays
hysterical symptoms that it would take a Freud to do full justice. Its hope is that a balanced
overview of Black-Jewish relations in song and on the stage and screen before, during, and after
America’s “Jazz Age” will embolden others with the courage to give voice to the truth about
what has become a dangerous ideological obsession as well as academic disgrace.
A Shameful Argument:
“Given that the 1910s and 1920s gave rise to some broad rhetorical attacks on secular urban
Jews—as factory managers, white slavers, Reds, World Series fixers, bootleggers, and so on—it
was quite savvy for Jews and their friends to construct a public narrative which decontaminated
American Jews by making them over in the (invented) image of their Old World ancestors. If, as
this rhetorical construct had it, all Jewish men were cantors, it was religious destiny that led Jews
to find a congenial place in the music business. . . . [S]acralizing was a particularly effective tool
for Jews to use because it helped them erase the commercial taint which looms as the terrifying
repressed of Black-Jewish relations.”
———Professor Jeffrey Melnick, A Right to Sing the Blues (1999)1
A Sage Warning:
Richard Wagner was a virulent anti-Semite who wrote in a pamphlet published in 1869 that Jews
had no place in Germany’s artistic or musical life. The pamphlet ended with a statement to an
anti-Semitic Jew Joseph Rubinstein: ‘Remember that there is one release from the curse that
weighs you down: obliteration’. The great musicologist Henry Pleasants, who lived many years
in Germany, said to me, ‘As to Wagner’s contribution to the rise of the Nazis, I would say that
they didn’t need him, but certainly found him useful’. In the search for ‘purity’ in music, the
Nazis barred the work of Jewish composers including Mendelssohn, Schoenberg, and Mahler.
They also barred jazz and in some instances executed Europeans who played it. As Dizzie
Gillespie remarked, in a discussion of jazz as ‘serious’ music, ‘Men have died for this music.
You can’t get more serious than that’.”
———Gene Lees, Cats of Any Color (1994)2
“Those people who make the restrictions, they don’t know nothing about music, it’s no crime for
cats of any color to get together and blow. Race-conscious jazz musicians? Nobody could be
who really knew their horns and loved the music.”
———Louis Armstrong4
Satchmo surely had it right: color or creed should not matter in the world of music.
Unfortunately, it long has and still does in America.
Satchmo also knew that, despite frictions, Jews and African Americans have had a real history of
grooving together. In 1969, Armstrong was in Beth Israel Hospital in New York recovering from
surgery for a life-threatening illness. Ironically, his manager since 1935, Joe Glaser, whom he
called “my dearest friend,” occupied another bed in the same hospital that proved to be his death
bed. This was when Satchmo decided to write out “Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family in New
Orleans, La., the Year of 1907.” Not surfacing until thirty years later, this reminiscence was
Armstrong’s tribute to the Karnofskys, Jewish immigrant peddlers from Lithuania who gave
young Louis his first job in New Orleans.
Armstrong related his surprise to learn that Jewish immigrants “were having problems of their
own—[a]long with hard times from the other white folks[’] nationalities who felt that they were
better than the Jewish race. . . . I was only seven years old but I could easily see the ungodly
treatment that the White Folks were handing the poor Jewish family whom I worked for.” The
Karnofskys treated him almost like a relative—“They were always warm and kind to me, which
was very noticeable to me—just a kid who could use a little word of kindness”—feeding him
when he needed a meal and loaning him the money to buy his first cornet. “When I reached the
age of eleven, I began to realize that it was the Jewish family who instilled in me singing from
the heart.” Years later, his Jewish manager gave Satchmo a Star of David to wear. He wore it in
honor of the Karnofskys.5
Today, we mostly hear ideological static that drowns out the story of Black-Jewish relations in
the entertainment industry’s positive side—how during the first half of the twentieth century
African Americans combined their artistic energies with other talented Americans, particularly
Jews, to create an immensely rich, modern popular music that still enlivens our lives in this new
century. Our national microphone is monopolized too much by noisy ideologues intent on
dividing rather than uniting Jews and African Americans, whites and nonwhites. It’s sad, but no
surprise, that the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan—who as a child studied the violin with a
Russian Jewish immigrant—now leads a discordant chorus demonizing Jews as “the blood
suckers” of black creative artists. Farrakhan dusts off, and trots out, all the decrepit stereotypes
of Jews as gouging ghetto merchants to apply them to Jewish sports and entertainment industry
agents in this new era of Jerry Maguires.6
More astonishing than Farrakhan’s predictable eruptions is the rise of an influential coterie of
academics, many of them Jewish, who use the latest in postmodern theories about race to give
trendy respectability to such defamations. What is one to make of a white professor of English,
previously specializing in feminist studies, who bursts on the scene with a book, not soberly
critiquing the tradition of blackface performance, but stridently calling it “the flip side of
lynching”—an assault on “black bodies”—and the burnt cork equivalent of the charred flesh of
lynching victims and, by implication, victims of the Holocaust?7
My purpose here is to return some sanity to a field of scholarly research that displays hysterical
symptoms that it would take a Freud to do full justice. I hope that my attempt at a balanced
overview of Black-Jewish relations in song and on the stage and screen before, during, and after
America’s “Jazz Age” will embolden others with the courage to speak up against what has
become a dangerous ideological obsession as well as academic disgrace.8
Black Music: An American National Treasure
Forged in the crucible of slavery and segregation, African American music became a treasure
that not only sustained black people but enriched American culture and served as a beacon of
America’s possibilities to the world. Before white American critics were ready to do so,
European musical greats from Dvorak to Stravinsky and Revel acknowledged the new musical
reality that produced America’s Jazz Age. Returning from Europe to America in 1922, the
violinist Mischa Elman said: “One hears it [jazz] everywhere. To me, it has vast musical
possibilities. Out of its wonderful rhythms will grow new ideas. It will become known as the
American classical music.”9
Even during the worst days of racial subordination, black music transcended the color line.
Slaves created spirituals and work songs by fusing their African heritage of drums, banjos,
dances, and complex rhythms with stories of freedom’s ultimate triumph drawn from the Hebrew
Bible’s narrative of Moses and Joshua leading their people into the Promised Land. As James
Baldwin wrote, “the hymns, the texts, and the most favored legends of the devout Negro are all
Old Testament and therefore Jewish in origin: the flight from Egypt, the Hebrew children in the
fiery furnace, the terrible jubilee songs of deliverance.” These songs of solace and inspiration
were carried over by succeeding generations of African Americans from the slave plantations of
the South to the industrial settings of the North.10
After the Civil War, as ragtime, the blues, and urban jazz developed, black music continued to
change by incorporating European melodies and piano orchestrations. Along the way, black
composers and performers entered Tin Pan Alley and on to the Broadway stage. They became
professionals even as they struggled against hurtful stereotypes rooted in the white minstrel
tradition caricaturing African Americans as stupid, lazy, irresponsible characters with names like
Jim Crow and Jim Dandy.11
Though racist practices undercut their bargaining power inside as well as outside show business,
black musicians nevertheless collaborated for the first time with a melting pot of Tin Pan Alley
and Broadway composers and performers. The list of the most illustrious included Cole Porter, a
upper class Protestant from Indiana, and Brooklyn-born Harry Warren (birth name: Salvatore
Anthony Guaragna), but featured scores of American Jewish musicians such as song writers
Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Lorenz Hart, and Richard Rodgers and star
performers Al Jolson, Eddy Cantor, Sophie Tucker, and Fanny Brice. Black-Jewish interaction
in song writing and on the stage and then the silver screen became an entertainment industry
staple as American popular culture was transformed, making stars of immensely talented African
Americans like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, Lena Horne, and
Ella Fitzgerald. They usually had to pay special dues in the form of racial humiliation, yet
ultimately achieved great success.12
“Academic Blackface”: How the Postmodern Professoriate Distorts Musical History
Thankfully, the era when white and even black performers such as Bert Williams, Flournoy
Miller and Aubrey Lyles, and Josephine Baker applied burnt cork to sing and joke in blackface
did not survive World War II. Today’s remaining vestiges are only satiric as in comedian Christ
Rock’s appearance in blackface on the cover of Vanity Fair and Spike Lee’s movie, Bamboozled
(2000), about a black television executive who cynically convinces his white counterparts to
revive the discredited old stereotypes as if they were new.13
Unfortunately, thinly-disguised “blackface” continues to exist in one implausible venue:
American academe where white professors, including many Jews, masquerade as if they were
black to make pronouncements far beyond their expertise about the history of American race
relations. Emerging uncannily close to Farrakhan’s charges against Jewish entertainment
industry “bloodsuckers,” this trend started with University of California Professor Michael Paul
Rogin’s book, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (1996).
With a sense of irony usually lacking in his disciples, even Rogin admits that his book “may
simply be another way of putting it [blackface] on, as the (gray-bearded) Jewish son writing
these lines uses blacks” to criticize other Jews. As scholar Joel Rosenberg suggests, Rogin’s
purpose—“to protect from violation” the “African-American musical heritage”—is itself a form
of patronization by Rogin who has no confidence in the ability of blacks to protect their own
Rogin’s book uses the first talking picture, Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer (1927), as a primary
focus to argue that Jewish performers applied the blackface mask, which they could put on and
off in a way unavailable to African Americans, not only to demean black people, but to reinforce
their own superior status as whites. Rogin uses Neo-Marxist terminology to accuse Jews of
acquiring “their own stain of shame” by extracting “surplus symbolic value” from African
Americans through involvement in the entertainment industry. Of Jack Robin, Jolson’s stage
name in The Jazz Singer, Rogin writes that Jolson’s character “plays a person of color instead of
being confused for one. By painting himself black, he washes himself white.” As historian
Michael Alexander suggests in a critique of Rogin, “there are more straightforward ways for
someone to demonstrate that he is white than by acting black.”15
Rogin’s thesis is that Jewish performers applied blackface to disassociate from African
Americans—not identify with them as another oppressed people. He is aware that that is not how
either Jewish or African American audiences saw matters in the 1920s. The Forvertz praised
Jolson, whose father was a cantor, precisely because: “The son of a rabbi knows how to sing the
songs of the most cruelly wronged people in the world’s history.” Which people? African
Americans—not Jews! Shown in Harlem’s Lafayette Theater, The Jazz Singer caused black
audiences to cry in appreciation. The Amsterdam News called it “one of the greatest pictures ever
produced,” and said of Jolson, “every colored performer is proud of him.” Proud for what? For
paving the way for the mainstream acceptance of black music and for creating an opening which
black performers eventually exploited to appear more on the screen. The Lafayette Theater
started the ball rolling by building a floor show around the movie featuring a cantor singing Eli,
Eli and Kol Nidre and a black performer singing jazz songs popularized by Jolson.16
Remarkably, Rogin dismisses the reactions by interracial audiences in the 1920s in order to
privilege his own theories about the significance of blackface over how real people actually felt.
Succeeding Rogin is Harvard Ph.D. Jeffrey Melnick, author of The Right to Sing the Blues
(1999). The title thinly disguises the book’s argument that Jews had no right “to sell the blues”
because the music was not only invented but owned by African Americans. Embracing the thesis
of his idol, Rogin, Melnick writes that Jews “certainly were using the mask of blackness as part
of a claim for their own whiteness, which was predicated on erasing or persecuting African
Americans.” Melnick’s historical starting point is the Leo Frank case in which a Jewish
businessman who moved to Atlanta was convicted and lynched in 1915 for raping and murdering
a white factory girl primarily on the basis of the testimony of his black janitor.17
Melnick argues that Frank’s vicious treatment made his whiteness “open to question.” Georgia’s
rabid anti-Semites such as Tom Watson called Frank “a lascivious pervert, guilty of the crime
that caused the Almighty to blast the Cities of the plain. . . . [Frank has] those bulging, satyr eyes
. . . the protruding fearfully sensual lips; and also the animal jaw.”18 The problem with Melnick’s
view of the Frank lynching, which he elaborates in a separate book, is that the author seems
almost to share the anti-Semitic obsession with the “Jewish look” of Frank, described by
Melnick as “The accountant whose face was studied during the trial for signs of perversion
(which were usually found there in his ‘bulging’ eyes and thick lips) . . .”19 Indeed, his book on
Leo Frank—whose innocence Melnick “more or less” accepts—insinuates that Frank was
doomed, not alone or even primarily by anti-Semitic hysteria, but by a case of what might be
called the terminal uglies or looking “too Jewish.” Perhaps plastic surgery would have saved him
from the lynch mob.20
Melnick would have us believe that Jewish entertainers, with the approbation of their
predominately Jewish audiences, hid behind black masks because that somehow protected them
from “the widely believed strange sexuality of the Jewish man” and reduced the likelihood that
they would fall victim to Leo Frank’s fate! Melnick’s own obsession with the sex lives of
prominent Jews like George Gershwin comes through embarrassingly. However, his convoluted
argument about the connection between the Leo Frank case and Jewish entertainers adopting
blackface is difficult to follow—much less accept.21
According to Melnick: Jews adopted blackface not only out of fear but for profit and other
dubious motives. Jews were guilty of “the rip-off of African-American culture.” “While both
Jews and African Americans contributed to the rhetoric of musical affinity, the fruits of this labor
belonged primarily to the former.” “Jews [were] responsible for perverting ‘authentic’ African
American music.” A “commercial taint . . . looms as the terrifying repressed of Black-Jewish
relations.” There was “a Jewish takeover of popular music.” “Jews had come to function as
modern-day slaveholders.” “How might we symbolize the ‘new color’ Jews had given to jazz?
. . . ‘Green’, to stand either for the immigrant color these Jews would lose or for the money they
made.” “Jewish men used Black looks and sounds to shore up their own masculinity.”22
Though Melnick at one point admits that “any chronicle of Jews making money out of African
Americans . . . flirts uncomfortably with conventional anti-Semitic stereotypes,” his book
repackages in postmodern form many anti-Semitic libels—from Richard Wagner’s Jews and
Music to Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent claiming that jazz was “Yiddish moron music”
manufactured by Jews who “do not create; they take what others have done, give it a clever
twist, and exploit it.” Indeed, when it comes to black anti-Semites, Melnick contorts himself to
be apologetic. He tells readers that Harold Cruse “could go much further” in his charges of
Jewish theft of black music if he looked beyond Gershwin to an even earlier generation of Jews.
And he quotes LeRoi Jones’ response to a Jew who asked him what he could do for Black
Power—“Die Baby. All you can do for me is die”—in order to put his own sarcastic gloss on it:
“Jews do indeed ‘die’, or at least suffer quite a bit, to make Black art.”23
On the other hand, Melnick has difficulty containing his disdain for James Weldon Johnson who
wrote: “If the jinnee should say ‘I have come to carry out an inexorable demand to change you
into a member of another race; make your choice!’ I should answer, probably, ‘Make me a
Jew’.” Poet and novelist, politician and diplomat, educator, civil rights leader, and writer of
popular songs, Johnson was one of the great African American voices before and during the
Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Yet Melnick considers Johnson “naïve” for having such a
favorable attitude toward Jews as cultural and political partners of African Americans, and great
expectations for Harlem’s creative potential. Johnson’s optimism may indeed have pushed the
edge of possibility in the 1920s, but given the deeper and wider African American artistic
awakening of the past few decades, he seems like a prophet. Melnick is just another case of a
Jewish academic “putting on blackface” in order to claim the right to judge his betters like James
Weldon Johnson.24
Melnick’s book is humorless except for ideologically-driven absurdities that are unintentionally
funny. Having discovered that the composer Jerome Kern when in high school was involved in a
school production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in which the villain’s first name was changed from
Simon Legree to Svengali Legree, Melnick ludicrously links this to the stuff of Jewish
conspiracy: “The existence of ‘Svengali Legree’ demonstrates that it was possible to imagine a
version of the Jewish involvement in African American music which emphasized force rather
than musical sympathy.” In other words, ever since his senior prom year, Kern may have been
plotting to rip off blacks—by using his irresistible Svengali-like powers.25
Melnick’s book also cannot be relied upon to tell both sides of a story. He dwells on the
ridiculous charge by Irving Berlin’s envious rivals that he had “a little negro boy in the closet”
turning out his tunes—going so far as connecting this rumor with ritual murder accusations that
“Jewish creation depends on Christian suffering.” He also links the theft rumor with African
American composer Scott Joplin’s equally unsubstantiated charge that Berlin somehow stole
from him Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1911). Yet he obscures Joplin’s own debts by describing
his first music teacher, Julius Weiss, as “a German” without mentioning he was Jewish and a
lifelong friend of Joplin. He also only gives Joplin’s side of the charge against Berlin—not the
countercharge by one of Joplin’s own pupils, Martin Niederhofer, that the great ragtime
composer may have borrowed parts of his Magnetic Rag (1914) from a Yiddish song writer,
Mordecai Gebirtig.26
Certainly nobody with any historical knowledge of how Jewish young people were terrorized
walking to school or synagogue would believe Melnick’s account, based on a stray anecdote by
Leslie Fiedler, that Jewish boys during the Great Depression specialized in “nigger smashing.”27
Presenting himself as a discerning critic of Holocaust fiction as well as popular music, Melnick
likes especially Jonathan Safran Foer’s pretentious “magical realist” Holocaust novel, Everything
Is Illuminated, because its hero is “a Ukrainian descendant of Nazi collaborators . . . , thereby
purposely denying the easy comforts of an us vs. them orientation . . . .”28
Unfortunately, Melnick’s exercise in anti-Jewish academic blackface is not an isolated
phenomenon. His book belongs to the broader “whiteness school” of American Jewish history
writing. This school includes Yale Professor Matthew Frye Jacobson, author of Whiteness of a
Different Color (1998); Professor Eric L. Goldstein of Emery University, author of The Price of
Whiteness; Indiana University Professor Susan Gubar, author of Racechanges (1997); and UCLA
Professor Karen Brodkin, author of How Jews Became White Folks (1994). Going far beyond the
debatable thesis of Neal Gabler’s book on the invention of Hollywood that the adoption of
blackface promoted the Americanization of Jews, all these authors essentially argue that “the
pursuit of whiteness” at the expense of African Americans is the central theme of American
Jewish history.29
Even more broadly, they all belong to the flourishing cottage industry of “whiteness studies”
spawned by the journal, Race Traitor, whose contributors viewed white people in America as
pretty much hopeless cases, so infected by racism from the cradle onward that the best they can
do through self-education is to become “like certain insects that . . . do not complete their
metamorphosis and . . . halt their growth at whiteness.” The purpose of “the race traitors” was
not to uplift blacks but to “deconstruct” the white race. All that was needed was to apply to Jews
on and off Broadway their one-size-fits-all argument that European immigrants to America and
their descendants almost inevitably grew up to be bigots.30
Of course, Professor Melnick has the perfect right to essentialize the America Jewish experience
in the entertainment as a quest for “whiteness.” One only wishes, however, that in a book about
Jews in relation to American popular music he had more appreciation and love for the music than
to write: “The debates on the precise origins and codifying of ‘jazz’ are old, ongoing, and not my
interest per se.”31
Jewish Performers and Blackface: The Real Story
The epic migration of black people and black music upriver from New Orleans, ultimately to
Chicago, is the central motif of jazz history. Jack Gottlieb is the most recent scholar to point out
the less heralded but also crucial intracity migration in New York “from the East River across
town to Tin Pan Alley and Broadway.” This movement of people and music, starting around
1890, relocated Tin Pan Alley (named for the din of upright pianos banging out popular songs),
first from East 14th around Union Square to West 28th Street, and later to 50th Street and the
new theater district. During the first half of the twentieth century roughly 1,000 composers and
lyricists turned out around 30,000 songs. According to historian Edward Pessen, “75 percent of
the [successful] lyricists appear to have been Jews, as well as 50 percent of [the writers of] the
melodies of the good songs.”32 In addition to the Jewish song writers making the transition to Tin
Pan Alley, there was a smaller but important group of black song writers who were no strangers
to the Alley, but maintained their own “Black Bohemia” as a focus for African American
creativity. Their activity first centered around West 54th Street, and then shifted further north to
Harlem which, before World War I, had a large Jewish population. There was no proverbial
Black-Jewish “melting pot,” but there were intersecting orbits of African American and Jewish
communities, each radiating creativity and talent.33
Blackface minstrelsy—a pervasive, often pernicious inheritance of song writers and performers,
both white and black—was also undergoing significant transformation around the turn of the last
century. Starting after the Civil War, traditional all-white minstrel troupes, whose trademark was
performing in burnt cork, were challenged and gradually supplanted by all-black troupes that
also blackened up. The demise of the minstrel companies like Dockstader’s Minstrels, with
whom teenage Al Jolson performed, was cemented by the rise of vaudeville which incorporated
the blackface tradition but only as one among many components of an ethnic pastiche or variety
format that included rural white “Hicks,” inebriated Irish “Micks,” humorless Dutchman
(Germans), organ-grinding Italians, Asian opium addicts, and “comic Hebrews.” The Irishman
performed in red greasepaint, the Italian in olive, and the Jew in yellow. The “comic Hebrew”
role was initially monopolized by non-Jewish actors like Frank Bush who billed himself as “the
Jew comic” and dressed in a long black coat and beard to portray clothing store owner Solomon
Moses who declared “I’m a Bully Sheeny Man!”34
Aspiring Russian Jewish performers had to compete with Bush and others Gentile “comic
Hebrews” for the privilege of making fun of their own ethnic group. Among those to do so
successfully was young Al Jolson who performed with his older brother Harry in “The Hebrew
and the Cadet.” This sketch featured the neatly-groomed, wholesome “Cadet” played by Al
getting the better of the unkempt, heavily Yiddish accented “Hebrew” played by Harry in a
morality tale about the clash of generations and inevitable triumph of Americanization. Initially,
the stage stereotyping of Jews was extremely prejudicial, causing the American Hebrew to
editorialize in the 1880s against “a recent successful portrayal of the vulgar and moneyworshipping . . . [Jewish character named] ‘Hoggenheimer’ . . . .” The Anti-Stage Ridicule
Committee and Anti-Defamation League, formed in 1913, also protested. Yet toned down, the
stereotypes persisted into the 1920s in Montagu Glass’s burlesque of “the clowning cloak and
suiters,” Potash and Permutter, who successfully transitioned from the pages of the Saturday
Evening Post to the stage and screen.35
Given the virulent history of anti-black racism in this country, we tend to assume that stage
stereotyping of African Americans was different not in degree but kind. Yet immigrant Jewish
audiences, for example, didn’t come to the blackface performance with all the negative cues
brought by native-born whites during the Jim Crow era. And, as African American historian
Nathan I. Huggins points out, there was a basic similarity between African American theatergoer
“whose anxieties were released through laughter at a blackfaced simpleton who cannot manage
manage his life” and a Jewish theatergoer “who laughed himself into tears as a ‘greenhorn’s’
incompetences as portrayed on the Yiddish stage.”36
Of course, African American actors were not cast in “white” roles, and even applied burnt cork
to accentuate their blackness. Yet even this rule was not absolute—at least when an African
American playwright wrote the script. Along with Will Marion Cook, Ernest Hogan, Chris
Smith, Matthew Bivens, Irving Jones, and Al Johns, Bob Cole belonged to the remarkable group
of black lyricists and composers who emerged around 1900. This was the era of immensely
popular “coon songs” that continued traditional racial stereotypes yet also provided an avenue
for black artists to become successful ragtime music composers. Writing and performing in A
Trip to Coontown (1898), “the first show . . . to be written, produced, and owned by Negroes,”
Cole tried to “clean up the caricature” in line with his Colored Actor’s Declaration of
Independence.” He applied white makeup to appear in the role of a white tramp, Willie Wayside,
who lectures the audience on the intricacies of Jim Crow laws—in the process making a mockery
of the idea of absolute racial differences.37
The cultural critic Leslie Fiedler suggested a progression from performers from immigrant
families “acting out travesties of themselves on the stage to acting out travesties of other
‘comical’ ethnic groups”—followed by an abandonment of ethnic masks altogether.38 This
progress is broadly true of Jewish performers who started out with Yiddish personas, adopted
blackface, but then abandoned it—in whole or part—in order to cultivate non-ethnic stage
identities. Examples include the comedian George Burns, and Jack Benny who observed that
“You don’t hate a race when laughing with it. . . . During vaudeville . . . often the people who
were being ridiculed most enjoyed the kind of ethnic humor aimed at their own group.”39 Yet for
most others, the pattern was more complicated. “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” Sophie
Tucker told her fellow performers toward the end of her career: “We all sprang from the same
source, the same origin. We were all swept to the shores of this country on the same tidal wave
of immigration, the same flight from prejudice and persecution. All our stories are pretty much
the same.” She announced in 1912 after her early successes “I am through with blackface”
(which her detractors sneered was necessary to hide her homeliness). Yet she remained
committed to her Jewish persona, making “My Yiddishe Mama” her theme song.40
The comedian Eddie Cantor—the son of an immigrant mother who died when he was four and a
father who abandoned him—achieved his first big success in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1917 in a
“Sonny and Papsy” routine in which he blacked up to play son to African American comedian
Bert Williams who also blacked up. Cantor reverentially said of Williams that “Whatever sense
of timing I have, I learned from him,” but in 1918 resolved that “Blackface must die.” Yet he
maintained blackface in his broader ethnic repertoire that, in his 1930 stage and screen hit,
Whoopie!, included an Indian chief and a cowboy as well as an untypical, nebbishy black
character who wears thick glasses and speaks in a Yiddish accent. Cantor strongly identified as a
Jew but was quite capable of lampooning his own ethnic group as in his parody of “My Yiddish
Mamma” in which he sings: “All the mammies they call divine/Come from below the Mason
Dixon Line.”41
In fact, Jewish-themed songs and skits remain the stock-and-trade of legions of forgotten
performers who appealed to the New York stage audience that, in the 1920s, was over half
Jewish. Al Jolson was virtually alone both in mostly steering clear of explicit Jewish material
and in remaining committed to blackface through his long stage and screen career.42 Born Asa
Yoelson in 1886 in Lithuania, Al grew up in the house of his cantor-father in Washington, D.
C.43 His breakthrough came with the opening of the Schubert’s Wintergarden Theater where he
starred from 1911 to 1927. Why Jolson’s attachment to blackface? Freudians might emphasize
that Jolson first appeared in burnt cork in 1904—the year his mother died. What’s incontestable
is that he developed an immensely popular blackface stage character, Gus, who had less in
common with the minstrel tradition than with irrepressible comic scoundrels going back to the
medieval Commedia del Arte and Don Quixote’s sidekick, Sancho Panza. As Irving Howe wrote
in general about Jewish blackface performance, Gus was certainly “a mask for Jewish
Jolson was cast in the Warner Brothers’ first talking picture, The Jazz Singer (1927), based on
Samson Raphaelson’s short story and Broadway play about a family crisis pitting a dying cantor
against his ambitious son who wants stage success performing in blackface. Though Raphaelson
partly based his story on Jolson’s own career, George Jessel—who played the lead in the stage
production—was passed over by the Warners, probably because they considered him “too
Jewish” to appeal to an audience beyond the New York audience of three million Jews, a third of
them Yiddish speakers. Jolson’s success and subsequent screen career were a mixed blessing in
that Hollywood turned out bland, mediocre scripts for Jolson because Southern white audiences,
it was feared, might resent any depiction of black assertiveness.45
The NAACP had picketed D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915)—whose blackface villain
was ironically also named Gus—yet the black community in 1927 did not criticize Jolson
because his blackface persona, at the time, was not viewed as offensive. Jolson also became a
favorite of Jewish audiences, not for adopting a Yiddish persona, but for singing sentimental,
nostalgic songs like Swanee (George Gershwin’s first hit) and My Mammy. These songs evoked
a romanticized American South but were probably code memories for Jewish immigrants of the
Eastern European shtetls they had abandoned for the new world. It took another forty years
before assimilated Jewish audiences were disposed to embrace enthusiastically their own
ancestral heritage as portrayed in Fiddler on the Roof (1965). As for Northern black audiences,
made up in the 1920s largely of recent immigrants from the American South, it may be that
“mammy songs” played for them the same function of romanticizing family origins.46
By the 1930s and 1940s—when openly Jewish characters became a rarity in Hollywood
cinema—Jolson served as a somewhat bemused Moses for screenwriters who wrote blackface
musical numbers for Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, Shirley Temple, Fred Astaire, Bing
Crosby, Buster Keaton, and other non-Jewish stars. A New York stage company tried—but
failed—to give blackface a new lease on life in 1974 by announcing a version of Fiddler on the
Roof, to be staged in Harlem with an all-black cast. It never came to pass.47
If today’s African Americans could vote to change the past, blackface would surely be voted out
of existence. Yet—over the course of 100 years—the genre was defanged of the worst
stereotypes, and gradually consigned to the dustbin of history. Jews were involved in the later
stages of the blackface tradition, but were also involved in burying it—promoting color-blind,
socially conscious post-World War II films like To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Guess Who’s
Coming to Dinner (1967). The era of Jews in blackface needs to be viewed with a certain
historical dispassion if the purpose is to understand rather than to demonize.48
Blacks, Jews, and Mutual Borrowing
Mutual indebtedness—what the sociologist Richard Titmuss called “the gift relationship”—is at
the core of a civilization. The debt of American Jewish creative artists to African American
music is too great to be denied. Yet is the indebtedness any less of African Americans to the
Jews’ Bible—James Weldon Johnson said that, in the opinion of the slaves, “the best came
first”—for inspiring their struggles against slavery and then segregation? Similarly, the blues
tradition continued to draw on Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.49
Limiting the discussion to musical influences, here are samples of the two-sided coin. First, as to
Jewish composers and performers indebted to African Americans, a partial list includes:
Irving Berlin who gained his first exposure to ragtime as a teenage singing waiter in the
Pelham Café (popularly known as “Nigger Mike’s” after the nickname of its Jewish
proprietor Mike Salter) listening to pianist Lukie Johnson. He remained closer to Johnson
than fellow Russian Jew Al Jolson who put over Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band and
Blue Skies.50
George Gershwin, a generation younger than Berlin and less bashful about
acknowledging black influences, turned to Will Vodery to orchestrate his Blue Monday,
and made a public pilgrimage to South Carolina’s Sea Islands in the 1930s to enrich his
folk opera, Porgy and Bess, with the feel and sound of the Gullah dialect.51
Jerome Kern’s and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Showboat (1927), which dramatized
controversial themes of alcoholism, intermarriage, and racism, and was praised by Paul
Robeson as “Musically . . . a complete miracle, the creation of the tone of the Negro
spiritual by an alien to the Negro’s traditions.”52
Harold Arlen, who composed music for Harlem’s Cotton Club before penning The
Wizard of Oz for Hollywood, and received career encouragement at a critical juncture
from African American composer Will Marion Cook.53
Sophie Tucker who went to Ethel Waters for singing tips, and owed her theme song,
Some of These Days, to black song writer Shelton Brooks. Blossom Seeley (Minnie
Guyer) was among Jewish torch singers with similar debts.54
Fannie Brice went to black composer Joe Jordan for her breakthrough song, Lovie Joe,
whose “Negro dialect” she defended as authentic to producer Abe Erlanger whom she
told: “I live on 128th Street. It’s on the edge of Harlem.”55
Al Jolson borrowed his signature phrase—“Folks, you aint heard nothin’ yet”—from
black vaudevillian Joe Britton. Bandleader Ted Lewis did the same with his trademark—
“Is everybody happy?”—from Ernest Hogan.56
Joe Sulzer of the comedy team of Smith and Dale learned “buck dancing” by watching “a
colored fellow on our street” in the Lower East Side.57
Max Kaminsky began his career as a jazz musician growing up in the Roxbury section of
Boston where he heard in gospel chorus in church choirs and “the street cries of the
Negro cart men on summer nights.”58
As early as 1923, the Forvertz acknowledged that “if one is talking about American music today,
one is talking out Negro music.”59 The list of Jewish debts could be extended, especially by
attention to the period since World War II.60 But let’s turn here to the other side of the coin:
African American debts to Jewish music and musicians. This story has been dramatized by the
Idelsohn Society’s disc and exhibit, Black Sabbath: The Secret History of Black-Jewish
Relations. Black Sabbath offers a feast in Hebrew and Aramaic as well as Yiddish featuring
Johnny Mathis’ Kol Nidre, Billie Holliday’s My Yiddish Mamme, Cab Calloway’s Utt Da Zay,
Alberta Hunter’s Ich Hib Dich Tzufil Lieb (“A Good Man Is Hard to Find”), Nina Simone’s
Eretz Zavat Chalav, Aretha Franklin’s Swanee, The Temptations’ Fiddler on the Roof, and the
versions of Eli Eli (based on the Twenty-second Psalm) by Ethel Waters, Duke Ellington, and
Paul Robeson. Robeson was lauded by the Forvertz as “the cry of an oppressed people . . . the
cry of an insulted and driven race.”.61 Why the popularity of Eli Eli (which Cantor Yosele
Rosenblatt also sang on the vaudeville stage) among black performers? Because, in the words of
Ethel Water, “it tells the tragic history of the Jews . . . so similar to my own people.”62
We also find:
Bert Williams turning to song writer Paul Rosenfeld for I Don’t Care If You Never Come
Back and Irving Berlin for Woodman, Woodman, Spare That Tree.63
Flournoy Miller’s and Aubrey Lyles’ Shuffle Along (1921), the all-black written and
performed musical that launched African American music on Jazz Age Broadway which
was produced Jack and Bert Goldberg.64
Ethel Waters not objecting to her being billed “the ebony Nora Bayes” after the
vaudeville performer, born Dora Goldberg, whose own ancestry combined a Jewish
father and black mother.65
Paul Robeson making his own Yiddish songs—including Zog Nit Kaynmal, the Warsaw
Ghetto resistance song, and The Kaddish of Rebbe Levi-Yitzhok of Berditchev.66
Louis Armstrong privately telling Cab Calloway that his signature scat singing was
inspired by Jewish ritual davening, but not wanting to create religious controversy by
publicizing it.67
Amstrong’s admission brings up the question of the similarities of African American and Jewish
music. This subject infuriates ideologues like Jeffrey Melnick who find it hard to admit that there
was a real mutual affinity at work between “the sons of cantors” and “the sons of slaves”—not
just “the Shylocks of Tin Pan Alley” financially ripping off black artists. Melnick is correct that
it became a commonplace to assert the affinity of Jewish liturgical music (songs with what Paul
Robeson called “the Jewish sigh and tear”) with black music (which a critic in the Forvertz
argued was endowed “the minor key of Jewish music, the wail of the Chazan, the cry of anguish
of a people who had suffered”).68
Yet to demolish the Black-Jewish musical affinity, Melnick mocks it as melancholia judaica (an
ironic phrase borrowed by him from Jazz Age critic Isaac Goldberg) and suggests a crude
conspiratorial motive behind it on the part of Jazz Age Jews—accused of being “white slavers,
Reds, World Series fixers, bootleggers, and so on”—who needed the cover of association with a
sacred musical tradition going back to King David and his harp. Indeed, according to Melnick
what historian Mark Slobin has called “a cantorial craze” in Jewish immigrant neighborhoods
was largely a confidence game that had no real roots in old world musicality—with the cantors
selling a nonexistent “tradition” that they had to improvise on the fly. None of Melnick’s
caricature of a critique would be accepted by serious students of Jewish sacred music, of Hasidic
melodies, or of the secular varieties like Klezmer. “By the mid-nineteenth century,” as historian
Mark Slobin puts it, “the cantor has risen to extraordinary prominence, reigning as the musical
star of the sacred world . . . .”69
Melnick also cites musicologist Nicholas Tawa who finds that plaintive cantoral chords akin to
the blues are matched by certain similarities between black music and the music of Hungarian
violinists, Greek vocalists, Syrian instrumentalists, and “Sicilian, Portuguese, or Armenian”
musicians. The trouble with this laundry list comparison is that there were scant few Hungarian,
Greek, Syrian, Sicilian, Portuguese, or Armenian musicians living near African American
neighborhoods. Such black neighborhoods, in contrast, were often in close cultural contact with
Jewish immigrant communities where the sons of cantors, and fans of the Yiddish stage, grew up
absorbing Jewish musical traditions. Jack Gottlieb calls the resulting inflection of the popular
songs that Jews wrote “Yingish.”70
Melnick’s treatment of George Gershwin shows the lengths he is willing to go to delink Jewish
from African American musical traditions—denying the influence of “Jewish roots”—in order to
deny Jews “the right to sing the blues.” Four pages of Melnick’s book are devoted to making an
unconvincing argument that Gershwin’s Summertime is primarily a ripoff of the black spiritual,
Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, while Melnick ignores the more telling evidence that
Gershwin (who has once contemplated setting Solomon Ansky’s The Dybbuk to music) feared
that the music of his folk opera, Porgy and Bess, might cause “people to think it sounds too
Attitudes among African American musicians towards George Gershwin and his music have
ranged from Duke Ellington’s respect for the man but disdain for his music to Wynton Marsalis
who has no use for “People who read the Torah and stuff” while himself “jazzing up”
Gershwin’s songs, which were also recorded by Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Sara Vaughn, and
Nina Simone. Miles Davis had no compunctions recording Israel, based on Khosn kale mazl tov,
despite his comment that at Columbia Records “They don’t do anything for you unless you’re
white or Jewish.” On the other hand, Willie “The Lion” Smith lauded the humanity of Jews, and
Cab Calloway said, “There’s bad in every group. You can’t blame the whole group for what one
or two do: that’s a shitty way to treat people.” The point is that—like it or not—intersecting
African American and Jewish music traditions are rooted in a mutual affinity that cannot be
joked out of existence or explained away.72
Crossover Dreams: Black Jews and “White Negroes”
If as the saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then African Americans and Jews
have been among each other’s greatest fans. Perhaps the most dramatic manifestations are the
voluntary conversion of “Black Jews” and the reciprocal identification of Jewish “White
One facet of this phenomenon was the growing number of African American Jews by choice
rather than descent. During and after World War I, many Black-Jewish congregations emerged in
Northern cities. Calling themselves Israelites, Hebrews, Canaanites, Essenes, Judaites,
Rechabites, Falashas, or Abyssinians (Ethiopians), there were founded primarily by West Indian
immigrants. Influenced by close contact with the Ashkenazic Jewish communities, their
ministers often learned some Yiddish and Hebrew. They often claimed a hereditary link to the
biblical Israelites, but were open to positive relations with “white” Jews. This phenomenon had a
musical dimension as African American self-identifying as Jews began to sing Jewish music in
Yiddish theaters and on the vaudeville circuit. One example was Reb Tuviah who enthralled
Jewish audiences in the 1920s starring in a Yiddish play, Yenta Talebenta, and offering a
rendition of Eli, Eli that the Forvertz said “conveyed more deeply and movingly the Jewish
sorrow, the Jewish martyrdom, the Jewish cry and plea to God, than . . . could have ever been
Another example was Willie “The Lion” Smith, the son of a Jew, Frank Bertholoff, and a black
domestic, Ida Oliver. A Jazz stride pianist, Smith took the last name of his stepfather, but
identified with his father’s religious heritage. Befriended by a Jewish family in Newark where he
grew up and discovered his “Jewish soul,” Smith learned Hebrew and underwent a Bar Mitzvah,
later assuming the role of cantor at a Harlem synagogue. In 1920, he accompanied Mamie Smith
on her historic recording of Crazy Blues. His stroke-ridden mother’s compassionate treatment at
Newark’s Beth Israel Hospital solidified with Judaism of Smith who collaborated with a rabbi in
composing Yiddish songs. The Tommy Dorsey and Artie Shaw orchestras performed Smith’s
musical compositions in the late 1930s, and he later joined Max Kaminsky’s band. The
association with Shaw, a Jew who had led a troubled youth as a fan of black jazz, completed a
circle as Shaw repaid Smith for the guidance he had provided Shaw when they had met in
Harlem where Shaw came “to feel more like a colored man than an ‘ofay’.”74
Artie Shaw was among a group of Jewish “White Negroes”—who converted, in a manner of
speaking, to the world of black culture and music. The term was not popularized until Norman
Mailer’s 1957 essay, “The White Negro,” but the phenomenon dated back to the 1920s and
1930s.75 “White Negrosim” extended beyond the Northeast to the Midwest where Eddie Condon,
Wingy Manone, Vic and Ralph Berton, Pee Wee Russell, Bud Freeman, Jimmy McPartland,
Hoagy Carmichael, Bix Beiderbecke, Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, and Benny Goodman all shared
an intense love of black music. Too poor to take music lessons except at his synagogue and at
Chicago’s Hull House, Goodman led a conventional personal life. In contrast, “Mezz” Mezzrow
was a rebel against Victorianism who claimed to have first been exposed to the blues while
serving a term in a reformatory. Born in an affluent Jewish family, he had no use for “heebs”
who “played a commercial excuse for the real thing,” while “being a Jew didn’t mean a thing to
me.” Yet Jazz, which was sacred to Mezzrow, colored his attitude toward Judaism. Delighted to
learn from a rabbi that “Moses, King Solomon, and the Queen of Sheba were all colored, maybe
the whole world was once colored,” Mezzrow convinced himself that his musical dedication was
making him into “a colored man.” After he saw a group of Orthodox Jews in the lobby of
Minsky brothers “shaking their heads at . . . [Louis Armstrong’s] sad moan,” Mezzrow
speculated positively that “the language of the oppressed is universal, and hops across the
boundaries of nationality.”76
Though none of the Jewish “White Negroes” died young and became legendary in quite the
same way as non-Jewish white trumpeter Bix Biederbecke, they all demonstrated that what
motivated them was “the feeling of brotherhood” they found in Harlem and their exhilarating
new identity as white avatars of black music.77
Dollars and Sense: Economic Relations and Realities
We must end by confronting—yet once again—the core indictment advanced against American
Jews in relation to African American music: the claim of theft, in brutal economic terms. This is
where “the Shylock image” continues to rear its head—in critics from Louis Farrakhan to James
The anarchist Pierre Joseph Proudhon became famous for declaring that “all property is theft.” In
this philosophical sense, the fruits of any economic success stand condemned. Yet “theft” and
cognate words take on a milder connotation when it’s applied to certain transactions. Was it
“theft” for Jewish immigrants “to to “take jazz and give it a new color and mean”? These are the
words of Samson Raphaelson, author of The Jazz Singer. Clearly, Raphaelson meant a creative
appropropriation that translated into financial gain for Jews and enriched American culture
without, necessarily, making African Americans poorer. The critics of “musical Shylockism,”
however, claim that there existed an exploitative zero sum game in which for every white
(Jewish) winner there was a black loser.78
Let’s apply this logic more broadly. Was Italian American Perry Como “a thief” when he
performed Kol Nidre? Were white bandleaders guilty when they “stole” arrangements from Don
Redman, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, and William Grant Still, but Henderson not guilty
for “stealing” from his own black band members? Was a black band leader entirely innocent for
turning down a 1916 offer from Victor Records to become the first jazz band to record—leaving
that distinction to the all-white Original Dixieland Jazz Band? And was Irving Berlin somehow
“guilty” for having the shrewdness to begin self-publishing his songs before World War I? And
was Berlin “guilty” of “the commercial taint” by buying—according to rumor—a song from Fats
Waller for $25?79 If so, what about Duke Ellington who, we know for a fact, paid $25 for the
rights to Caravan, but then withheld royalties from the black composer for 30 years, justifying
himself because “everybody steals from me”? And was black song writer Eubie Blake—inspired
by Franz Lehár and Victor Herbert to compose waltzes—any less of a “thief” than American
Jewish composers who looked to him or Henderson or Ellington for inspiration?80
Perhaps the great African American novelist Ralph Ellison summed it up best in responding to
Jewish critic Irving Howe who accused him of doing something wrong by giving his novelistic
imagination free reign, rather than staying where Howe wanted him, i.e., within the confines of
the traditional black “protest novel.” For Ellison, there was no such thing as stereotypically
“Negro” or “Jewish” or any other kind of art of music: “It requires real poverty of imagination to
think that . . . [identity] can come to a Negro only through the example of other Negroes,
especially after the performance of the slaves in recreating themselves, in good part, out of the
images and myths of the Old Testament Jews.” If African Americans were not guilty of larceny
in the context of their biblically-inspired liberation, nor were Jews guilty for embracing African
American art and music.81
Yet what about who made the money? Before answering that question, justice requires looking at
who paid money in a philanthropic or otherwise generous way. At a time when there was no
middle-class black infrastructure to support black artistic and musical endeavor, Jewish
individuals and institutions stepped in to fill the gap. The picture Birth of a Race—the NAACP’s
answer to Griffith’s racist Birth of a Nation—was made possible by the joint support of
philanthropist Julius Rosenwald and William Selig’s Polyscope Pictures. Philanthropists Otto
Kahn, Hebert Lehman, Harold Guinzberg, Alfred Knopf, Mary Fels, and Joel and Amy Spingarn
generously supported aspiring black artists, as did the Rosenwald Fund which paid for Marian
Anderson’s European travels. In 1923, W. E. B. Du Bois told the Forvertz that “the Negro race
looks to Jews for sympathy and understanding.” He was referring to Jewish interest and support
for African Americans paralleling that taken a generation earlier by Gentile well wishers of
Jewish progress like Hutchins Hapgood, author of The Spirit of the Ghetto (1902). African
American historian David Levering may characterize Jewish support for black rights as Jews
“fight[ing] against anti-Semitism by remote control,” but their support became even more
important as America entered the Great Depression.82
In the 1920s, Jewish philosopher Horace Kallen had substituted for the melting pot image of
America that of an orchestra of diverse but harmonious parts. In the 1930s, Jewish bandleaders
such as Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw put the notion to a test by stepping up to break the
color barrier and hire black musicians. In 1935, Goodman hired pianist Teddy Wilson to play
with him and drummer Gene Krupa in an integrated trio. In 1936, he added Lionel Hampton on
vibes to form the Benny Goodman Quartet. In 1939, guitarist Charlie Christian joined
Goodman’s big band. “As far as I’m concerned, what he [Goodman] did in those days . . . made
it possible for Negroes to have a chance in baseball and other fields.” Billie Holiday became
Artie Shaw’s lead singer, touring the South with his band. Also in 1939, Tommy Dorsey lured
away Sy Oliver from Jimmie Lunceford’s all-black band with a $5,000 annual salary increase.
Yet white band leaders faced a Catch 22: if they hired away African American talent, they were
accused of undermining black bands; if they didn’t: they were charged with racism. The faceless
character of radio to some degree promoted integration. Unfortunately, the American Federation
of Musicians resisted, and there were no black musicians employed full-time by the networks
before 1940.83
Night clubs like Sherman Billingsley’s the Stork Club resisted integration, and George and
Connie Immerman’s Connie’s Inn discouraged black patrons in the 1920s when the Cotton
Club—run by Irish American gangster Owney Madden—also excluded them. Yet Barney
Josephson’s Café Society, opening in a Greenwich Village basement in 1938, shattered the color
barrier. Other Jewish-operated nightclubs such as the Village Vanguard and Blue Angel followed
New York’s Theatrical Trust, formed by five German-Jewish entrepreneurs, rejected demands by
the city’s Southern Society that blacks only be sold tickets in the balcony—traditionally called
“nigger heaven.” Yet they also refused to sell African Americans prime orchestra seats until
forced to do so by state legislation passed in 1911. American American song writer Andy Razaf
protested against anti-black on the stage as late as 1919.85
An irony of the period around 1900 was that black artists chasing fame in New York’s theatrical
world and Eastern European Jewish immigrants seeking the same initially were less likely to
compete with each other than to have to cope with another, better established group in Gotham’s
entertainment hierarchy. This was the German-Jewish theatrical entrepreneurs like the Frohman
brothers (Gustave, Charles, and Daniel) who made their appearance in the 1870s as managers
and advance agents for Callendar’s Original Georgia Minstrels, the first all-black minstrel
company, and then acquired the Madison Square Theater in New York. With Marc Klaw, Abe
Erlanger, Sam Nixon, Alf Hayman, and J. F. Zimmerman, the Frohmans formed the Theatrical
Trust which displaced the Kieth, Albee Circuit as the leading theatrical booking agency. Oscar
Hammerstein I (father of the more famous Broadway composer) was inspired as a teenager by
seeing a performance of Bryant’s Minstrels to begin a career that made him a theatrical
potentate. Even before Florence Ziegfeld, Hammerstein cultivated the friend of James Weldon
and J. Rosamond Johnson. Then Ziegfeld invited to vacation at his Thousand Islands Estate Ford
Dabney whom he hired as director of his Madison Square Garden roof garden shows, and Bert
Williams whom he hired to star in the Ziegfeld Follies.86
On the other hand, friction went hand in hand with friendship. The Johnson brothers had a near
rupture over royalties with Joseph W. Stern and Company, the same issue that caused a rift
between African American composer Will Marion Cook and music publisher Isadore Witmark.
Witmark was among the few publishers before the Copyright Act of 1909 to pay song writers,
white or black, royalties. Yet Cook offended Witmark by appearing at his offices with a white
lawyer demanding more money. Left out of the story by Melnick: Cook’s own lawyer “thought
that he was in the wrong.” Bob Cole also broke with Jewish theatrical manager Rudolph
Voelckel, who managed Black Patti’s Troubadors and was married to the star.87
Yet more stories could be told about intra-Jewish clashes between aspiring Russian Jews and
established German Jews in an outside the theatrical world.88 For example, the German-Jewish
controlled Theatrical Trust enjoyed a virtual monopoly until newcomer Nicholas Schenk
organized the People’s Vaudeville Trust after 1900. The point is that, into the twentieth century,
there was no such thing as a simple Black-Jewish interaction in the musical and theatrical
world—but more like a triangular interaction involving both Russian and German Jews and
African Americans.89
By the 1920s, the dyadic relationship between Africans and first and second generation
American Jews from Eastern Europe that we take for granted had begun to crystallize. Both
communities displayed a strong attraction to the entertainment industry. This was true even
among Southern blacks who described themselves to the Census as “professional musicians” in
surprisingly large numbers, though this usually meant working for little in a travelling show.
Irving Berlin made the then colossal sum of $100,000 in royalties for Alexander’s Ragtime Band.
Ethel Waters at the start of her career was making half the $75 per week union scale for
musicians who earned almost three times the earnings of autoworkers at Ford. Lena Horne
reminisced, “We all knew we were underpaid and overworked in the most miserable conditions.”
Yet Horned loved her manager, Lew Lesie, for “never playing the great white father.” On the
other hand, Mamie Smith—whose recording of Crazy Blues for black-owned Okeh Records
created a new market for “race records”—was earning as much as $1500 per week, which
compared well to Al Jolson’s salary.90
Where charges of unfairness usually manifest themselves is in discussions of black musicians in
relation to Jewish theater owners, agents, managers. Frank Schiffman, owner of Harlem’s
Lafayette and then Apollo theaters, was not particularly like, yet made those venues launching
pads for African American talent. Sol Hurok, the impresario who convinced Marian Anderson to
return to the U.S., was above reproach. Joe Glazer, who rose from managing a mob-owned
nightclub in Chicago to managing Louis Armstrong, had the implicit trust of Armstrong and his
assertive wife, Lucille, to the day that Glaser died, despite outside criticism that he overcharged
other black clients he managed. Irving Mills—who, between the mid-1920s and mid-1930s,
transformed Duke Ellington’s orchestra into a national and international success through unique
promotion techniques such as limiting the band to playing Ellington’s own works, getting them
film exposure, and arranging their celebrity tours of Europe—attracted criticism for taking
editorial credit and the lion’s share of royalties for some of Ellington’s compositions. Yet Mills
compensated Ellington with an independent stream of income from Mill’s own publishing
company, and kept the entire band on his payroll during the Depression when lucrative recording
sessions dried up. When young John Hammond, a music critic, appealed to Ellington in the midthirties to drop “the bloodsucker” Mills, Ellington refused, preferring to stay with his tough
Jewish manager rather than turn over management of his band to the young Gentile idealist who
thought he knew better than Ellington what kind of music he should play.91
Ellington’s judgment when he finally switched from Mills to the William Morris Agency in
1939—that Mills had served the Ellington brand superlatively “in spite of how much he may
had made from me”—was borne out by the facts. Ellington’s band thrived at the time when the
black-owned Theater Owners’ Booking Association (TOBA) was mismanaged into bankruptcy,
black-owned record companies like Okeh and Black Swan were notoriously unreliable, and
tremendously talented band leader Fletcher Henderson managed himself yet never achieved the
breakthrough that Mills made possible for Ellington.92
World War II was a great watershed for Black-Jewish relations. The “Double V Campaign”—
victory over fascism abroad and racism at home—galvanized African Americans and Jews in a
way that prefigured the postwar civil rights movement. But the war was also a culminating
moment for half a century of cultural creativity using music to reform and energize American
nationality. There were no better symbols of this than, on the one side, Duke Ellington’s band
whose synthesis of American and African American musical identities laid that groundwork for
Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Ellington himself to become among the most effective
U.S. ambassadors of good will to the postwar world.93
On the other side, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II during and after the war offered a
triptych of musicals—Oklahoma! (1943), South Pacific (1949), and The King and I (1951)—that
transformed the theater into a peaceful weapon for forging American identity around the twin
themes of patriotism and tolerance. What better lesson could there be than South Pacific’s
parallel stories of Lt. Joe Cable and nurse Nellie Forbush? Cabell sings “You’ve Got to Be
Careful Taught” about how self-destructive prejudices are internalized—in his case fatally
costing him the love of a beautiful Polynesian girl. Nurse Nellie overcomes her own prejudices
in time to find love with the French planter DeBec and his multiracial children.94
Yet all too predictably, Oklahoma’s affirmation of love of country, South Pacific’s preachment
against prejudice, and the King and I’s empathetic treatment of “The Puzzlement” of a latterday
royal Moses unable to himself enter the promised future toward which he points his people: all
have become ideological battlefields. The same doctrinaire academics who tell us blackinfluenced, Jewish-composed songs from 1910 to 1940 were not a creative flowering but a
conspiracy to “suppress the voices of African Americans,” also tell us that Rodgers and
Hammerstein were really white supremacists—and, worse still, anticommunists—who
patronized nonwhite natives while singing the praises of the expanding American empire.95
Implicitly at least, African Americans are urged by trendy academics not to venture beyond their
own musical traditions in order to avoid cooptation by the cultural marketplace that Jews have
helped shape. At the same time, Jews are hectored to be silent about Elvis Presley for (like Louis
Armstrong) wearing a Star of David, and about Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller as well as Phil
Chess and Jerry Wexler for being significant figures in the history of rock and roll. The reason?
Jews, at least in the mind of Professor Melnick, should be ashamed for having corrupted every
kind of music they have touched.96
Postmodern theater historian Raymond Knapp actually compares Oklahoma! to an imaginary
play by a German, written after in an alternative history the Nazis’ win World War II, that
glorifies Hitler’s conquest of Poland! Why? Because the play doesn’t dramatize the plight of
Native Americans. In fact, four new crematoria opened at Auschwitz in March, 1943: the same
month Oklahoma! opened. But the appropriate moral to drawn from this coincidence of dates is
the antithesis of Knapp’s politically correct madness demonizing the American generation of
death camp liberators!97
Whether he knows it or not, Melnick personifies the continuing relevance of the theory of the
Jews as a “middle man” minority: he himself is a connecting link between the malevolent
theorizings about Jews and music by Richard Wagner and Louis Farrakhan.
For the rest of us, it should be enough to act on the faith that the Black-Jewish civil rights
alliance and the Black-Jewish cultural symbiosis in the realm of popular music were good,
mutually reinforcing causes. We should do what we can to keep both alive in the twenty-first
century. Let’s Face The Music And Dance.
Jeffrey Melnick, The Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 176-77.
Gene Lees, Cats of Any Color: Jazz Black and White (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 239-40.
Let’s Face the Music and Dance, composed by Irving Berlin for the film, Follow the Fleet (1936), starring Fred
Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Terry Teachout, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), p. 16 (quote).
Ibid., 31-32, 35-36, 39, 360, 392; Thomas Brothers, ed., Louis Armstrong, In His Own Words: Selected Writings
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 11-12, 14-19. Understandably, writing almost seventy years later,
Armstrong got some dates wrong in his account.
Florence Hamlish Levinsohn, Looking for Farrakhan (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1997), p. 186; Arthur J. Magida,
Prophet of Rage: A Life of Louis Farrakhan and His Nation (New York: Basic Books, 1996), p. 139.
Susan Guber, Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press,
1997), pp. 66, 78-79.
Michael Alexander’s Jazz Age Jews (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001) was a welcome step in the right
Jervis Anderson, This Was Harlem (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1982), p. 179 (quote). The composer
Leopold Stokowski made much the same prediction. He’s quoted in Joel A. Rogers, “Jazz at Home,” in The New
Negro, ed. by Alain Locke (New York: Atheneum, 1975 [1925]), pp. 221-22.
Lawrence Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), pp. 23,
28, 50, 151; John Lovell, Black Song: The Forge and Flame; The Story of How The Afro-American Spiritual Was
Hammered Out (New York, Macmillan, 1972); James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (New York: Dial Press,
1963), p. 67 (quote).
Frank Tirro, Jazz: A History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1993); Ted Goia, The History of Jazz (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1999); David Ake, Jazz Cultures (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); Gunther
Schuller, Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968); Robert C.
Toll, Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974);
Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the White Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press,
1995); James H. Dormon “Shaping the Popular Image of Post-Reconstruction American Blacks: The ‘Coon Song’
Phenomenon of the Gilded Age,” American Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Dec., 1988), pp. 453-65; David Krasner,
Resistance, Parody, and Double Consciousness in African American Theatre, 1895–1910 (New York: St. Martin’s,
Edward Pessen, “The Great Songwriters of Tin Pan Alley’s Golden Age: A Social, Occupational, and Aesthetic
Inquiry,” American Music, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Summer, 1983), pp. 180-87; Kenneth A. Kanter, The Jews on Tin Pan
Alley: The Jewish Contribution to American Popular Music, 1830-1940 (New York: KTAV Publishing House,
1982); David Lehman, A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters and American Songs (New York Schocken, 2009).
Gerald A. Powell, Jr., A Rhetoric of Symbolic Identity: Analysis of Spike Lee's X and Bamboozled (Lanham, MD:
University Press of America, 2004).
Michael Paul Rogin Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1996), p. 99; Joel Rosenberg, “Rogin’s Noise: The Alleged Historical Crimes of The
Jazz Singer,” in Prooftexts, No. 22 (2002), p. 232.
Rogin, Blackface, pp. 12-13, 100, 102, 116; Alexander, Jazz Age Jews, p. 172 (quote).
New York Amsterdam News, May 2, 1928; Rogin, Blackface, pp. 196-97; Neil Leonard, Jazz and the White
Americans: Acceptance of a New Art Form (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), p. 89; Kathy J. Ogren,
The Jazz Revolution: Twenties America and the Meaning of Jazz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp.
Melnick, The Right to Sing the Blues, pp. 65, 237 (quote).
Tom Watson’s Jeffersonian, quoted in C. Vann Woodward, Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1963 [1938], p. 438.
Melnick, Black-Jewish Relations on Trial: Leo Frank and Jim Conley in the New South (Jackson, Miss.:
University Press of Mississippi, 2000), p. 22 (quote), 54-56, 139, 141.
On being “too Jewish,” see Norman Kleeblatt, ed., Too Jewish?: Challenging Traditional Identities (New
Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997).
Melnick, The Right to Sing the Blues, pp. 187, 242. For trenchant critiques of Melnick’s The Right to Sing the
Blues, see Seth Forman, Blacks in the Jewish Mind: A Crisis of Liberalism (New York: New York University Press,
1998), pp. 14-15; Jack Gottlieb, Funny, It Doesn’t Sound Jewish (New York: SUNY Press, 2004), pp. 193-98.
Melnick, The Right to Sing the Blues, pp. 14, 103, 151, 177, 196. The charge about Jews as “slaveholders” comes
from his dissertation, “Ancestors and Relatives: The Uncanny Relationship of African Americans and Jews” (Ph. D.
thesis, Harvard University, 1994), p. 603.
Melnick, The Right to Sing the Blues, pp. 14-15, 41, 55, 67.
Ibid., 147-50, 155-62; Harold Brackman, “The Ebb and Flow of Conflict: A History of Black-Jewish Relations”
(Ph.D. thesis, University of California, Los Angeles, 1977), pp. 440-41; James Weldon Johnson, Along This Way:
The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson (New York: Viking Press, 1933), pp. 136 (quote), 328; Eugene D.
Levy, James Weldon Johnson: Black Leader, Black Voice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973); George
Hutchinson, The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), pp. 111-12;
Henry Louis Gates et al., “Black Creativity: On the Cutting Edge,” Time magazine (October 10, 1994).
Melnick, The Right to Sing the Blues, p. 49.
Ibid., 56, 114-19; Gottlieb, Funny, It Doesn’t Sound Jewish, p. 195. Melnick doesn’t credit the claim by Alberta
Hunter on the Dick Cavett Show in 1978 that Harold Arlen’s Stormy Weather was stolen, perhaps from Lukie
Johnson. There is no support for this in any of the sources, and she may have confused the rumored theft by Irving
Berlin from Scott Joplin. See Frank C. Taylor with Gerald Cook, Alberta Hunter: A Celebration of the Blues (New
York: McGraw Hill, 1987); Jablonski, Harold Arlen.
Ibid., 100. See also Stephen H. Norwood, “Marauding Youth and the Christian Front: Antisemitic Violence in
Boston and New York During World War II,” American Jewish History, Vol. 91, No. 2 (June, 2003), pp. 233-67;
and Norman Podhoretz’s essay, “My Negro Problem—And Ours,” in Commentary (February, 2003). Melnick
ignores jazzman Max Kaminsky’s reminiscence that, growing up in Boston’s Roxbury District, Jewish kids made
common cause with black youngsters against Irish bullies. See Burton W. Peretti, The Creation of Jazz: Music,
Race, and Culture in Urban America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), p. 89.
Jeffrey Melnick, “Soul,” Shofar, Vol. 24, No. 4 (2006),
Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), especially 91-138; Eric L. Goldstein The Price of Whiteness: Jews,
Race, and American Identity (Princeton University Press, 2006); Karen Brodkin, How Jews Became White Folks:
And What That Says About Race in America (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994); and Gubar,
Racechanges, especially, pp. 66-75. See also Neal Gabler, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented
Hollywood (New York: Doubleday, 1988), pp. 140-46. Matthew Jacobson is typical: “The minstrelsy of The Jazz
Singer, then appropriates blackness to constitute the Jews’ whiteness. . . . Paradoxically, by donning blackface the
Hebrew becomes Caucasian. In playing black, the Jew becomes white.” See Whiteness of a Different Color, pp. 118,
Melnick, The Right to Sing the Blues, pp. 97, 99, 196; Noel Ignatiev and John Garvey, Race Traitor (New York:
Routledge, 1996), p. 20. See also Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York: Routledge, 1995); David R.
Roediger, Towards The Abolition of Whiteness: Essays on Race, Politics, and Working Class History (London:
Verso, 1994); Thomas A. Guglielmo, White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890-1945
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White
People Profit from Identity Politics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998); and Joe L. Kincheloe et al., eds.,
White Reign: Deploying Whiteness in America (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998).
Melnick, The Right to Sing the Blues, p. 213.
Pessen, “The Great Songwriters of Tin Pan Alley’s Golden Age,” pp. 181, 184 (quote), 185; Raymond Knapp,
The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 71.
Isaac Goldberg, Tin Pan Alley: A Chronicle of American Popular (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing
Company, 1961 [1930]), pp. 108-09; Music Gottlieb, Funny, It Doesn’t Sound Jewish, p. 195; Thomas L. Riis, Just
Before Jazz: Black Musical Theater in New York, 1890-1915 (Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution Press,
1989); Kanter, Jews on Tin Pan Alley; Gilbert Osofksy, Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto, Negro New York, 18901930 (New York: Harper and Row, 1971); David A. Jasen and Gene Jones, Spreadin’ Rhythm Around (New York:
Routledge, 2005); Brackman, “The Ebb and Flow of Conflict,” pp. 483-84; Lewis A. Erenberg, Steppin’ Out: New
York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture, 1890-1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1981), p. 255.
James H. Dormon, “Ethnic Cultures of the Mind: The Harrigan-Hart Mosaic,” p. 1-40,
<>; Robert Oberfirst, Al Jolson: You Aint
Heard Nothin’ Yet! (New York: A.S. Barnes, 1982), pp. 80-81; Gottlieb, Funny, It Doesn’t Sound Jewish, p. 24-25,
29; Robert Snyder, Voice of the City: Vaudeville and Popular Culture in New York (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1989), p. 111; Ted Merwin, In Their Own Image: New York Jews in Jazz Age Popular Culture (New
Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006), p. 17.
Brackman, The Ebb and Flow of Conflict, p. 485; Merwin, In Their Own Image, pp. 19, 22; Mary V. Dearborn,
“Anzia Yezierska and the Making of an Ethnic American Self,” in Werner Sollors, ed., The Invention of Ethnicity
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 121; Irving Howe with Kenneth Libo, The World of Our Fathers
(New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), p. 404.
Nathan I. Huggins, Harlem Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 259.
Krasner, Resistance, Parody, and Double Consciousness, pp. 29-33, 37; Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty:
Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1995), p. 370; James Weldon Johnson, Black
Manhattan (New York: Atheneum, 1968 [1930]), pp. 97-103.
Leslie A. Fiedler, Waiting for the End (New York: Delta, 1965), p. 68.
Stephen Whitfield, In Search of American Jewish Culture (New Haven: University Press of New England, 1999),
p. 28-29; Lawrence J. Epstein, The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America (New York: Public
Affairs, 2000), p. 62 (quote).
Rogin, Black Face, White Noise, pp. 108-09; Erenberg, Steppin’ Out, pp. 176-205; Merwin, In Their Own Image,
pp. 28, 51-54; Sophie Tucker, Some of These Days (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran, and Company, 1945), pp.
94-95 (quote).
Ann Charters, Nobody: The Story of Bert Williams (New York: Macmillan, 1970), p. 128; Camille F. Forbes,
Introducing Bert Williams: Burnt Cork, Broadway, and the Story of America’s First Black Star (New York: Basic
Civitas Books, 2010), p. 272; J. Hoberman and Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and
Broadcasting (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), pp. 156-57; Mel Watkins, On the Real Side (New
York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), p. 179; Eddie Cantor with Jane Kesner Ardmore, Take My Life (Garden City, NY:
Doubleday, 1957), pp.124-25, 159; Merwin, In Their Own Image, p. 56.
In the 1930s, Jolson unsuccessfully tried to secure starring roles in both The Green Pastures and Porgy and
Bess—which we wanted to play in blackface. See Bruce Kirle, Unfinished Business: Broadway Musicals as WorksIn-Progress (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004), p. 70.
Contrary to the myth of paternal opposition to musical careers, Jolson was encouraged by his father to become a
violinist. Jacques Offenbach, Kurt Weill, and Harold Arlen received more direct encouragement. See Gottlieb,
Funny, It Doesn’t Sound Jewish, p. 154.
Oberfirst, Al Jolson, pp. 13-44; Alexander, Jazz Age Jews, p. 167; Merwin, In Their Own Image, pp. 5, 18;
Richard Butsh, The Making of American Audiences: From Stage to Television, 1750-1990 (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2000), pp. 81-94; Howe with Libo, The World of Our Fathers, p. 563 (quote).
Merwin, In Their Own Image, pp. 6, 14; Alexander, Jazz Age Jews, pp. 134-35; Thomas Cripps, Slow Fade to
Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 142, 253; Gabler,
An Empire of Their Own, pp. 140-41.
Merwin, In Their Own Image, pp. 55, 58-59; Alexander, Jazz Age Jews, p. 179; Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of
Other Suns (New York: Random House, 2010), p. 366.
Hoberman and Shandler, Entertaining America, p. 91; Lester D. Friedman, The Jewish Image in Film (Secaucus,
NJ: Citadel Press), p. 119.
Thomas Cripps, Making Movies Black: The Hollywood Message Movie from World War II to the Civil Rights Era
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
Douglas, Terrible Honesty, p. 400.
Ibid., 360-61; David A. Jasen and Trebor Jay Tichenor, Rags and Ragtime: A Musical History (New York: Dover
Publications, 1978), p. 12.
Whitfield, In Search of American Jewish Culture. pp. 155-56.
Ibid., 146 (quote).
Edward Jablonski, Harold Arlen (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996), pp. 26-27.
Tucker, Some of These Days, pp. 79-84, 114-15, Ethel Waters with Charles Samuels, His Eye Is On the Sparrow:
An Autobiography (New York: Doubleday, 1951), p. 135; Douglas, Terrible Honesty, p. 394.
Barbara W. Wallace, Funny Woman: The Life and Times of Fanny Brice (Bloomington: Indian University Press,
1991), pp. 39-40; Kirle, Unfinished Business, p. 50.
Michael Freedland, Jolson (New York: Stein and Day, 1970), pp. 69-70, 88-89.
Howe with Libo, World of Our Fathers, p. 559.
Max Kaminsky with V. E. Hughes, My Life in Jazz (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), pp. 2, 4, 14.
Melnick, The Right to Sing the Blues, p. 146 (quote).
Michael Billig, Rock “n” Roll Jews (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2001); Jonathan Freedman, Klezmer
America: Jewishness, Ethnicity, Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).
< >. See liner notes. Also, Whitfield, In Search of American Jewish
Culture, p. 146 (quote).
Gottlieb, Funny, It Doesn’t Sound Jewish, p. 139 (quote).
Whitfield, In Search of American Jewish Culture, p. 151.
Ibid., 160.
Ibid., 100; Gottlieb, Funny, It Doesn’t Sound Jewish, p. 143.
Martin Duberman, Paul Robeson (New York: New Press, 1989), p. 353; Murray Friedman with Peter Binzen,
What Went Wrong?: The Creation and Collapse of the Black-Jewish Alliance (New York: Free Press, 1995), p. 119.
Black Sabbath, <>, liner notes, p. 11; Laurence Bergreen, Louis
Armstrong: An Extravagant Life (New York: Broadway, 1997), pp. 58-59, 267-68; Neil Leonard, Jazz: Myth and
Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 94.
Diner, In the Almost Promised Land, pp. 168-69 (quotes). Melnick builds the heart of a chapter around the phrase,
“the Shylocks of Tin Pan Alley,” which traces back to Harlem Renaissance philosopher Alain Locke who, however,
was usually philo-Semitic. See Melnick, The Right to Sing the Blues, pp. 150-51; cf. Locke, “The New Negro” in
Locke, ed., The New Negro, p. 14.
Melnick, The Right to Sing the Blues, pp. 170-71, 176 quote); Mark Slobin, Chosen Voices: The Story of the
American Cantorate (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), pp. 7-12; Slobin, Tenement Songs: The Popular
Music of Jewish Immigrants (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982), p. 19 (quote); Philip V. Bohlman, Jewish
Music and Modernity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 84-87; Gottlieb, Funny, It Doesn’t Sound
Jewish, pp. 95, 154-77. In 1881, an audience attended a Yiddish show in the Romanian city of Jassy in 1881 where
Russian, Romanian, Tyrolean, Chinese and “Negro songs” were played.
Melnick, The Right to Sing the Blues, p. 189; Gottlieb, Funny, It Doesn’t Sound Jewish, p. 112. To borrow a
figure of speech which Melnick uses to derail another speculative argument, “if only my grandmother had wheels,
she would be a trolley car.”
Melnick, The Right to Sing the Blues, pp. 129-32; Geoffrey Block, Enchanted Evenings: The Broadway Musical
from Showboat to Sondheim (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 79-80; Gottlieb, Funny, It Doesn’t
Sound Jewish, pp. 42 (quote), 52, 81, 151.
Duke Ellington, Music Is My Mistress (New York: Da Capo, 1973), pp. 104, 106; Friedman with Binzen, What
Went Wrong?, p. 117; Lees, Cats of Any Color, pp. 187-94, 195 (quote); Gottlieb, Funny, It Doesn’t Sound Jewish,
p. 199 (quotes).
Ibid., 79; Hasia Diner, In the Almost Promised Land: American Jews and Blacks, 1915-1935 (Westport, CN:
Greenwood Press, 1977), p. 67 (quote).
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, eds., Harlem Renaissance Lives (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2009), pp. 460-62; Willie “The Lion” Smith with George Hoefer, Music on My Mind (New York
Da Capo, 1978 [1964]), pp. 245-46; Leonard, Jazz: Myth and Religion, p. 48; Artie Shaw, The Trouble with
Cinderella: An Outline of Identity (New York: Da Capo, 1979), pp. 223-24, 228 (quote). Melnick writes at length
about Smith, but ultimately reduces his Jewish affinity not to spiritual attraction but to “the language of commerce.”
See Melnick, The Right to Sing the Blues, pp. 66-67; Melnick, “A Black Man in Jewface,” in Heather Hathaway and
Joseph Jarab, eds. Race and the Modern Artist (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 136.
The term “White Negro” actually originated with Fernande Olivier, Picasso’s mistress, who uses it in Picasso et
ses amis (1930). See Roger Shattuck, Candor and Perversion: Literature, Education, and the Arts (New York: W.
W. Norton, 1999), p. 200; and also Leonard, Jazz: Myth and Religion, pp. 155-59.
Whitfield, In Search of American Jewish Culture, p. 158; Ogren, The Jazz Revolution, pp. 151-52; Stanley
Coben, Rebellion Against Victorianism: The Impetus for Cultural Change in 1920s America (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1991), p. 79; Lewis A. Erenberg, Swingin’ the Dream: Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American
Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 65-93; Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe,
Really the Blues (New York: Random House, 1946), pp. 18, 201; Neil Leonard, Jazz and the White American
Audience: Acceptance of a New Art Form (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), pp. 55-56. Mezzrow also
became Louis Armstrong’s marijuana supplier. See Peretti, The Creation of Jazz, p. 139.
Erenberg, Steppin’ Out, p. 251; Douglas, Terrible Honesty, p. 417; Peretti, The Creation of Jazz, p. 89.
Hoberman and Shandler, Entertaining America, p. 82 (Raphaelson quote); Melnick, The Right to Sing the Blues,
pp. 31-37, 189.
Gottlieb, Funny, It Doesn’t Sound Jewish, p. 56; Peretti, The Creation of Jazz, p. 189. Fellow black song writers
blamed Waller’s economic woes to his lack of business sense. See Barry Singer, Black and Blue: The Life And
Lyrics of Andy Razaf (New York : Schirmer Books, 1992), pp. 235-36.
Douglas, Terrible Honesty, p. 384; Ogren, The Jazz Revolution, p. 94; Peretti, The Creation of Jazz, p. 150;
Melnick, The Right to Sing the Blues, p. 34; Alexander, Jazz Age Jews, p. 157.
Emily Miller Budick, Blacks and Jews in Literary Conversation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998),
p. 25 (quote).
Cripps, Slow Fade to Black, pp. 74-76; Langston Hughes, The Big Sea: An Autobiography (New York: Hill and
Wang, 1940), p. 312; Diner, In the Almost Promised Land, p. 151 (quote); Robert E. Hemenway, Zora Neale
Hurston (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), p. 205; Anderson, This Was Harlem, p. 174; Brackman, “The
Ebb and Flow of Conflict,” p. 469; David Levering Lewis, When Harlem Was In Vogue (New York: Vintage Books,
1982), pp. 103; Friedman with Binzen, What Went Wrong?, pp. 99, 112. Unlike Harlem’s Jewish patronage
network, non-Jew Carl Van Vechten used his Harlem contacts to advance his own novelistic ambitions, while
heiress Charlotte Osgood Mason tied her support to recipients adhering to her primitivist agenda. See William M.
Banks, Black Intellectuals (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1996), pp. 82-83; Thomas Bender, New York
Intellect: A History of Intellectual Life in New York City, From 1750 to the Beginnings of Our Own Time (New
York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), pp. 326-27; Huggins, Harlem Renaissance, pp. 92-93; Douglas, Terrible Honesty,
pp. 282-83.
Susanne Klingenstein, Jews in the American Academy: The Dynamics of Assimilation (Syracuse: Syracuse
University Press, 1998), pp. 34-50; Lynn Dumenil, The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s
(New York: Hill and Wang, 1995), p. 166; Erenberg, Swingin’ the Dream, pp. 4-5, 66-67, 138-40; James L. Collie,
Benny Goodman and the Swing Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 173-74, 175 (quote); Lees,
Cats of Any Color, p. 202; Peretti, The Creation of Jazz, pp. 157-58, 201; Epstein, The Haunted Smile, p. 62.
Friedman with Binzen, What Went Wrong?, p. 118; Gottlieb, Funny, It Doesn’t Sound Jewish, p. 199; Peretti, The
Creation of Jazz, p. 191; James Haskins, The Cotton Club (New York: Random House, 1977). Gangster Dutch
Schultz made black composer Andy Razaf an offer he could not refuse to write and insert a colored girl’s lament—
(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue—in a Cotton Club revue. On the other hand, Razaf’s partner, Fats
Waller, profited from the generosity of Arnold Rothstein. See Singer, Black and Blue, pp. 216-19; Maurice Waller
and Anthony Calabrese, Fats Waller (New York: Schirmer Books, 1977), pp. 74-77.
Brackman, “The Ebb and Flow of Conflict,” p. 482; Johnson, Along This Way, pp. 199-200; Charles F. Kellogg,
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People: A History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1967), p. 123; Singer, Black and Blue, pp. 53-54.
Brackman, “The Ebb and Flow of Conflict,” pp. 480-81; Johnson, Along This Way, pp. 136, 150; Linda
Mizejewski, Ziegfeld Girl: Image and Icon in Culture and Cinema (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), p.
Paul Buhle, From the Lower East Side to Hollywood: Jews in American Popular Culture (London: Verso, 2004),
p. 37; Riis, Just Before Jazz, pp. 43, 212 (quote). Voeckel’s marriage to Sisserietta Jones was precedent of the
marriages of Lena Horne and Pearl Bailey to Jewish musicians. See Gottlieb, Funny, It Doesn’t Sound Jewish, p.
Stephen Birmingham, Our Crowd: The Great Jewish Families of New York (New York: Harper and Row, 1967);
Birmingham, The Rest of Us: The Rise of America’s Eastern European Jews (Boston: Little, Brown, 1984).
Brackman, “The Ebb and Flow of Conflict,” p. 490; Terry Ramsaye, A Million and One Nights (New York:
Simon and Schuster, 1954 [1926], p. 823.
Pessen, “The Great Songwriters of Tin Pan Alley’s Golden Age,” p. 186; Kirle, Unfinished Business, p. 57;
Peretti, The Creation of Jazz, p. 49; Anderson, This Was Harlem, pp. 131-32; Lena Horne with Richard Schickel,
Lena (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965), p. 48 (quote); Oberfirst, Al Jolson, p. 77, 117 (quotes); John Bush Jones,
Our Musicals, Ourselves: A History of the American Musical Theatre (Waltham, MA: Brandies University Press,
2003), p. 73.
Erenberg, Steppin’ Out, p. 192; Anderson, This Was Harlem, pp. 236-37; Peretti, The Creation of Jazz, p. 148;
Gottlieb, Funny, It Doesn’t Sound Jewish, p. 199; James Lincoln Collier, Louis Armstrong: An American Genius
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), pp. 27, 171-75, 274-75; Ellington, Music Is My Mistress, pp. 234-35;
Stanley Dance, The World of Duke Ellington (New York: Da Capo Press, 1970), p. 69. An uncultured man, Glazer
tended to refer to the African Americans he managed other than Armstrong as “schwarzes.”
Douglas, Terrible Honesty, pp. 391-93, 413; Court Carney, Cuttin’ Up: How Early Jazz Got America’s Ear
(Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2009), p. 147; Erenberg, Swingin’ the Dream, p. 144; Anderson, This Was
Harlem, pp. 132, 171; Harvey G. Cohen, Duke Ellington’s America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010),
pp. 50, 145 (quote); Ellington, Music Is My Mistress, pp. 76-77; John Edward Haase, Beyond Category: The Life
and Genius of Duke Ellington ((New York: Da Capo Press, 1993), pp.89-91. 129, 152-53, 166, 175-219-20.
Hammond’s brother-in-law and business partner was Benny Goodman. He probably meant his “bloodsucker” charge
as a Marxist jibe not an anti-Semitic slur. Ellington may have been pushed into his eventual break with Mills by
jibes at him in the black press calling him Mills’ “House Negro” around the time of the 1935 Harlem Riot that
worsened Black-Jewish relations.
Cohen, Duke Ellington’s America, pp. 202-06.
Frederick Nolan, The Sound of Their Music: The Story of Rodgers and Hammerstein (New York: Applause
Books, 2002).
Andrea Most, Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical (Harvard University Press, 2004), pp. 107-18;
Most, “‘You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught’: The Politics of Race in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific,”
Theater Journal, Vol. 52, No. 3 (October, 2000), pp. 307-37; Knapp, The American Musical, pp. 123-26, 261-68.
Because Judd, the villain in Oklahoma!, is described in the stage notes as “dark” and sullen, Most and others argue
that the play is racist.
Guy Oseary, Jews Who Rock (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2001), p. 54; Jon Stratton, Jews, Race, and Popular
Music (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009), p. 107, 109.
Knapp, The American Musical, pp. 125-26; cf. Lehman, A Fine Romance, p. 21. For Knapp on South Pacific and
The King and I, see pp. 261-68.