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June 10, 2011

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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, JUNE 10, 2011 PAGE 19A Guide to singers and songs that's encyclopedic in details By Robert Leiter Jewish Exponent Pantheon Books has given "A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers" by Will Friedwald a beautiful outer design, with a simple but effective cover that uses art and graphics with consummate skill. Your interest is peaked. But then you open the book and your heart sinks. This re- ally is just a guide affer all, with an alphabetical listing like so many others, the text laid out in two tight columns per page using small-sized type. Something that started out so grandly a few moments before winds up looking in reality just like a Leonard Maltin guide to the movies. But then you start reading and all misgivings melt away. Guides can sometimes be informative, sometimes fun to read, sometimes vapid and annoying, but rarely do they have the depth and compre- hensiveness that Friedwald has brought to his subject (and when you check out his photo and see how young he is, and all he's already accomplished, you'll be astounded that any- one that age could have pos- sibly learned so much, even if all he did was concentrate on a single subject, which he hasn't). The point size of the type may be minute, but Friedwald's prose bursts with detail and insights unlike any other such guide you might choose to consult. A Biograp to the G and Pot: Will Fr , ica! Guide eat ,Jazz Singers edwald i !!!ill Because his focus is on the singers, there are only a handful of Jewish performers here (theexpected ones--A1 Jolson, Sophie Tucker, Eddie Cantor, Mel Torm4, Eydie Gorm4, Bob Dylan). But Jews are everywhere throughout this book--generally populat- ing the background--because a great deal of what these singers performed was writ: ten by Jews, especially if we're talking about the golden age of popular songwriting: Take the appropriately lengthy entry on Ella Fitzger- ald. Friedwald addresses-- then clears away--the criti- cism that the great Ella, who was proverbially known as the First Lady of Song, didn't have any idea about what she was singing, that she was never cued into the meaning of the lyrics. The author finds this critique, which, at a certain time had wide currency, ri- diculous, unworthy of taking seriously. Then he writes: "Though she was never as textually specific as [Frank] Sinatra nor as 'sad' as [Billie] Holi- day, Fitzgerald was always emotionally true to whatever she was singing: She could make you walk on air with a happy song and want to walk on razor blades on a downer. She sang the lyrics of Lorenz Hart, Oscar Harnmerstein, Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Sammy Cahn, Johnny Burke, and any other Tin Pan Alley poet as well as anybody else in the canon of great jazz and pop singers, and there's no indication that any of these gentlemen was anything but delighted with the result." Or you can go the entry on Sarah Vaughan, who some would say was the only singer who gave Ellaareal run for her money in terms of"first-lady" status. Friedwald looks into Vaughan's "church roots," which the author says are ap- parent in everything she ever did--and then the majority of the jazz and pop songs h e cites were written by Jews. -" Vaughan's "melismas [i.e., a succession of different notes sung upo n a single syllable[ and other decorations of her singing have much in com- mon with the gospel style. Martin Williams once referred to this aspect of her artistry as 'an opera singer without an opera.' He might just as easily have called her a gospel singer without a church--though hardly without a prayer. When she sings 'Maria' from "West Side Story" (on "You're Mine You"), it's my idea of angels singing the "Ave Maria." It's instructive to rememberthat, in the first half of the -20th century, traditional black spirituals were regarded as the first American "art" music, and that concert singersboth black and white in the '20s and'30s--whenVaughanwas growing up--were almost as likely to include "Motherless Child" as they were to sing Schubert lieder. "And although Vaughan holds one Maria for more measures than any other human being could count, let alone sing, the performance is more than operatic--it's downright spiritual. Lines like "The most beautiful sound I ever heard" take on religious overtones, and her reiteration of the word Maria (itself a distinctly Catholic reference) assumes the quality of a chant. When she gets to the line "Say it soft/And it's almost like praying," she takes lyricist Stephen Sondheim at his word, employing the aspect of her artistry that's usually re- served for ecumenical works like The Lord's Prayer. (The way she expresses the same idea in a different song reveals an entirely different attitude. The line "I started praying" occurs in "Moonglow" and also on "You're Mine You," but there the implications are "far less ecumenical. As with other tracks on the album, such as the Cy Coleman hits "The Best Is Yet to Come" and "Witchcraft," the mood on "Moonglow" is light and swinging.) "Send in the Clowns," the super-spectacular set piece of her final decade, is also sung like a hymn, overdecorated to the hilt with melismas and . flourishes galore. In this book, which runs to 800 tightly packed pages, Friedwald even makes space for a small section on "Singing Songwriters," among them one of my favorites, Harold Arlen, who was born Hyman Arluck, the son of a cantor. Writes the author: "Much has been made (by myself, certainly) of Harold Arien's involvement with the world of jazz, perhaps a little too much. He and Gershwin were the only members of the Broadway Big Six who were capable enough instrumen- talists to support themselves as musicians before their ASCAP royalties began com- ing in. The comparison with Gershwiri is revealing: The older man came up through the world of songwriters and song publishers, while Arlen entered the music industry by means of the dance bands, which at the time were very dose to--and often indistin- guishable from--hot jazz. Both men approved of and encouraged the use of their music in the jazz community: Gershwin was flattered when, even during his lifetime, jazzmen found endless new uses for his chord sequences (notably 'I Got Rhythm'). On the other hand, they didn't have to rewrite Arlen's melo- dies: Just as Arlen wrote them they sounded jazzy enough." I've quoted at length to give some sense of what Friedwald has accomplished here, but in realitywhat I've cited amounts to only a fraction of the erudi- tion on disp[ay throughout these pages. And for those who can't get enough of this lore, Friedwald writes in his introduction that he's hoping that this book will be the first of many editions. "It's a dream of mine to revisit and update it every six or seven years--whatever the traffic will allow--and that ... it can be something ofaperen- nial. I hope to keep revising it, to update the sections on those artists who are still alive and active and to rediscover vintage performers who may have fallen through the cracks the first time around." Fans of great singing should make their way to this work in droves. Not only wiI! they be entertained, but perhaps their sheer numbers will convince Pantheon that Friedwald's wish should be- come a reality whenever the author suggests. Robert Leiter is the literary editor at the (Philadelphia) Jewish Exponen t , from which this article was reprinted by permission. Jewish Guatemalan author writes tale of dislocation By Eric Herschthal New York Jewish Week Readers of literary fiction m America have coveted Latin American writers for years. Jorge Luis Borges and Roberto Bolafio are even household names here. But when was the last time you heard about a great Guatemalan author? And more specifically, one who is Jewish? Enter David Unger, author of the dark and riveting new novel, "The Price of Escape," which follows a Jewish refu- gee who flees NaziGermany and ends up in Guatemala. The story was inspired by the strange journey of Unger's own father. "It's very similar to the novel," Unger said of his father's story, as he sat on a bench on the Upper West Side. "He had an uncle [in Germany] who bought him a ticket when Hitler came to power and said, 'Get out.'" Much like David's father Luis Unger, the novel's pro- tagonist doesn't have much of a choice. In the novel, Samuel Berkow is 37 when his uncle essentially orders him to leave for Guatemala; the uncle's son there will look after him. "Don't you think I have a say in this?" Berkow says to his uncle. "I'm a grown man." Yet Berkow's life in Ger- many until then has been a series of hapless failures. Serving in the German army during the First World War never made him the man he thought it would, and for the past 20-odd years he's been floundering. "I don't know," Berkow's uncle tells him, "maybe those six months in the sanatorium after the war took the life out of you.; "The Price of Escape" is not only, or maybe not even, a Holocaust novel, however. Unger said it is fundamen- tally about a man learning to take responsibility for his life; it's_about a man grow- ing up. Still, it charts the psychic toll of immigration, particularly for cultured European Jews who found themselves transplanted to exotic foreign lands. "I wanted to focus on a character who tried to avoid demons in his life, then comes to the New World" where he thinks he can easily escape his past, Unger said. "But actually he has no idea what it's like. He thinks he's going to be whisked off [the ship he arrives on] and meet all these important people who say, 'Look, a European has arrived!' But that's not what it's like at all." Unger said his father's sto- ry was only the inspiration for the novel--"I've used it as a springboard to tell a story that really has noth- ing to do with my father." But the larger trajectory of Berkow's life still resembles his father's. When Luis Un- ger was 35, he fled Germany. It was 1933, the year Hitler came to power, and Luis's uncle immediately bought him a steamship ticket to Guatemala, demanding he leave. Luis' uncle had a son there who had arrived a few years earlier. But once Luis arrived, he met the woman who would become his wife and David's mother, For- tunj Yahri, a Sephardic Jew whose father immigrated to Guatemala in I920. To- gether, Luis and Fortuna ran a restaurant, La Casita, and eventually Yarhi gave birth to David in 1950. Four years later, things changed drastically. In 1954 the American government was publicly claiming that Guatemala's president, Ja- cobo Arbenz, was a Commu- nist puppet. After months of threatening to invade, CIA-trained rebels toppled Arbenz. They established a pro-American government, though it didn't last long, and the country descended into civil war. Just a toddler, Unger remembers American jets dropping leaflets declaring Arbenz a Communist. "My parents got really freaked out about what was going on," Unger said, and that same year, they moved the entire family to South Florida. As in the novel, business interests played a central role in America's involve- ment. The United Fruit Co. owned large tracts of land in Guatemala, and key U.S. officials like Allen Duiles, the CIA director, were large shareholders. When Arbenz began distributing fallow swaths of the countryside to peasants, U.S. officials reportedly feared he was both inching towards Com- munism, and stealing po- tential corporate land. "The Price of Escape" revolves around a critical United Fruit Co. hub, the portside town of Puerto Barrios, where the company distributed its produce. And key characters offer a glimpse into history; an arrogant and bigoted Ameri- can fruit company employee named Alfred Lewis, for instance, becomes Berkow's lifeline. "Alfred Lewis is a gro- tesque figure," Unger said. "He's a racist and a mur- derer, about as unsavory a character as you can imagine. But he befriends Samuel, and he gets him." The author notes that both their whiteness and sense of cultural superiority enable their tenuous bond. Unger remembered the feel of Puerto Barrios from a visit there 30-odd years ago. But itwas his long-time experience with the island, and his knowledge of its history, that really informed the book's subtler portray- Ms--the class distinctions, the worker exploitation, rac- ism and even anti-Semitism. Unger spent many of his teenage summers in Gua- temala, and he still returns often. "I always go back to Guatemala," he said, "and still have about 75 relatives living there and in E! Sal- vador and Costa Rica now." Though Unger has lived in the United States for most of his life, he has an established readership in Guatemala. Yet in America he's still not knownlor at least not for his fiction. "I've knownDavidthrough the New York literary circle for sometime," said Johnny Temple, director of Akashic Books, a respected indie publisher in Brooklyn that published Unger's novel. "His work as a translator is really impressive." Indeed, Unger is bet- ter known for his poetry translations. Much of his professional life has been dedicated to introducing prominent Latin Ameri- can poets, like Nicanor Parra anSilvia Molina, to American readers. He has translated 16 poetry books into English and has been teaching translation at City College since the mid-'90s. But Temple took a chance on Unger's fiction. He said he was drawn to "The Price of Escape'--Unger's second novel to appear in English, though he's published three others in Spanishubecause of the way it captured the acute sense of dislocation brought on by immigra- tion. "It tackles head on what immigrants face, but especially what happened to Jews escaping World War II," Temple said. He added that his own father, a Jewish Londoner, left for the United States shortly after the city was bombed, and Unger's book captured something of what it must have been like to abruptly change cultures: "It wasn't this wonderful experience--'Welcome to the New Worldl The streets are paved with goldP Not at all. And that's what 'The Price of Escape' is about." Unger, now 60, says that he did not consider himselfa novelist until the last decade. But he speculates that the foreignness of his subjects-- Jews, Guatemala--may in part be responsible for his slim American following. "I don't know if the Jew- ishness has anything to do with it," he said, explaining that most readers prob- ably do not expect Jewish protagonists in their Latin American fiction. "Maybe it'd be better if [I wrote about characters] who weren't Jewish." But then he'd be gut- ting his fiction, of one of its central features, said Paul Pines, a fellow novel- ist and translator of Latin American literature. Pines said of Unger's fiction: "He describes beautifully the dislocation that is part of the Jewish experience and certainly in Latin America." That both Unger and his characters are Latin Ameri: can Jews, he added, "is the underlying principle that allows him to understand other cultures, to see them more clearly." Linger says that creating Jewish characters meshes with other things that in- trigue him too: "I've always been interested in characters that are marginal, that are not particularly sympathetic but are interesting in their own way," he said. When asked ifBerkow in particular needed to be Jewish to convey those qualities, he answered, "That fact that he's Jewish is seminal." Eric Herschthal is a staff writer for the New York Jewish Week, from which this article was reprinted by permission.