Israel’s jazz scene has been around since British mandate times, but really came into its own in the 1990s. Thanks to trailblazers like Avishai Cohen, Omer Avital and Avi Lebovich, Israel’s jazz music is now celebrated internationally for its quality as well as its diversity—Israeli jazz is nearly as big a jumble of cultures as Israel itself. “It’s very exotic to the American or European ear,” says Barak Weiss, “but it’s still accessible because it’s based on American music.”
Weiss should know—he’s been the artistic director of the Tel Aviv Jazz festival (one of the two jazz festivals in the country) since 2006, and in 2010 founded the Israeli International Showcase for Jazz and World Music. Prior to that, Weiss was a reporter and music reviewer. “I’m a huge jazz fan,” says Weiss. “That’s how I got started.”
Moment Magazine spoke to Weiss about the history of Israeli jazz as well as what makes it so unique.
What are the origins of jazz in Israel?
The beginning of jazz in Israel was in Palestine, actually. The first jazz band was the Police Orchestra during the British Mandate. In the 1950s and early 1960s we had some musicians who used to play jazz, but it was all American jazz, the standards. I think the first Israeli jazz album was recorded in the early 1970s.
Beginning in the 1970s, and especially in the 1980s, Israel musicians went over to the United States, mainly to Berklee School of Music, to study jazz. Most of them returned to Israel after their studies, and they began teaching in the music departments in high schools and conservatories. So that was the first major step.
Then in the 1990s, three very fine Israeli musicians went together to New York and started working there, and each one of them was really successful. There was Avishai Cohen, the bass player—a few years after he went to New York he started playing in the band of Chick Corea, and became world famous. There was Omer Avital, another bass player, who was immersed in the starting of a very important jazz scene in New York, around this small club called Small’s, which is still a very important club. And the third was a trombone player named Avi Lebovich. He used to play with bands in the States and then in the UK. He returned to Israel.
The importance of these three was it the first time that young [Israeli jazz] musicians had role models.
What does it mean for a young Israeli musician to grow up with an Israeli jazz musician role model, as opposed to just any other jazz musician role model?
You have people from your own neighborhood that are making it, that are top musicians in the world. You can shoot for the stars, and know that it can happen, because it happened to people that you know.
The other important thing is the fact that, you know, Israelis are very connected. They take care of one another. So you have like a small jazz kibbutz, a small jazz community, within New York. New York is like a jungle, it’s very competitive, and people in the jazz scene, and in general, are taking care of themselves. But for Israelis there was a tight-knit community, and because you had a spearhead that was in New York, it was much easier for the second wave and for the third wave. That was truly important. That’s one thing that happened in the late 1990s.
What was the other thing that happened in the late 1990s?
Saxophonist and jazz educator Arnie Lawrence made aliyah. He was one of the people who founded the jazz department at the New School in New York. He opened a music center here in Jerusalem that brought Jewish Israelis and Arab Palestinians to play together. It was this huge new vision of coexistence. And Arnie was so charismatic that I think a whole generation of people that are now the top of the line of Israeli jazz will tell you that he was a huge influence, he was their mentor. I’m talking about Anat Cohen, the clarinet player, and her brother, the trumpet player Avishai Cohen and many others. They always say that he’s what drove them to go to Berklee, to go to New York.
So in the early 2000s, you get a consistent flow of excellent Israeli musicians coming out of the music schools that we have here, because of the generation of the 1980s and 1990s that started in the United States and came back to be educators, and basically creating the Israeli jazz scene in New York and also creating what we call the Israeli jazz sound.
What is the Israeli jazz sound?
It’s interesting. Well, I think it’s interesting, you tell me, I’m biased. The distinct difference between the mainstream American sound and the Israeli sound is that we use odd meters [musical rhythmic structures]. The great American songbook, all the songs by Gershwin and Cole Porter, etc., which is the basis of American jazz, is all done in 4/4. But in Israel, because we have the music of Klezmer, from Eastern Europe, and the music from Morocco, and Yemen, and all of these types of music, we have all these odd forms, like 7/4s, and 9/4s, and 11/4s, all these strange and unusual beats.
Another thing is the melodies—you have Middle Eastern melodies, Arab melodies, melodies that come from all over the diaspora. Every one of the musicians is delving deep into their own heritage, this music that they heard at the Shabbat table, or in the shul, or in the Israeli folk music that we all sing, and mixing their own heritage into jazz.
Is there anything distinct about Israeli jazz musicians themselves?
Many American, non-Israeli musicians that I talk to tell me that they really prefer to work with Israeli jazz musicians because they have two traits that are usually not found together. They have a very hard work ethic, which is not so common among musicians, and also they are amazingly good improvisers. Because you know, we improvise in Israel. Everything doesn’t always go according to plan. So that’s what we do, it’s in our nature to improvise. With the hard work combined with improvisation, people know that if they hire an Israeli musician for a recording session or whatever, he’s going to be there and he’s going to bring it.
Another thing is that American jazz is always associated with the social and political aspects of things. The struggle of African Americans, the struggle of the late 1960s early 1970s with the young people against the war, it’s all about politics. In Israel, for better or worse, 99 percent of jazz musicians are not into the political or social awareness. It’s not that they’re not socially or politically aware—the same people will go to demonstrations, will go to rallies—but they don’t infuse it into their own music. And that’s quite different than jazz in American culture and often in European culture.
So is jazz popular across the Israeli political spectrum?
I think in general, jazz audiences and jazz musicians are part of the more liberal part of Israeli society. I think that’s part of the nature of jazz, actually—that you accept everyone else on the basis of what someone’s worth on stage, you learn to listen to each other.
How does the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement play into all of this?
I can tell you that there are some world famous jazz musicians that are not willing to come to Israel because of the political situation. When I talk to these jazz musicians, I always tell them, that when you’re coming, you’re coming to play for the exact audience that shares your vision, that shares your political views. If you’re not coming, you’re hurting only the people you need to root for. So sometimes it helps, to make them realize that not all Israelis are the same.
Does Israeli jazz get any support from the Ministry for Culture and Sports?
Jazz in Israel is not supported by government funding at all. Nothing. Basically because jazz is regarded to be lower than classical music. The Israeli government does not allocate a huge part of its budget to culture and arts in general, but when she does, and does it to music, 99 percent of it goes to classical music venues and symphonies and orchestras.
Do you wish jazz in Israel did get government funding?
[laughs] Ai. Ai. It’s a hard one. I wish that Israeli jazz had more money, and more funding. I’m not sure that the bear hug embrace of the Israeli regime right now would help jazz musicians to fly. I’m not sure. I don’t know. I’m not in a position to decide.
What are the hot spots for Israeli jazz our readers might be able to visit some day?
I think the most happening jazz spot in Israel in general and in Tel Aviv in particular is called Beit Haamudim. Basically every jazz musician hangs there, or plays there. It’s the best place to go. Then you have the two festivals. In Jerusalem, I like the Yellow Submarine, which does jazz on Wednesday nights.