Ben Sidran's appearance Thursday at the Skirball Center was titled "Jews, Music and the American Dream" and billed as a "concert with commentary." It was all that, and more. In fact, what might initially have appeared to be an intriguing, if not especially mesmerizing, social-science seminar turned out to be something closer to jazz, more like a spontaneous improvisation on a theme.
Sidran is a well-regarded music world multi-hyphenate: jazz pianist, producer, songwriter, educator and author. His Skirball appearance grew out of a course -- "Jewish Popular Music in America: Berlin to Kravitz" -- he taught as an artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In that setting, he undoubtedly had a reasonable amount of time to discuss a complex subject that's one of the principal themes not just in American popular music but in American popular culture.
At the Skirball, with less than two hours at his disposal, Sidran had to concentrate on the high points, while at the same time providing enough musical examples for those in the audience primarily interested in hearing music from albums such as his Jewish-oriented "Life's a Lesson."
He built his presentation on the premise that elements in Jewish history -- the importance of narrative, the idea of monotheism, the Exodus and the return, the blending of music and meaning -- have resonated through popular music for the past century. Starting with Irving Berlin, Sidran illustrated his points via a succession of verbal and musical vamps, working his way through George Gershwin ("I Got Rhythm"), Harold Arlen ("Over the Rainbow"), Bob Dylan ("Subterranean Homesick Blues") and, yes, Lenny Kravitz, along the way mentioning other Jewish artists such as Benny Goodman and Carole King. (Strangely -- perhaps because of the time crunch -- he failed to include Leonard Bernstein, whose music could have provided sturdy support for his thesis.)
Sidran's musical examples emphasized songs -- "Summertime," for example -- with harmonic movement from minor to major as examples of Jewish influence. ("Smiling through the tears," he said.) He found resonance between Jewish music and the blues, as well, and noted the importance of small, Jewish-owned record labels to both jazz and early rock music. (He did not, however, mention the often contentious and litigious encounters between Jewish label owners and African American artists.)
Sidran began his evening with a quip that "Jews make up 2% of the population and 80% of the music business," adding humorously that he had made up the latter statistic. But by the time he was finished, he had made a convincing case for the actual effect of that number -- in influence, if not in quantity.