Back when I was in my early 20s, I’d hear Noel Sagerman’s name whispered reverently by the musicians I knew. While they supported themselves painting houses or clerking at record stores, Noel—who was the same age as us—had given up his day job and was making a living playing the drums. Today, he’s one of the hardest working players around. Every day of every week, he travels from his apartment in Bloomfield, New Jersey, to at least one show. One night it might be dinner jazz at an upscale restaurant in the suburbs, the next day he might perform for busloads of tourists with an organ group led by trumpeter Joey Morant at Showman’s on 125th Street, and if it’s Tuesday you can find him at his regular gig with Cecil’s with rising sax star Bruce Williams.
When I heard that Noel had landed a steady job performing at churches with a black Jewish gospel singer named Joshua Nelson, I became curious: After spending his entire adult life playing all kinds of music all over the world with countless bands, would religious music be just another gig—or would Noel Sagerman be moved by the spirit?
Was your family religious when you were a kid?
My parents observed certain things. We would light candles on Sabbath when I was younger; we went to Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, New Jersey every Saturday. I was never very into it, and I just did the bar mitzvah out of obligation and didn’t really go back. The way Judaism was presented at our temple was not very spiritual. It’s not that I perceived a lack of spirituality at age 12: to me it just seemed boring. But looking back, I remember that prayers were said as if they were an obligation, not an inspiration. I didn’t have anything to compare to it, so I didn’t know anything was missing. I’ve realized that the temple was very political, Zionist, they were really trying to give you a strong idea about Israel as the Jewish state. They would teach you a little bit of Hebrew, and they would teach you Jewish history, but I don’t remember ever dealing with any spiritual issues.
My parents felt a need to stick together as Jews. Being Jewish was more of an identity thing than a spiritual one. They felt so strongly about Israel. They took us to there; they really believed in it. As a kid, I was very taken with that. Of course you don’t get two sides of any story, so, I feel differently now.
How old were you when you got into jazz?
I was at college in Burlington. I was living with a couple of guys, Erik Satre and Jonathan Koerner. We would jam just for fun, get drunk and play AC/DC covers. Jon had already gotten into jazz, and he had a duo with another guitar player, Brian Camelio. They asked me to play with them, and the first time I played—we played a gig at the Sheraton in town—was the first time I’d ever heard anybody play jazz. I never listened to jazz, and I have no idea what I played. I was completely ignorant. I didn’t know if I needed to bring the whole drum set. I know I used brushes, but I don’t remember what I did with them. Brian was really good at hustling gigs and pretty soon we were the house band at a club on Main Street. We were there four nights a week. It was great, I was learning by repetition. And by my last year of college I had given up my landscaping and busboy jobs. I was making a living.
And jazz captivated you?
I didn’t get it, I didn’t really get it at all, but I knew that there was something about it that I wanted to get. I had an idea in the back of my head from childhood that jazz was something cool, because a mentor of mine, Kevin Dye, was into jazz and had been a drummer in New York City. The summer that I was 14 I participated in an outdoor program he directed in Vermont. In August we drove out West in a van, which became the impetus for him starting his own wilderness education program. He’d met a commune of folks who let him use their land in Wyoming. They had this flat, sagebrush-dotted field where they lived in modern versions of traditional Mongolian-style yurts, which are small round huts with a peaked dome roof. We would set up tepees for a base camp, and go on trips into the Tetons and the Wind River Range and the Red Desert. Kevin incorporated things like Native American storytelling, creative writing, ecology, and music into his programs. He was into Buddhism. He knew knowledgeable people in these fields, too, and we’d meet them. These characters were quite intense and made strong impressions on me. Hebrew school was not at all like this!
Now you play drums with a Jewish gospel group. How did that come about?
My friend was the house drummer for the group and started getting really busy on the road, so he asked me to sub for him. He’s been on the road for the last five years, and I’ve been doing it the whole time. Coincidentally, the church where we play, Hopewell Baptist, used to be a well-known synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun.
I didn’t know what to expect at first. The musical director, Joshua Nelson, sings and plays the organ, and I’m sitting next to him, and I watch him…and just play. People talk about how important church was to the development of American music, black music, but ’til you’re sitting there in it, you don’t know. You just know the idea. I realized right away that his playing and singing were going to be a real education. His style was based entirely on Mahalia Jackson. Very traditional, really soulful. I could relate to his music. Blues, jazz, R&B: it’s all from the same roots. And he’s amazing, so you can’t help but feel the spirit from him. The first time he asked me to travel with him, I still didn’t know he was a black Jew. We went to Boston, and it turned out we were playing at a Jewish film festival.
Having had such a blah experience with organized religion as a kid, did it ever feel like a problem for you playing religious music?
I think my negative feelings were really about my specific synagogue more than religion. By the time I first played at Hopewell I already had pretty well-formed ideas about the universal spiritual aspects of music, especially soulful music. I was excited to gain firsthand experience of a culture and music that was so influential on the music I loved. Joshua being single-handedly the musical director, organist, and principal vocalist provided a lot of inspiration to me. I was definitely drawn to it and have been surprisingly (although I’m sure reluctantly by many) accepted by the membership there.
Speaking of acceptance, I have been shocked to learn that many people don’t know black Jews exist, as if being one thing excludes the other. Do you think people ever have trouble understanding who Joshua is?
Yes. There’s a lot of racism in some white Jewish circles. I have been around Joshua so many times where people have questioned his Jewishness. He is quite scholarly and has read a lot of books dealing with Jewish history as it relates to the migrations and ethnic and racial compositions of Jews. From what I know, though we are not 100 percent sure, it seems likely that the biblical Jews as well as other Middle Eastern peoples of that time were strongly African or at least mixed in their racial makeup. Maybe European Jews are the newcomers.
He had a far more devout upbringing than I did. He grew up in an Orthodox household, at first attending a black synagogue in Brooklyn and then a Reform temple closer to where he lives, where he later became a Hebrew school teacher. He also attended Hebrew University in Jerusalem and studied cantorial singing.
How does the group combine gospel music and Jewish songs?
Oh, that’s what Joshua’s all about. He’ll take a Jewish song with Hebrew lyrics and superimpose it on a gospel tune. We do a slow and a fast version of “Adon Olam.” “Lo Yisa Goy” he does like “Down by the Riverside.” He does “Hinei Ma Tov” like “When The Saints Go Marching In.” Everyone’s heard that song as a kid, right? I know I did. Some Jewish songs he leaves intact, he has some originals, and we do some traditional gospel songs that don’t specifically mention Jesus.
Has this work made you more connected with your own Jewishness?
I am being confronted with my Jewishness more than I have for 25 years. I’m traveling with someone who is often talking about Jewish topics and performing in synagogues and JCCs and Jewish cultural festivals. And often getting asked questions relating to being Jewish.
Also, if we are performing in a synagogue, often right on the bimah, I wear a kippah. Part of this is respect to the situation, but part of me enjoys participating in this ritual. I do try to be thankful. When I hear the words or lyrics in the liturgical songs I can relate to them in a general way. I agree with the message, even though I may see things in a slightly different way.
Does the music move you religiously?
I find the music very moving, but I don’t know that I am more moved because it is lyrically Jewish. Music is not Jewish, only the lyrics. I am moved by the music itself, the way notes and groove and expressiveness can affect your whole self.
But being in the church every week, you are watching a lot of people who have real faith. I’m envious of people who have that kind of faith. It gives them a root. With any religion you can have these ideas, but without real faith, they’re just ideas.
Do you feel like playing music gives you some ritual that might be like religion?
Oh, yes. You feel an energy that’s coming through you. Sometimes you think it’s coming from outside of you, sometimes from you…maybe it’s just simply the same adrenaline that you’d be getting at any kind of fight-or-flight situation, maybe there’s something else attached to it. I don’t worry about certain shit, I just feel lucky to be able to feel it, you know.