click here to jump to start of article
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​

Jazz and the Abstract Truth

Jazz and the Abstract Truth

A story of one man's spiritual journey that took some unusual twists and turns -- jazz studies, African drumming, pretending to be Malcolm X.


My liberalization began in college.

I left the safety of North Jersey for a music school in New England to get a degree in Jazz Studies. I grew my hair long and began to dig being multicultural. I played the guitar.

The criticism came early.

My Jamaican roommates told me, "You play too white, man."

"I do?"

"You need to be more black."

I turned my back on Iron Maiden and got into Mingus, Dolphy, Coltrane, Monk. I submerged myself in Black culture.

"You need to be more funky," my roommates told me.

I discovered James Brown and somebody taught me about backbeat.

I grew angry and radical -- I made my parents watch Spike Lee movies.

Public Enemy came next. I grew angry and radical. I made my parents watch Spike Lee movies.

My journey into Black America was regularly jolted by the almost monthly tirades by Winton Marsalis in "Downbeat" magazine: "The white man is stealing our culture."

He might have been right but I didn't like to be told that. I played the guitar well and I knew the genre better than anybody.

My black friends were more succinct: "You play pretty good ... for a white guy."

For some reason I just didn't fit in.


Things began to change when I met Al while still in college. Al was an ethnic Italian from Long Island. He was earning a degree in classical composition.

We met at a gathering of Free Jazz intellectuals. Everyone there was rich or crazy. I think I was wearing a "Metallica" t-shirt that night.

Al was the first person who understood me; he was also an alienated white kid. We struck up an immediate friendship. We talked about Schoenberg, microtonal composition, and we read a lot of Bukowski.

As we grew closer, we began to insult each other.



Al was determined to teach me how to eat. He brought me to his parents' and fed me. His father called me "Jerusalem."

They were good people, they stuffed me till I couldn't move and let me crash on the couch.

I brought Al to a Ukrainian restaurant in Downtown Manhattan and bought him kasha.

I tried to return the favor. I brought Al to a Ukrainian restaurant in Downtown Manhattan and bought him kasha.

"This is the 'soul food' I grew up on," I told him.

"You're feeding me sand," he said.

Our friendship had its limits.

My Jamaican roommates stopped talking to white people. Small groups of militant youth would assemble in the living room. They'd speak in hushed tones. They wanted to take over City College. They began to vandalize the apartment. Someone wrote, "the white man is for the Devil" on the wall.

I was jealous. I envied the fact that they knew who they were. I had no idea who I was.

I thought of Al. He knew who he was.

It occurred to me that I also belonged to an oppressed minority.

I confronted my roommates: "I laugh at your four hundred years of suffering!"


"Three thousand years my people suffered!"

They thought I was crazy.

I didn't believe it either. I decided to move to Ghana and get a Masters in ethnomusicology. I took up African drumming.

Ghana didn't work out, I ended up in Paris.

The youth hostel had a mandatory all day lockout. I'd spend my mornings in a bookstore guiltily reading a used copy of Malcolm X. In the afternoons I'd wander aimlessly.

I began to think I was Malcolm X. I'd rant and vent and mutter rebelliousness under my breath.

But I wasn't a sixties radical. I was a sheltered Jewish kid from the suburbs. Malcolm's oratory began to be transformed by my personal filter.

"These assimilated American Jews with their Anglicized last names and nose jobs. Fight the power!"

I was referring to myself. I realized it was time to go to Israel.

"Simchat Torah, 1993."

I was herded into a small, packed room of about 150 men dancing with incredible intensity. The noise was deafening.

Someone threw a sheet over me and handed me a Torah scroll. I began to sweat profusely. It was then that I had my first revelation: There wasn't a band playing!

All the noise was generated exclusively by men singing and stamping on the floor. I couldn't believe it.

Judaism was as tribal as any Third World ethnicity I could have tapped into.

Judaism was as tribal as any Third World ethnicity I could have tapped into. It wasn't about the High Holiday fashion show, liberal politics or church organ I'd been exposed to over the past twenty-five years in America.

The Jewish people were a primal funky earth culture!

I looked up at the Head Rabbi. He looked like a Zulu chief straight out National Geographic. The purple sash and spear were replaced by a black suit and white beard. His eyes had the same intensity and ethnic pride.

I'd found my people; they were just a bit more conservative.


About four months later I was alone in a Jerusalem study hall. It was late. I looked up at the hundreds of beaten books staring down at me from the shelves.

Then it hit me.

These books were written for me. I didn't have to apologize and pretend I was something I wasn't in order to learn them. They were mine.

Had I gone to India and sat on a mountaintop, they would have told me, "You meditate pretty good ... for a Jewish guy, why don't you go to Israel and check out your own people."

I'd found my culture, my heritage, my people.

I was home.

April 15, 2000

Give Tzedakah! Help create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.
The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 19

(19) Jane La Lone, January 31, 2006 12:00 AM

How refreshing!

I can't tell you how much I enjoyed this article. It lifted my spirits, and gave me the feeling of "Aha, I know what you mean." You have reminded me that no matter what else goes on around me, I have what is Most Important. Shalom

(18) Yisrael Schwartz, January 25, 2006 12:00 AM

Wow! what a great article, write some more!

Rabbi Gluckin, is obviously someone who is clear on truth. He has discovered the beauty of life, and he knows how to express it beautifully. Great Article, keep them comin!

(17) Anonymous, January 23, 2006 12:00 AM

Go Tzvi!

Aish - please carry more articles by Tzvi! I recommend "Schwarma - a love story"

(16) Zerrick Woolfson, January 22, 2006 12:00 AM

His Jazz and my Jazz are not the same Jazz

I understand that your introduction of the main "meat dish" of your article had very little to actually do with Jazz. But it had something to do with it, although what YOU call Jazz, probably isn't what I call Jazz..... I also am (or was) a drummer, with about 50 years experience. I first heard Jazz in the mid 1940's when a kid. After wasting my time for a few years on the various Jazz Bands, I finally heard the REAL Jazz. I heard early King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band, also his Dixie Syncopators. Also Kid Ory and his Creole Jazz band, not forgetting Tommy Ladnier with Mezz Mezzrow(never mind what the "experts" say about Mezzrow) Bunk, George Lewis, Jim Europe, Louis Armstrong, Noble Sissle, Johnny Dunn, Jelly Roll Morton, not forgetting Sam Morgan, Clarence Williams, and dozens and dozens of others. Bessie Smith was a revelation. What she does with her voice is unbelievable. eighth and sixteenth tone variations in the same measure. My own playing seemed to slip into a sort of Baby Dodds style, and I've stuck with that since. Extremely rhythymic. I even took up cornet, and am now an expert shofar blower as well. A more recent, but still long ago, band I like is the Old Black Eagles Jazz Band. And I don't forget the ODJB. Wingy Manone did a tune by Sandy Pecora called "ZERO" (I never knew) which is quite haunting.
Anyway, I enjoyed your article and undersrtood it's wider, real focus too.

(15) Jason Guberman, January 22, 2006 12:00 AM

Jews aren't "white"

With all due respect to the author - Jews aren't "white." Color does not denote race and for this reason Jews come in all colors but remain Jewish. A Jew from Africa may have dark skin and a Jew from Europe may be light but genetics have proven we have a
common ancestry in the Middle East and very little in common with out neighbors. To be “white” in the racial sense is to be Caucasian - something Jews being indigenous to the Middle East are clearly not. We should be refereed to as Afro-Asiatic or the more general term Semitic along with our Arab brothers and sisters. Having lost many relatives in the Holocaust for not being "Aryan" which is comply applied by racists to all whites now - I take offense to being refered to as white which also denotes a majority/supremacy status over other minorities which Jews have never had nor would want to have.

See All Comments

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.

  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment