Israelis and the world of jazz get the academic treatment
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Israelis and the world of jazz get the academic treatment

An upcoming conference on Israeli jazz and Hebrew culture will examine how Sabras got into this musical genre

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

The rise of Israeli jazz is one of those causes for wonder, and now there’s an upcoming conference exploring how this small, Middle Eastern country became a mini-powerhouse of the musical genre.

“Israeli Jazz and Hebrew Culture” will be held April 14-15 at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev campuses in Beersheba and Sde Boker, and is open to the public.

It’s being arranged by a crew of jazz aficionados in Israel’s south, including the university’s Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism, and supported by the American Sephardi Federation and the US Embassy.

At the center of the organizers is Aryeh Tepper, an American-Israeli researcher who has been a jazz fan since his teens, when he would slip out of his childhood home in Washington, DC to go hear some standards in Georgetown.

Dr. Aryeh Tepper of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev is one of the organizers of a jazz conference, taking place April 14-15, 2019 (Courtesy Aryeh Tepper)

Now he researches other subjects as well, but jazz is still a deep passion, and one he happily shares with other colleagues, including Professor Arieh Saposnik, who have put it at the core of the conference.

“It’s a chance to learn about Israeli culture and the boundaries of Hebrew culture,” said Tepper. “Jazz originated in the US, and it has made a wonderful entrance into the depths of Israeli life and society and that’s a beautiful thing about music in general; it’s a shortcut to the soul.”

The April 14-15 sessions at Ben-Gurion will cover considerable ground, discussing a translation of American literary and jazz critic Albert Murray into Hebrew, talking about jazz saxophonist Arnie Lawrence and his impact on contemporary jazz scene in Israel and abroad, and looking at the flowering of Israeli jazz. American writer Greg Thomas will give the keynote address about Lionel Hampton and his “King David Suite,” a particularly personal story about the jazz great and the fledgling State of Israel.

The center of the conference will be the Sunday night, April 14 performance at 8:30 p.m., of the “King David Suite” by Israeli trumpeter Itamar Borochov Octet, a historic first, at the Sonnenfeld Auditorium on the BGU campus in Beersheba.

It’s a particularly fitting conclusion to the conference, said Tepper. The suite was written by Hampton when he came to Israel with his band in 1953, and played 48 concerts in four weeks throughout the country.

He also spent time with Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog — a former chief rabbi of Israel after the creation of the state — who was a jazz fan himself, and visited King David’s purported gravesite on Mount Zion.

The meeting with Herzog was the inspiration for the “King David Suite,” an 18-minute symphony that touches on King David, and the ancient monarch’s own musical inclinations.

The score, however, was lost when a fire gutted Hampton’s home, and it wasn’t until 2008 that a copy was discovered, and then donated to Ben-Gurion University in 2015.

Borochov’s performance will be the first time that Hampton’s “King David Suite” is performed, and will include a set dedicated to jazz and piyyut, ancient liturgical poems.

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