Feel Your Groove
Musician/Historian Ben Sidran Brings His Encyclopedic Knowledge to the AJMF

By Lee Valentine Smith

Ben Sidran isn't necessarily a household name, but the busy musician is well-known in both jazz and rock circles as a keyboardist, record producer, label owner and music writer. As a member of the Steve Miller Band in the late '60s, he wrote the radio hit "Space Cowboy" and has released over 30 albums of his own music and unique interpretations of ethnic and rock material. His latest album, Ben There, Done That (Sunset Boulevard Records), is a retrospective of live performances that span the past four decades of international gigs.

As an author, his works include Black Talk (on the sociology of black music in the United States), a memoir called A Life in the Music, and Talking Jazz, a batch of engrossing interviews with jazz musicians. This month, he's coming to the AJMF to present a live performance based on There Was a Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream. The well-documented tome is an incredible cultural history of Jewish contributions to popular music.
INsite recently spoke with the Wisconsin-based Sidran by phone from Mexico.

It's great news that you'll be appearing at the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival.

I'm excited about it. I've almost 30 years playing and talking about the history of Jewish music in America. It's something that I like doing because people just don't know a lot about it. The stories are fantastic and there's so many great characters involved, and so many incredible stories. Of course it's the entire Great American Songbook. So it's a wonderful evening for the audience and it's always a lot of fun for me to do it.

So is this basically multimedia version of the book?

Well that's a good description, I like that. I talk a little bit about the history of Jews coming to America and then I talk about the how and why they became involved in developing the business of music, really coming at it from all different angles. Then I play examples as we go along. And then, through the actual performance, you start to get the feel of the primary theme. Over the 20th century really, the focus was the theme of writing popular music, or simply 'people's music.' The Jews were writing music that essentially was rooted in the ideals of social justice and raising everyday life to a high art. This is something that the Jews kind of invented in America. It really didn't exist until then so it's a good story.

Is this a solo performance or will you have your band along for the evening?

No what it is a solo presentation, but I'm not just sitting at the piano. A lot of it is me prowling with the microphone as I tell stories and anecdotes. Then I play music . And it's all really improvised because essentially I never tell the same story twice, or as the Jews say, a midrash. Basically, it's a version of the truth. So it changes with every performance.

That's the perfect setting perfect for jazz.

Exactly and it is kind of surprising to me that the story hasn't been told before, but people really didn't do it until fairly recently. In 1990-something I put up a CD called Life's A Lesson and it really had all these great contemporary Jewish jazz musicians, playing very basic Jewish liturgical songs. It was one of the first examples of that sort of collection. When you look at it in retrospect it's a little odd did that the people who made the music sort of shied away from promoting the fact that they were the people responsible for all the great music. But it's understandable and there are so many reasons.

The book was published in 2012, but obviously it was a long time in the making because it's a massive subject to tackle in just one volume. Talk us through the writing process.

Yeah it took 6 years to write it. What happened is it really started in 2003. I was the artist in residence at the University of Wisconsin. I put together a course on the topic. Actually at the time it was called From Irving Berlin to the Beastie Boys: Jewish Music and the American Dream. And it talked about the writers, the performers, the executives and everything in between. And of course, there was not a book that really covered the entire subject. There were a lot of different books that handle different aspects of it. Then after teaching that course, I thought, 'Gee I really have taught myself this, so now I have to write it.' Then once I started writing it, the research really took six years because I really had to go down a bunch of rabbit holes in the process. I started to break it down. Really starting with: what is Jewish music? Because you can't really say what it is in one short definition. I mean, Jewish music isn't necessarily music necessarily played by Jews. Jews can play anything. And any kind of music is not specifically music for Jews. Jews can listen to any kind of music. So it could be anything. There are no Jewish notes on the piano, as I like to say. You have to ask some really broad questions to get a definitive picture. Who is a Jew? What is a Jew? What is Jewish? There are just so many ways to approach it. So I really enjoyed delving into it. I gave myself as much time and room as I needed to complete it. But in the end, it was definitely a lot of work. I don't actually think I have the energy to ever do that again.

So no chance of a follow-up edition at any point or do you handle that in the live show?

Yeah. You know I thought about that, because the book is the 20th century and then when you get to the 21st century, just 10 years ago you could have never imagined the world that we're in today. On all fronts – politically, socially, culturally and of course, musically. And the technology front! That could be a book in itself. So the story, the midrash, the real narrative of the book is very much a 20th century point of view. It would take some real doing to step back and try to reframe what is happened to us in just the last, let's say, 20 years. On all fronts. It's just unprecedented. In the live performance, we'll talk about what's happening now culturally, what's on the horizon - and what we can do about it.

Ben Sidran performs at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 14 at Ahavath Achim Synagogue, 600 Peachtree Battle Ave NW, Atlanta. For more information, please visit bensidran.com.

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