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Ben Sidran, the Original Jewish Hipster

Talking to the musician about jazz, Lenny Bruce, and being an outsider

Jillian Scheinfeld
October 17, 2013
(Ben Sidran)
(Ben Sidran)

Ben Sidran might just be the original hipster. As a pianist, composer, vocalist, academic, and writer, there aren’t too many things Sidran can’t do. He’s released 30 solo albums, is the author of three books—Black Talk, a cultural history of jazz, Talking Jazz, a series of conversations with inspirational musicians, and a memoir, A Life in the Music: Ben Sidran—and hosted NPR’s acclaimed jazz series “Jazz Alive.”

In recent years, Sidran began an in-depth exploration of his relationship to Judaism. He was raised Jewish—getting bar mitzvahed and attending High Holiday services—but really connected with his religious background when his son Leo was born. In 1993 he released Life’s a Lesson, which features artists like Carole King and Danny Gottlieb singing jazz renditions of Jewish liturgical songs. His latest book, There Was a Fire: Jews, Music, and the American Dream, published in 2012, lays out a comprehensive social history of Jewish contributions to American popular music throughout the 20th century.

His newest album, Don’t Cry for No Hipster, released in February, is a classic Sidran mix of groove, funk, jazz, and his version of rap (talking smoothly), which as the album title implies, playfully examines hipster culture now as compared to hipster culture in the 1960s.

I met Sidran in Chicago at the Best Western Hotel Suites courtyard where he was staying while on tour, a few miles from the legendary Green Mill Cocktail Lounge in Uptown, Chicago—a favorite spot of Al Capone’s—where I’d see him play later that night. He’s a true Renaissance man; a musician and intellectual who raises thoughtful questions. Graceful, down to earth, and frightfully intelligent, Sidran has influenced fans and artists alike.

I really like the title of your new album, Don’t Cry for No Hipster. In today’s hipster culture, there seems to be a lack of originality, a result of people trying too hard to fit into this certain niche—which is very different from the hipsters of the 1960s described in your autobiography. What inspired the title?

Well I think just what you’re talking about. I finished writing There Was A Fire: Jews, Hipsters, and the American Dream after seven years. It was really a long, difficult process. A couple months after I finished, I was sitting at my little piano, just fooling around. I wasn’t trying to write a song but I stumbled on some chords I liked and I put some lyrics to it. It’s a song on the record called “Private Guy”—my son [a producer and musician] was there and I played it for him. He said it sounded good and told me to keep writing and see what happens. The next thing I wrote was “Don’t Cry for no Hipster.”

I wasn’t intending to write anything, so I’m not really sure why that came out. I just heard these chords, I always come up with the chords first. I got this line in my head, “Don’t cry for no hipster, he knew what he signed up for,” and then the whole thing just started pouring out of me. It became autobiographical in the sense that there was no artifice or wall between what I was thinking and what I was saying. I wasn’t trying to write a song, I was just saying something. But the song is really about my generation of the hipsters, that’s exactly right. Some of them did well, some did poorly, some arrived. I myself feel very happy I stuck with it. The joke of my house is that I went from college to social security without a job. Isn’t that true. I had a lot of jobs, but in some ways I didn’t have a “real” one. So the lifestyle worked out great, but for a lot of my friends it didn’t work out so great. Back in the day being a hipster was its own reward. There’s a connection actually between being a Jew and being a hipster. Lenny Bruce was our typical Jewish hipster. The connection of course is being an outsider, with a well rounded, and skeptical education.

What would you say is the biggest difference between hipster culture today and hipster culture of the past?

It’s like jazz. Jazz became a fashionable word. Hipster became a fashionable word. It’s fashion. Today there’s a very sad lack of depth in many of the cultures—a mile wide and an inch deep. I love the Internet of course, but the Internet isn’t knowledge, its information. So many people are celebrating the fact they have all this technology at their fingertips but they aren’t able to find their way through it and develop their own point of view. If you walked into Tower Records in the day, and you wanted a jazz record, there were too many to choose from. If you hadn’t already started your search, then how would you begin? But I think today, it’s admirable that people really want to identify themselves as seekers, and I think that’s what hipsters still are trying to do.

You begin There Was a Fire with a story about the Baal Shem Tov, which explores the strange way collective memory functions. It was as though you were saying that if as Jews we can remember our struggles and our connections with prayer and music, we’ll be okay. Why did you choose that story?

I feel that it’s all about memory in the end. Not specific memory, not episodic memory, but emotional memory. What does it feel like? What do you care about? What does it feel like to care about something? That sort of thing. As long as you can remember that, you wont lose yourself. And as long as you don’t lose yourself, then we’re connected to how we started and what we began to do, as Jews.

The process of writing the book, you know, I just stumble into these things. It really is the case, with the exception of the autobiography, which I really wanted to write specifically because I had a heart incident. My father had died when I was 26 and he literally only left an empty wallet and a stopped watch. I say that in the book, but that’s literally what he left in the drawer. He was a writer and a thinker and all this stuff, but never brought his dreams to fruition. And I didn’t want to not leave something behind. I think I became obsessed with not leaving stuff behind. I just keep generating artifacts of my experience. That’s how I think of it—books and CDs as artifacts of my exploration.

In There Was A Fire you wrote about asking your Jewish musician friends to sing on your Life’s a Lesson record, and what was so striking was the similarity of the responses—some permutation of “I’m Jewish but not religious.” There seems to be this hesitancy among Jews to show Jewish pride, yet I started thinking about the prevalence of Christmas albums and medleys and how accepted and almost necessary it has become. Why do you think making a Jewish album is viewed as dorky?

Well that’s exactly right. Dorky is perfect. You have a group of people that has tried its best to hide in the crowd for 100 years. You know the Groucho Marx saying, he didn’t want to be a member of any club that would have him. The Jews wanted to create a crowd of outsiders, essentially, that they could define. But the fact is that this struggle to be accepted for Jews is ongoing and the way it’s set up is irresolvable, so it’s this ongoing tension. That’s why the question of Jewishness in America is at such a perilous moment. When my father came over from Poland and was close friends with Saul Bellow, both of their first priorities were to be American. That’s why my dad was into baseball, boxing, and racetracks. So my generation grew up as children of that and I think initially we all started going in that direction, that’s all we knew. But of course the culture changed dramatically in the 1950s and 1960s and we found ourselves without a flag, without a country, without a sense of where we were going; we had to self-invent that.

But none of us thought to self-invent in terms of Jewishness—that wasn’t even in the picture. So Bob Dylan, when asked, “what does being a Jew have to do with it?” replied “You know, I was a Cherokee Indian,” or something. Obviously that’s the elephant in the room, something that huge, when an absolutely simple and direct question comes along, the response was always “Yeah, I’m a Jew—but…” That was it. I had the sense that everybody had been thinking the same thing.

Nonetheless when confronted with the question to make the record with me, everybody was hesitant at first because they were only culturally Jewish, but they all ended up coming in and recording. Nobody said ‘No, I won’t do it’—not Carole King, not anybody. And everybody left with a tape for their mother. There it is. It’s about you and your mother. Its’ about something you want to say to your mother. It’s not always the same thing you want to say, but we all wanted to say something to our mothers.

When you were shopping around to release Life’s a Lesson, you say you were turned down by every Jewish record executive in the U.S., but managed to get the album distributed easily in Europe and Japan. In There Was A Fire you speak about this notion of Jewish failure, and how you think that the fear of failing as a Jew played a huge influence on Jewish executives turning you down.

Well, that’s a big part of the Jewish story. During the 1930s in Hollywood—now it’s known, at the time it wasn’t—that some of the heads of the studios quite clearly dialed back the Jewishness of the films they were making because of what was going on in Germany. If the German embassy or the culture ministers didn’t like a particular representation, they would soften it. Now that’s not just about business, that’s something else. But underlying that is a basic fear of losing everything you’ve fought for. These are people who fought for success and that’s how they define themselves. That success meant everything to them and failure was not acceptable.

They didn’t want to be the person who took the risk.

That’s exactly right. Even the success might have been a little too much.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Jillian Scheinfeld is a journalist living in New York City.