Gershwin’s Jewish soul music


Joe Vass has always loved the music of composer George Gershwin, and other songwriters from the early to mid-20th century — music from what is known as the Great American Songbook. But when Vass began exploring the world of Jewish music, he was surprised to find Gershwin (born Jacob Gershowitz) there.

“I never made the connection, though, between Gershwin music and Jewish music,” Vass told the AJW. “As I, at a certain point in my life, became more aware of Jewish music and began to listen to it, I made that connection. I thought it would be fun and exciting and entertaining to explore the connections between Jewish music and American music like Gershwin’s music.”

That idea formed the basis for the show titled The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer, which Vass created several years ago and has performed throughout the United States and in Canada and Israel. The show, originally titled Gershwin, the Klezmer, premiered at St. Paul’s Park Square Theatre in 1999.

Park Square will present the show for the third time on its stage beginning Dec. 15.

“Gershwin appears on stage and tells the story of his own music,” Vass said. “As he does so, we perform his music. There is a story, and the story is in the music.”

Local actor Michael Paul Levin portrays Gershwin in the show and acts as the guide on a journey to discover the songwriter’s musical influences. Levin is joined by Maggie Burton (the chazzan, or cantor), Prudence Johnson (the chanteuse) and T. Mychael Rambo (the griot, or West African storyteller).

“They are all consummate performers,” Vass said. “Each one alone is worth the price of admission.”

Vass’ contemporary Jewish ensemble Klezmerica provides the music, and includes Chris Bates, bass; Jay Epstein, drums; Adam Meckler, trumpet; Dale Mendenhall, woodwinds; and Gary Schulte, violin. The show features favorites like “The Man I Love,” “I Got Rhythm,” “Embraceable You,” “’S Wonderful,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “Someone To Watch Over Me.”

“We can play jazz, we can play Jewish music, we can do a little classical music as necessary in the show,” Vass said of Klezmerica. “And that, to me, is part of the tradition of the klezmer — the klezmer being a person, a Jewish musician, who plays not just Jewish music, but all kinds of music, or incorporates all kinds of music into Jewish music.”

The show is directed by Peter Moore, with music and lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin, and additional lyrics from Porgy and Bess by DuBose Heyward.

Vass said he expects audiences to leave feeling exhilarated and “that it’s a great thing to be a Jew.”

“Also, an appreciation of how much American music comes from Jewish music,” Vass said. “People will say, ‘Well, what’s Jewish music? I never heard that.’ And I say, ‘Well, you’ve been listening to it your whole life, you just didn’t know it.’”

Vass was always drawn to music, beginning with piano lessons as a child. Once he became aware of Jewish music, he connected easily with the genre.

“For me, it wasn’t a matter of quoting something or learning how to play some thing that was kind of at a distance or out there, the way a person sometimes has to do. It was more like a natural way of expressing myself — it came naturally to me, to compose and perform that music,” Vass said. “It just comes quite naturally to me, as it turns out, probably because I’m a Jew.”

During the course of performing the show, Vass has developed a deeper understanding of not only Jewish music and Gershwin music, but of blues, jazz and other musical styles.

“It’s a process, not only what one would call research, which might be, say, reading a book or looking at some sheet music, but really listening and then learning to play it and developing it,” Vass said.

The Soul of Gershwin has been performed hundreds of times and is a unique opportunity to see and hear how the music of composers like Gershwin is influenced.

“If you like good music, this is the show,” Vass said. “[Audiences] will never listen to Gershwin music or American music the same way that they did before. They’ll listen to it a completely new and better way. That’s my goal.”

The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer will run Dec. 15–Jan. 1 at Park Square Theatre, 20 W. Seventh Place, St. Paul. For tickets and information, call 651-291-7005 or visit: