In making the talent and vitality of African Americans central to the nation’s artistic legacy, Jews played an integral—and indeed indispensable—role. Although black Americans were historically denied the most basic rights that the Constitution promised, they managed in the twentieth century to demonstrate a creativity that accelerated the drive for democratic inclusion and racial justice. How they did so cannot be analytically separated from the agencies and institutions at the disposal of black artists and performers. They needed the apparatus of mass communication to deliver their dreams, and in that effort Jews were deeply entwined. Thus they not only made the popular arts of the U.S. nearly inescapable in human history, but also helped make conspicuous the full claims to humanity that black Americans demanded.
To make black culture visible and audible, talent was not enough. What was needed were whites who could see past the phobias of color to the creativity that a despised minority exhibited. What was needed was a willingness to offer support for the innovativeness and excellence that the black community could generate. Black culture needed to be transmitted, disseminated, and promoted. Its creators needed to survive in the marketplace, to have their gifts nurtured and rewarded, and to have such an artistic legacy conserved. The musicians and painters and writers needed to be funded and paid, and to have their work packaged and presented to appreciative audiences. For roughly the first half of the last century, until the civil rights movement wrought a rough and approximate equalization, black artists and entertainers needed intermediaries between the community that was so cruelly excluded and the mainstream of American society that might offer recognition, fame, and some measure of security and relief from the pressures of discrimination. Those middlemen were commonly and characteristically (if not exclusively) Jews. Even if they did not act consciously or deliberately as members of a distinctive ethnic group, even if they distanced themselves from the traditions and practices of Judaism, such numbers cannot be merely random. When the occupational pattern is so peculiar, accident can be discounted; and the explanation lies not in the vagaries of individual happenstance but in sociology. Because a close association with black entertainers and artists was not a reputable way to earn a living, this business imposed few if any obstacles to entry; and Jews faced little competition. They were drawn, like a magnetic needle, to the projection of black artistry. That the quest for racial justice dominated the motivations of such Jews is highly unlikely. But neither were they dedicated to the preservation of white supremacy. Inadvertently but importantly they not only enriched the imaginative realm of their fellow Americans but also helped facilitate a more egalitarian society.
An early exemplar of cultural management was David Mannes (1866–1959), the son of immigrants from Eastern Europe. In the thoroughness of his secularism, Mannes was typical of the Jews who were attracted to black culture. Indeed he rejected Judaism by insisting that “music is my faith.” His wife was Clara Damrosch, of the family of remarkable German Gentiles who made so conspicuous a contribution to the performance of classical music, beginning in the last third of the nineteenth century. Mannes served as concertmaster to Clara’s brother, Walter Damrosch. But Mannes got his first serious musical instruction from John Douglas, a violinist whose race deprived him of a public career. That indebtedness helps explain why Mannes remained a devotee of black culture. A trustee of Fisk University in Nashville, the institution that produced W. E. B. Du Bois and John Hope Franklin, Mannes helped found a “Music School Settlement for Colored People” in Harlem in 1912. To help direct the Music School, he had the shrewd judgment to hire the composer J. Rosamond Johnson, who was also the brother of James Weldon Johnson, the novelist, lyricist, attorney, and diplomat who would serve for sixteen years as the executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1900 the brothers had collaborated in writing “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” also known as the Negro National Anthem, in honor of Lincoln’s birthday. Mannes’s Music School Settlement survived no more than a few years,1 but it constituted an early instance of black-Jewish artistic collaboration.
At the turn of the twentieth century, no family could match the Damrosches in affecting the nation’s musical taste. But if anyone could, a case could be made for the Witmarks. Marcus Witmark had been born in Prussia and immigrated in 1853. After the Civil War, he moved to New York, where he married Henrietta Peyser, and entered the liquor and wine business. His five sons set up a music publishing business in 1885; and, by the dawn of the twentieth century, theirs had become among the biggest such firms in the nation. Isidore, who was the oldest, and Frank played the piano. Julius and their sister Frances could sing, and the songs that they plugged were printed out on the family press. (The other sons were Jay and Ed.) The firm moved from lower to mid-Manhattan as it prospered, before merging with Warner Brothers in 1929. Songwriter Ben Harney composed and published ragtime under Witmark auspices; and his 1896 hit, “Dat Old Wagon Done Broke Down,” may be the nation’s first popular modern song with a discernible black inflection. Who was Harney? He was, according to another Witmark musician, Eubie Blake, actually passing for white, a phenomenon that James Weldon Johnson treated in his most famous book, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912). Whatever the elusiveness of Harney’s genealogy, he helped determine the mulatto origins of modern mass entertainment.
Much more controversial than “Dat Old Wagon Done Broke Down” was a coon song that a black composer, Ernest Hogan, wrote for M. Witmark & Sons, “All Coons Look Alike to Me” (1896). The black male prototypically portrayed in such songs was as lazy as he was untrustworthy, as stupid as he was silly, as cowardly as he was bereft of self-control, as addicted to gambling as he was to fried chicken. Subtitled “A Darkey Misunderstanding,” “All Coons Look Alike to Me” provoked outrage in the black community. (By playing this hit song during the championship fight between Jim Jeffries and Jack Johnson in Reno on July 4, 1910, the ringside band showed its utter disdain for the black heavyweight.) The lyrics were co-credited to Isidore Witmark, in an era when the appropriation, borrowing, and stealing of material was as common in songwriting as the assignment of credit was casual. He nevertheless believed his own views on the race question to be benevolent. Witmark did not see himself as engaged in the task of demeaning blacks; and he and his family did insist upon the right of blacks to belong to the American Society of Authors, Composers and Publishers. Whether the family’s motives, in helping to make black music popular, were anything more than pecuniary cannot be determined. But a revealing passage in Isidore Witmark’s book about his family’s business does inscribe appreciation of the value of such music—and not least for his fellow Jews: “The Negro has become for us a mask that from behind which we speak with less self-consciousness of our own primitive beliefs and emotions.” No wonder then that Irving Howe suspected that “some deeper affinity was … at work” when Jewish entertainers “took over the conventions of ethnic mimicry. The Jewish performers transformed it into something emotionally richer and more humane.” Although blackface became thoroughly discredited as a form of ridicule inflicted upon a beleaguered race, this mask enabled some singers “to reach a spontaneity and assertiveness” that came from enjoying “a freedom of the anonymous and forbidden.”2
Whatever Isidore Witmark’s intentions, and whatever the vicissitudes of public taste, his family continued to sponsor black music—for example, an early black musical, Clorindy; or, The Origins of the Cakewalk (1898). Clorindy, which the House of Witmark labeled an operetta, was the result of a collaboration between the black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and the composer and violinist Will Marion Cook. A colleague of Mannes at his Harlem school, Cook had studied at Oberlin and in Berlin and then with Antonín Dvořák. M. Witmark & Sons also published such standards as Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” and “Memphis Blues,” the Johnson brothers’ “Congo Love Song” and “Under the Bamboo Tree,” plus the signature song of Bert Williams, “Nobody.” The retrograde genre of minstrel shows continued to be featured in the Witmark catalog. It resists reductiveness, however. Isidore Witmark championed the work of “race men” like the Johnson brothers as well as a classical singer, Harry Thacker Burleigh, who also served as a soloist at Temple Emanu-El in New York. Isidore Witmark was stirred to proclaim in his autobiography that “the history of American popular music represents a strange mixture of racial qualities: white, black, American, Negro, Jewish, Yankee. Jazz, in history, stands for the latest phase.”3 By 1942–43, when the publishing firm had become Harms-Witmark, its employees included one Lenny Amber—the pseudonym of a young musician who would soon absorb these elements through his own composing and conducting: Leonard Bernstein.4 (The Yiddish term for “amber” is bernshteyn.)
But how could this musical mélange somehow be presented when songwriters customarily faced such staggering obstacles in the marketplace? And how could black composers and writers and painters survive, when their own vocations were so precarious and their race put them at so terrible a disadvantage? Here the generosity of a few Jewish families could provide at least momentary assistance, and perhaps even crucial help, in securing the measure of comfort that might permit creative and artistic juices to flow freely. The Guggenheim family had made its fortune in mining and smelting, which made it possible for the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation to award individual grants to artists and scholars. No race in particular was supposed to be helped. But at least black artists had the chance of earning grants on a competitive basis. Perhaps even more imaginative was the philanthropy of Julius Rosenwald (1862–1932), who demonstrated considerable resourcefulness in making money, and then considerable astuteness in spending money through the foundation he created. In an era when white racism was so pervasive, the exceptions cry out for consideration, and deserve to be highlighted. The salience of Julius Rosenwald to this story can scarcely be exaggerated, even though historians have largely overlooked the significance of his philanthropy. (Because no scholar has ever undertaken a full biography, Rosenwald’s own grandson has filled the gap.)
More than anyone else, Julius Rosenwald was responsible for the growth of the mail-order house of Sears, Roebuck. He joined this Chicago-based merchandising company in 1895, at the age of thirty-three, and made it into the largest retail establishment on the planet. Thirteen years later he became president of Sears, Roebuck; and by then the company had grown so large (with eight thousand employees at the Chicago plant) that Rosenwald’s friend, Henry Goldman, the head of the New York investment bank Goldman Sachs, advised going public, which enabled Rosenwald (as well as marketing genius Richard Sears) suddenly to become millionaires.
For the next sixteen years, while Rosenwald served as president, the company did as much as any retail business in the nation to help farmers and their families conquer their solitude, enabling them to connect with city-dwellers and ultimately to a cosmopolitan modernity. So pervasive was the impact of this company that, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt was asked which American book he would like to see distributed in the Soviet Union, he did not nominate the Federalist Papers or Moby-Dick or even his own public papers. Instead he proposed the Sears, Roebuck catalog. The introductory letters that the company sent to potential customers along with the catalogs were unsigned from 1909, right after Rosenwald became president of the company, until 1924, when he resigned. Nor did Julius Rosenwald’s name appear in the catalog; the head of this mammoth enterprise was anonymous. Why? His grandson has suspected a fear of antisemitism in rural America, where such a name might be bad for business. In the Chicago press, and even elsewhere, the president of Sears, Roebuck was publicly associated with Jewish causes. Rosenwald was an integral member of the organized Jewish community, locally as well as nationally. In 1906 he helped found the American Jewish Committee. Two years later, when he became the president of Sears, Roebuck, Rosenwald also became the president of the city’s Associated Jewish Charities, a position he held intermittently for seven years. But presumably he hoped that farmers would fail to notice news stories of his Jewish commitments.5
Perhaps Rosenwald overestimated the judeophobia of the heartland. But such wariness does provide a clue to his devotion to bettering the situation of black Americans. Wealth failed to immunize him from bigotry, or at least from an awareness of a blot on democratic ideals. Perhaps his capacity for empathy might have sprung from an appreciation of the sting of prejudice. But whatever the roots of Julius Rosenwald’s singular philanthropic orientation, his interest in enhancing black education was neither casual nor superficial. He served on the board of the Tuskegee Institute; and Booker T. Washington not only stayed in Rosenwald’s home when visiting Chicago but also spoke at his synagogue, Temple Sinai. The Tuskegee Institute was not alone among institutions of higher learning to benefit from Rosenwald’s philanthropy. Others were Spelman College and Morehouse College in Atlanta, Fisk University and Meharry Medical College in Nashville and Dillard University in New Orleans. In 1915, the year that Booker T. Washington died, nine out of ten Negroes were living in the South, where Rosenwald was providing matching funds for the erection of school buildings. Local blacks were expected to put up much of the rest of the funding. Eventually over 5,300 such schools were constructed. In the course of two decades, Rosenwald had built more schools for black pupils than had existed in the South when his program had been inaugurated,6 in a region that showed little public commitment to black education. Because it was said to “ruin a good field hand,” Governor Eugene Talmadge of Georgia denounced the “Rosenwald menace to the Southern way of life.”7
In 1928 the Rosenwald Fund was inspired to support “Negro creative workers,” an idea that its president, Edward Embree, the grandson of an abolitionist, got from James Weldon Johnson and from the sociologist Charles S. Johnson (no relation), a future president of Fisk University. Embree argued that the “development of promising individuals and support of creative workers” should also be cultivated. Culture might have an effect upon politics; the arts could have civic value. Embree told Rosenwald that “the recent brilliant work of Negroes in music, literature, and the arts … is about the only thing that has made a favorable impression in the North to counteract, in part, the offense which so many Northerners have taken at the Southern migration of large numbers of Negroes into Northern cities.”8 Fellowships would focus on the arts, education, and scholarship. James Weldon Johnson himself received an early fellowship of $5,000, so that he could “devote himself to a year of literary work.” In 1929 Augusta Savage got a fellowship to study sculpture in the tolerant atmosphere of France, a grant that was renewed the following year. Southern whites like Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, and C. Vann Woodward—all of whom would be associated with the struggle against racial injustice—were also awarded fellowships. But the main beneficiaries were blacks. Of the 1,537 fellowships that were awarded over the course of two decades, 999 of the recipients were black. Especially during the travail of the Great Depression, such aid was like a life-preserver at sea. Rosenwald had insisted that the Fund exhaust principal and interest within a quarter-century of his death, so by 1948 the Fund simply spent itself out of existence. After dispensing nearly $2 million for such fellowships, the Julius Rosenwald Fund became the first charitable foundation deliberately to deplete itself of all of its resources.9
But by then virtually every significant black artist and scholar had been helped by the Julius Rosenwald Fund. Indeed the list of important African Americans who were not helped would be shorter than a roll call that includes Du Bois, Paul Robeson, the political scientist and diplomat Ralph Bunche, the sociologist St. Clair Drake, the economist Abram L. Harris, the psychologist Kenneth Clark, the tenor Roland Hayes, the chemist Percy L. Julian, the surgeon and scientist Charles R. Drew, the dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham. Another recipient was a future president of Lincoln University, Horace Mann Bond, who was later assigned the task of assessing the education that the Rosenwald schools provided in the South. Because the Fund operated in the wake of the Harlem Renaissance, the writers who received fellowships included Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and Zora Neale Hurston. Another Rosenwald fellow was James Baldwin, who never got past high school. But a fellowship spurred a career that began with essays that appeared in the key journals of the New York intelligentsia, such as Commentary, Partisan Review, the New Leader, and the Reporter, which Julius Rosenwald’s son-in-law, the Italian Jewish anti-Fascist refugee Max Ascoli, edited. In 1941 the first Rosenwald Fund Fellowship ever awarded to a photographer went to Gordon Parks. A fellowship helped John Hope Franklin to do graduate work at Harvard and to begin the archival research that would launch the career of the most illustrious African American historian. In 1903 Du Bois had famously proposed the formation of a talented tenth that would advance an entire race and lift it out of the misery that prejudice and persecution had inflicted, an elite that would incarnate “the breadth and broadening of human reason” and a “catholicity of taste and culture.” What helped make that idea operational was the visionary capitalism of Julius Rosenwald, who had never even graduated from high school, much less college.10
In 1930 the Rosenwald Fund had the foresight to award a fellowship to a young contralto.11 Perhaps no path to international acclaim was less likely, nor were any singer’s origins more obscure, than Marian Anderson’s. She was hardly unusual among Rosenwald fellows in having to overcome the impediments of poverty and racism. But Anderson was singular in her struggle for recognition in the most exalted realm of vocal artistry, and in her effort to be included among the interpreters of the classical repertoire. Such ambition was yoked to a demure and even retiring personality. And yet within a mere five years of receiving a Rosenwald fellowship, Anderson would learn from maestro Arturo Toscanini, in Salzburg, that hers was a voice that “one is privileged to hear only once in a hundred years.”12
An extraordinary natural vocal ability needed, of course, to be cultivated; yet the white teachers in her native Philadelphia refused to work her. But while still in high school, she met Giuseppe Boghetti, a tenor whose own singing career in Europe had failed to ignite. So he had returned to teach voice in his birthplace in Philadelphia. “Giuseppe Boghetti” was the fancy name that Joe Bogash, a Jew whose family had escaped Tsarist Russia, bestowed upon himself. When Marian Anderson auditioned for him, he was stunned. With two years of instruction and training, he predicted, she “would be able to go anywhere and sing for anybody.” Boghetti discerned that her best tone was E-flat above middle C, and he trained her so that she could achieve all the tones throughout that range in the same way. He also taught Anderson to produce vocal agility, enabling her to reach high C. His own professionalism required only the finest accompanist to be available for her in the studio. Having studied in Milan, Boghetti could coach Anderson in Italian; and he brought in a French teacher for her and other students as well. He showed her how arrange entire recital programs. And for over a year, he continued to train her, though she was too poor to pay him. (She eventually reimbursed him.) The demanding and knowledgeable Boghetti “remained my teacher, with breaks here and there, until he died,” she wrote in her autobiography. Anderson’s biographer has summarized “their relationship … as artistically and professionally decisive… . The good fortune that brought them together offered Boghetti the opportunity to foster the talent of a singer who would in less than a decade become famous throughout Europe, if not yet in the United States.”13
In 1935 in Paris, she performed one evening at the Salle Gaveau, where a member of the audience who had never heard of the contralto found himself, upon listening to her, “shaken to my very shoes.” He later claimed that “chills danced up my spine and my palms were wet.” This was the sudden impact that she first exercised upon the impresario who would reinstall Marian Anderson on native grounds and enable her to enjoy the acclaim that she had enjoyed abroad. With only $750 left from the Rosenwald fellowship, she was subsisting on so tiny a sum that it undoubtedly helped convince her “that he could do something unusual for a performer if he took a notion to do so,” she recalled. Born Solomon Izraelevitch Gurkov, he had come from Russia to Philadelphia in 1906, and soon called himself Sol Hurok (1888–1974). Though he was reported to be able to speak six languages, violinist Isaac Stern claimed that they all sounded like Yiddish. By specializing in showing Americans what European musicianship and dance could be at their most majestic and sublime, Hurok created a vocation that had not previously existed. Under his management came the violinist Efrem Zimbalist, the operatic bass Feodor Chaliapin and the dancer Anna Pavlova, followed by innumerable others. In the middle of the Great Depression, Hurok assumed the management of Marian Anderson, who returned from four years abroad to triumphant recitals in Town Hall and Carnegie Hall in New York City. Hurok also brought her to Washington, DC, a segregated city which he worked around by having her sing in a black high school auditorium, where the audience could be racially mixed. A few evenings later, in February, 1936, she sang at the White House at the invitation of Eleanor Roosevelt.14
Anderson’s second season under his management began in January, 1937; and it is fair to say that, for the next two seasons as well, she toured to the point of exhaustion. So grueling a schedule also made Hurok rich, as the public demand for Marian Anderson seemed to grow exponentially. By January, 1939, he told the press, she had earned $238,000 in the previous year, an amazingly lucrative accomplishment for a concert singer during the Great Depression. Because he handled so many artists, Hurok was able to drive hard bargains with local managers. He was implacable. If they were reluctant to sponsor a black singer, Hurok would shrewdly deny them his white performers; and he insisted that her fees were nonnegotiable. If hotels located in the center of cities or towns, convenient to the concert halls, were so prejudiced as to refuse her accommodations, local managers learned that none of the other acclaimed artists would be available under the rubric of “S. Hurok Presents.” “Feeling strongly that Anderson should appear wherever other great artists appeared,” her biographer has written, the impresario “could now group her with a wide variety of well-known and glamorous performers,” and could insist that “she was in every way the equal of the others.” Or better. By her fifth season under his management, Marian Anderson’s fees had customarily risen to $2,000 per concert.
In January, 1939, the NAACP announced that she would be awarded its Spingarn Medal. Named for the Jewish president of the organization, Joel Spingarn, this honor was the most prestigious in the black community; and the First Lady herself bestowed the medal.15 In 1956 the National Urban League awarded both Anderson and Hurok silver medallions for “notable contributions to the cause of better human relations and understanding.” Sol “Hurok brought a deep personal interest in my career,” according to her autobiography. “There was the kind of friendship that you do not look for in managers.” It lasted for almost three decades, until she retired in 1964. Such had been her trust in him that she ceased bothering even to sign the contracts that “this fabulous man” sent her annually. At the funeral service held at Carnegie Hall, she called Hurok “more than the supreme impresario. He was teacher, counsel, friend.”16
Black artists faced a much less favorable situation in jazz than Anderson had enjoyed in her own singing career. The black music that soon became so nearly inescapable sometimes had a Jewish accent, as with Benny Goodman, the son of Jewish immigrants who was also the first to cross the color line. In 1936 he brought pianist Teddy Wilson to accompany him in a small group—first a trio, and then a quartet that included Lionel Hampton on vibes.17 For the famous Carnegie Hall concert two years later, black musicians shared the stage with Goodman’s big band, which did not actually get desegregated until 1939. That was also the year that Leonard Bernstein completed his senior thesis at Harvard College on “The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music,” which claimed that, with jazz, “Negro music has finally shown itself to be the really universal basis of American composition.”18 And 1939 was also the year Marian Anderson sang at the Lincoln Memorial, after the Daughters of the American Revolution denied her their site at Constitution Hall.
Because equality was denied to musicians of African ancestry for close to two-thirds of the twentieth century, systematic discrimination required recourse to cultural management. Talented and ambitious jazzmen could succeed only with the aid of Jews, whose entrepreneurial skills make them indispensable intermediaries with the booking agents, the music publishers, the studio executives and the operators of theater chains (who were commonly Jews as well). In the early 1940s, for example, Jews ran the six companies that controlled 95 percent of the recording industry: Columbia, Victor (later RCA), MGM, Decca, Mercury, and Capitol.19 Bert and Jack Goldberg had produced Shuffle Along (1921), Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s sizzling breakthrough revue that starred Florence Mills (and featured Paul Robeson). The ubiquitous M. Witmark & Sons published the sheet music for that showcase of black talent. Before the 1960s, Jews were usually the only cultural managers who were willing to do for jazz artists, for instance, work that other whites would not stoop to accepting. Such intermediaries did not work out of the goodness of their hearts. Idealists were more likely to gravitate toward fields like social work or nursing rather than toward the notoriously cut-throat competitiveness of mass entertainment. But such middlemen helped make the nation’s arts far less homogeneous.
Norman Granz performed that role for Ella Fitzgerald; so did Bob Weinstock for John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Louis Armstrong submitted his professional career to the business judgment of Joe Glaser, who was, by most accounts, a really nasty piece of work, a vicious vulgarian who was crossed at one’s peril.20 The owner of the Village Vanguard, a prominent New York jazz club, called Glaser “the most obscene, the most outrageous, and the toughest agent I ever bought an act from.”21 Armstrong trusted him completely. Glaser was allowed to hire and fire members of Armstrong’s band, to decide which gigs to accept or reject, and even to pay him whatever the cultural manager deemed appropriate. When the band toured the South, Glaser was usually the only white man on the bus (besides the driver), and was there to ensure that white club owners did not cook the books. (It did not hurt that Glaser also had mob ties.) By 1937 the wariness of sponsors had softened enough to make the amiable trumpeter into the first black entertainer to appear regularly on radio programs. To be sure, if Glaser ever took a vow of poverty, there were no witnesses. But he also made sure that Armstrong himself did not die penniless or in obscurity. Remarkably for a jazzman, he left behind an estate of over half a million dollars. Admittedly the estate of Glaser (about $3 million) was considerably larger; but he had also served as manager for Billie Holiday, Pearl Bailey, and Sarah Vaughan as well.
However dubiously the proceeds were divided, Glaser could share some credit for guaranteeing that Armstrong gained the international acclaim and earned the remuneration to which his unexcelled musical gifts entitled him. Could he have achieved as much fame and fortune without the services of Glaser, whom Armstrong called “the best friend that I’ve ever had”? Would “Satchmo” have wanted to make business decisions for himself? The answers are not certain. Others, like Joe (King) Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton, resented the exploitation that cultural management often entailed; and these jazz greats refused to surrender their own self-respect and pride. No canny Jewish impresarios got a chance to fleece them. But both of them paid a high price for their yearning for autonomy; they died destitute and in oblivion.22 The emotional bond that Armstrong forged with Glaser may well have been rooted in memories of his rough childhood in New Orleans, where an immigrant family of junk-dealers named Karnofsky virtually adopted him, fed him and even encouraged his musical ambitions. “If it wasn’t for the nice Jewish people,” he recalled, “we would have starved many a time.” The result was that “I will love the Jewish people all of my life.” Lacking business instincts himself, Armstrong could not help noticing that the “Jewish people always managed to put away their nickels and dimes, profits which they knew would accumulate into a nice little bundle some day.” After so precarious a childhood, he appreciated the virtue of solidarity, and therefore also came to admire what adversaries of the Jews called their clannishness. Despite persecution, Armstrong believed, “they stuck together.”23
The relationship between Edward Kennedy (Duke) Ellington and Irving Mills was more complicated than Glaser’s representation of his most famous client. The antecedents of Irving Mills are so vague that a birth date of 1894 represents only a guess; and in any case he started out—like Irving Berlin and George Gershwin—as a song-plugger, trying to generate hits. In 1919 Mills founded, with his brother Jack, Mills Music; and they hit the jackpot with their second song, “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean.” When the blues became fashionable, Mills Music jumped in quickly, hiring such black songwriters as Shelton Brooks (“Darktown Strutters’ Ball”) and Henry Creamer (“Way Down Yonder in New Orleans”). Beginning in the decade that F. Scott Fitzgerald called the Jazz Age, Irving Mills became the cultural manager and then business partner for Duke Ellington. Mills undoubtedly cheated Ellington of some of his earnings and also compounded such sins by giving himself a collaborator’s credit, with both of their names attached to the songs.24
Such enthusiasm for Ellington’s music stemmed from more than exploitation or egocentricity, however. The business of Mills Music was to publish songs. Stressing how much income could be derived from royalties, Irving Mills (unlike Joe Glaser) pushed his biggest client to write songs as well as play them. Hits like “Mood Indigo,” “Creole Love Call,” and “Solitude” were composed to meet the pressure of recording deadlines; and these works were sometimes finished in the studio. Because Ellington’s manager was also the head of Mills Music, the incentives were weighted toward the composition of Ellington’s own music over anyone else’s; and this stimulated him to keep writing and recording. (Armstrong had no such incentive.) Mills had enough taste to advise Ellington on which sorts of songs might become popular, to propose titles and themes and to hire lyricists; Mills also compensated for Ellington’s tendency to over-arrange his compositions. Irving Mills was no lamed-vovnik (a specially righteous individual) but he earned Ellington’s gracious tribute for having “always preserved the dignity of my name … and that is the most anybody can do for anybody.”25
By the 1950s jazz was still appealing enough to ensure the annual success of the Newport Jazz Festival, which impresario George Wein organized in 1954. Four years later Down Beat magazine called the festival “the biggest, most financially successful jazz venture ever undertaken.” Typically the musicians were mostly black, and the audience mostly white.26 And yet even as jazz was ceding popularity to other forms of black music, Jews themselves did not entirely disappear from the scene. Even where the audiences as well as the performers were black, as at the Apollo in Harlem, the owner of this citadel of entertainment in its heyday was Frank Schiffman (the uncle of the choreographer Jerome Robbins). The days of Jewish cultural management were numbered, however, due primarily to Motown, which cracked the mostly Jewish domination of the financial and artistic control of black musical entertainment when Detroit’s Berry Gordy Jr., formed the company in 1958. But even Gordy relied on a tax attorney named Harold Noveck and upon his brother, Sidney Noveck, an accountant. The manager of one of Motown’s acts, The Temptations, Shelly Berger, insisted that audiences be racially mixed in the South, or the group would not perform. Because the Noveck brothers demanded that Motown’s books had to balance by the end of every year, Berger referred to the duo as “the Malach Hamovis—that’s Yiddish for the Angels of Death.” Gordy maintained operating control of Motown until 1979, when he relinquished power to Michael Roshkind. Nine years later Gordy sold all but the music publishing parts of Motown to the Music Corporation of America, the talent agency that Jules Stein and then Lew Wasserman headed for most of its history.27
By the 1950s independent labels had begun to challenge the dominant record companies, as a new sound emerged from the black community: “race music.” A reporter for Billboard, Jerry Wexler, proposed to substitute the phrase “rhythm and blues” on the charts of the magazine; and no one would play a more decisive role in making such music available. When he joined Atlantic Records, which had been founded in 1947 by a former dental student, Herb Abramson, as well as by the son of a Turkish diplomat, Ahmet Ertegun, Wexler insisted that the goal should be selling “black music for black adults.” It would soon extend beyond that demographic. For the Atlantic label, he produced hits like Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” and The Genius of Ray Charles. Wexler got into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, if for no other reason than his insistence on letting Aretha be Aretha. She had been singing show tunes for Columbia Records until the mid-1960s, when she switched to the Atlantic label and rediscovered her gospel roots. He produced sixteen albums and many hit singles for her.28
Wexler’s authentication of Aretha Franklin’s musical roots has an analog in the career of Sam Cooke. He had exerted an electrifying effect upon her ever since she heard him, as the lead singer of a gospel group called the Soul Stirrers, at her father’s New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. The Soul Stirrers recorded for Specialty Records, which Art Rupe (formerly Arthur Goldberg) had founded in 1946, seven years after moving to Los Angeles. Rupe had grown up in a racially mixed neighborhood in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, and recalled that the fervor of some of the “race music” that he listened “moved me so much it brought tears to my eyes.” He sensed the impact and profitability of the Soul Stirrers, especially their hit, “Jesus Gave Me Water,” and knew that their lead singer conveyed star-power. By the mid-1950s, however, Rupe realized that gospel songs could not successfully compete with “the devil’s music.” In 1952 Specialty sold over a million records of Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” which white buyers made into a crossover hit (an industry first). Price was not unique, however, among the musicians who recorded with Rupe; another Specialty artist was Little Richard. But Rupe knew that the lead singer of the Soul Stirrers would soon shift to pop (or rhythm and blues), which would break up the gospel group, even as Specialty could at least take historic pride in having spawned Sam Cooke.29
Not that Specialty lacked rivals in the distribution of rhythm and blues. Rupe was hardly alone in grasping the prospect of reaping huge rewards, were such music to become popular among young whites. Rupe’s commercial competition consisted overwhelmingly of labels under Jewish ownership. They included Leo, Edward, and Ida Messner’s Alladin Records in Los Angeles, Syd Nathan’s King and Federal labels in Cincinnati and Herman Lubinsky’s Savoy Records in Newark. The most famous of these enterprises, however, was the Chess label in Chicago. In 1928 the parents of Leonard and Phil Chess had brought them to the city from Poland; and within three decades, and without any musical training, or any capacity to play any instruments, the two Yiddish-speaking brothers would make an indelible impact on the nation’s taste. The artists who recorded on the Chess label included Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, and the very young Aretha Franklin. Their records formed the lucrative basis of the Chess catalogue, which to protect copyrights was converted into a music publishing business when Gene and Harry Goodman (the brothers of Benny Goodman) got on board.
The Chess brothers did not bother to tell their musicians or songwriters how much it cost to cut a record, nor did the duo disclose how much profit they were making from these discs. The label did not subscribe to an ideal of transparency. But they paid the talent whether or not a record was a hit, and also covered medical bills, legal bills, and sometimes necessities like rent and clothing for men who grasped only imperfectly the notion of deferred gratification. Leonard and Phil Chess ran a business that blurred lines, with the musicians sharing in the family seders and attending the sons’ bar mitzvah ceremonies, and with protection offered to the errant against paternity suits. Written contracts were unusual, at least at first; Muddy Waters, for example, could barely write more than his own name anyway. Such “mutual trust” between him and the Chesses was admirable, the author of a monograph on the urban blues acknowledged, but “also smacks of the old plantation and paternalism.”30
Black ambivalence was therefore common and even understandable. Especially by the 1960s, the status of the Jews could provoke envy, resentment, and suspicion. Bo Diddley, for example, was no antisemite. But he happened to believe that every group on this earth was granted a purpose, and that the destiny of the Jew is the accumulation of wealth: “Give him a thousand dollars, and he’ll turn it into ten million. How the heck they do it, I don’t know.” But he seemed to raise no objections to such proclivities, and expressed his gratitude to the Chess brothers. Without them, he speculated in 1999, “no tellin’ where I’d be, probably in jail or dead.” From them, he acknowledged, “I got direction.” The brothers had sold their company exactly three decades earlier, as black nationalism made such business practices difficult to defend or sustain. But by then, the horizon of the nation’s musical heritage had become much wider, nor was it even confined to the United States. One famous British rock band even named itself after one of Muddy Waters’ songs; and its electric guitarist, Keith Richards, once admitted to the following fantasy: “I just want to be Muddy Waters. Even though I’ll never be that good or that black.”31
The primary motive of executives like the Chess brothers was mercenary. Fred Mendelsohn, who handled A & R (artists and repertoire) for Savoy, admitted that “we had no idea the music would be so enduring … We were just trying to make money.”32 Acting in ways that capitalism encouraged, such figures provided some of the most talented and creative blacks of the last century with the opportunity to change the nation’s tastes, and then its sensibility, and finally its racial practices. By enlarging and enriching American culture, some Jews thus drove the dream life into a democratic direction as well. Such a process did not escape Nazi attention. Already in the Weimar era, the Völkischer Beobachter had blamed Jews for the circulation of black music—especially jazz—in Germany; and a month after December 7, 1941, Adolf Hitler dismissed the United States as “a decayed country.” How could it be otherwise? “American society [is] half Judaized, and the other half Negrified,” he remarked; and “everything is built on the dollar.”33 That list of devotees of the way to wealth would definitely include Berry Gordy, the target of several lawsuits from disgruntled musicians whom he had employed. He was “blood”; he was family. But “he that troubleth his own house,” goes the warning in Proverbs 11:21, “shall inherit the wind.” Whether Motown was fairer or more generous to them than were the Jewish cultural managers of the previous generation isn’t obvious. Gordy’s pay scales certainly drove some employees away, including Mary Wells and especially the hit-making writing and production team of Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland. They sued Motown for millions.34
By then the need for white intermediaries had been repudiated. But they did not entirely vanish. Consider Daptone Records, founded by a Californian named Gabriel Roth to revive and popularize the soul music and the funk of the 1960s and early 1970s. Roth is something more than merely the custodian of black culture. On the doorpost at the office of Daptone, for example, is a piano-shaped mezuzah. The son of civil rights attorneys, Roth (who is also a bassist and a composer) has compared soul music, with its “visceral” and “spiritual” power, to the compelling fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer. As the producer and cofounder of Daptone Records, Roth is animated by motives that are far less pecuniary than they are conservationist. The featured band on his company’s albums is the Gospel Queens, starring a blind pianist named Cliff Driver. Interviewed about the credentials of Gabriel Roth, a self-proclaimed Jewish atheist, in writing the sacred music of black Americans, Driver replied: “What he knew about gospel never concerned me.” Well then, what about Roth’s race? Could a young white man compose in an authentically black genre, whether in gospel or in rhythm and blues? With a mock plea, Roth interrupted the interviewer: “Don’t tell Cliff I’m white.” To which Driver laughed.35 Something of the charged, asymmetrical minority relations of the past had thus evaporated.
Black musicians undoubtedly had the greatest impact in making American culture heterogeneous, but the influence of others sorts of artists should not go unexamined. For example, Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) won a Rosenwald Fund Fellowship in 1940, which was renewed in two subsequent years. He also received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in 1946. One art historian has argued that “the African-American artist whose work bears the closest resemblance to Ben Shahn’s is Jacob Lawrence.” Born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and later a resident of Harlem, Lawrence made himself into the most historically conscious painter of the black experience, most famously in the Migration of the Negro series (1940–41). Not only did Shahn and Lawrence appear to have forged a reciprocal influence upon one another, but Lawrence—perhaps more than any other black artist—enjoyed friendships or at least acquaintanceships with his Jewish counterparts. Besides Shahn, they included Jack Levine, Max Weber, William Gropper, and Philip Evergood. Lawrence’s most important sponsor was a Jewish gallery owner, Edith Halpert, whose Downtown Gallery in New York first exhibited the Migration series. Halpert’s exhibition of American Negro Art: 19th and 20th Centuries included pieces by Lawrence as well as by Henry O. Tanner, Horace Pippin, and Romare Bearden. And in 1965, when Brandeis University, a nonsectarian but Jewish-sponsored institution, established a fellowship for visiting artists, its first recipient was Jacob Lawrence, who taught undergraduates in the Department of Fine Arts. Five years later he was awarded the Spingarn Medal of the NAACP.36
Exactly a decade before Lawrence came to teach at Brandeis, its president had offered a teaching job to another recipient of a Julius Rosenwald Fund Fellowship: Ralph Ellison. He had won it in 1945. The $1,800 stipend was more generous than the book contract he had been given, and the fellowship was extended the following year. Ellison declined the Brandeis invitation, protesting that pedagogy would take him away from writing fiction. “Many people can teach but not many can write as well as he,” Ellison’s wife Fanny explained.37 Such praise was hardly eccentric. In 1953 Invisible Man won the National Book Award for the best novel of the previous year. Perhaps he was a little “lucky,” his biographer notes, “in having three young, progressive Jewish writers as a majority on the panel.” (A fourth vote, by editor Martha Foley, was not needed; but she too recognized the achievement of Invisible Man. The fifth juror, Professor Howard Mumford Jones, picked Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea instead, a choice that posterity has not vindicated.) Of course the luck of the draw hardly accounts for the high reputation of Ellison’s only completed novel. In 1965 Book Week polled two hundred authors, editors, and critics, to inquire which postwar American novel was most likely to endure. Invisible Man came in first, followed by Lolita, and then The Catcher in the Rye and then three novels by Saul Bellow.38
Interestingly enough, Ellison’s first and in a sense only novel is not dedicated to the author’s wife, or to the memory of his mother, and not even to the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, the Bennington College professor whom the novelist considered his chief literary mentor. Instead the dedication of Invisible Man is “To Ida.” That would be Ida Espen Guggenheimer (1866–1959), a wealthy widow who had helped refugees fleeing the Third Reich in the 1930s. She also managed to combine the roles of Communist sympathizer, Hadassah activist and a supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Ida Guggenheimer met Ellison no later than in 1943; and she gave him loans at crucial junctures, which he always succeeded in repaying. The anti-Communism of Invisible Man, which exposes the fanatical folly of “the Brotherhood,” may well have smashed their friendship, however. In any event she ceased sending Ellison money,39 as he shifted more than subtly to the right, at least within the spectrum of the black intelligentsia.
He did after all diverge from Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Chester Himes, in refusing to become an expatriate. “While I sympathize with those Negro Americans” who could not bear the nation’s racism, Ellison wrote, “my own needs, both as a citizen and as artist, make the gesture of exile seem mere petulance.” Nor, as a citizen and artist, could he share the resentment at Jewish influence that some blacks harbored, and that they were by the 1960s openly expressing. “I consider the United States freer politically and richer culturally, Ellison wrote, because there are Jewish Americans to bring it the benefit of their special forms of dissent, their humor and their gift for ideas.” Upon learning of Ida Guggenheimer’s death at the age of 93, he praised this “tough-minded old lady” for her “true generosity of spirit”; and then he generalized about “the old Jews who suffered the isolation of being Jews … and it’s sad to see them go.”40
After the 1960s, the role of Jews in facilitating black self-expression went into eclipse. The cultural managers of roughly the first half of the twentieth century were no longer needed. Despite the terrible odds stacked against them, blacks had managed to disclose the fullness of their humanity and the magnitude of their gifts in a way that had transformed American culture. But all sorts of political managers have endured, amid the dramatic transformation of the interpersonal dynamics of race relations, and have helped make America more pluralistic. In the form of the national experiment of self-government, the skills of Jews in furthering the goal of racial justice have not gone untapped. Thus, the faith of James Weldon Johnson that cultural accomplishment would lead to civic progress has been vindicated, and the impact of Jews in that process has not been modest.
The chief exemplar has been David Axelrod. Having been the leading political and media consultant for the Democratic Party in Chicago, he served as the key strategist of Senator Barack Obama’s successful campaign for the Presidency in 2008. Four years earlier Axelrod had run Obama’s winning campaign for the U.S. Senate. Axelrod has managed the campaigns of white candidates, beginning with Paul Simon’s successful 1984 U.S. Senate run from Illinois (when Axelrod was only twenty-nine years old) and ending with Mayor Richard M. Daley’s 2007 re-election for a sixth term in Chicago. But insofar as Axelrod has developed a specialty, it has been figuring out how to elect black candidates. In this respect he looms even larger than three other Chicagoans who have been closely associated with Obama. One is Martha Minow, who succeeded Elena Kagan as the dean of the Harvard Law School and is the professor whom he credits as exerting the greatest influence upon him at Harvard.41 Another is Penny Pritzker, who served as the chief fundraiser for Obama’s 2008 campaign, which was, in terms of dollars raised, the most lavish in American history. And finally there is Rahm Emanuel, the former Congressman whose ketubah bears Axelrod’s signature as witness. Very soon after the election, Emanuel was appointed White House chief of staff (and was later elected mayor of Chicago).
A fourth Chicagoan posthumously shaped the postgraduate career of Barack Obama. He was only eleven years old when Saul D. Alinsky died. But Alinsky (1909–72) invented the vocation of “community organizer,” a role that no one before him had taken on, an occupation that the United States Census had not unenumerated. Honing the methods by which citizens rather than workers might be mobilized, Alinsky was less interested in voicing protest than in achieving power for the voiceless. The final phase of his career focused on enhancing racial equality—in Rochester, New York, and in Chicago in particular, which is why the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain considered Alinsky’s work “the only really new and really important democratic initiative taken in the social field.”42 At the Republicans’ national convention in 2008, former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani famously scoffed that he did not know what a “community organizer” is. Giuliani may have gotten a somewhat better idea on the first Tuesday in November of that year. (He could not be reached for comment.)
David Axelrod has however typified the enduring relevance of the entwined fates of American Jews and blacks, though on the plane of politics rather than of culture. He has handled black mayoralty campaigns in Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, and did the same for Deval Patrick, who was elected in 2006 as the first African American to become governor of Massachusetts. One journalist has summarized Axelrod’s style in presenting black office-seekers to white voters in terms of “emphasizing biography, using third-party authentication [such as popular white politicians or their relatives], … letting voters connect to the candidate by speaking to them directly in ads, and telling voters that supporting the black candidate puts them on the right side of history.” Such an approach does not impose the consultant’s own message but instead is adaptable to the story of candidates whose appeal then seems genuine rather than arranged.43 Obama was shrewd to have enlisted Axelrod for what was for each of them a first campaign for the White House; and one argument for picking Axelrod came from Dennis Archer, a former mayor of Detroit. Archer, who is black, has claimed to have come across “very few people who happen to be white who are sensitive and [are] willing to give their all and commit themselves to candidates of color. Some come in with a pejorative sense and treat the candidate in a pejorative way, and you don’t have the full, committed respect that David has displayed.”44 That a first cousin of the mother of First Lady Michelle Obama, Capers C. Funnye, is not only Jewish but also serves as the rabbi of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation of Chicago nicely brings this version of the historical journey of two minorities to its improbable conclusion.