The stage show Knishes ’n Grits explores the connection between black and Jewish music through the songs of composers like George Gershwin, Harold Arlen and Irving Berlin, as well as the music of singers such as Sophie Tucker, Ethel Waters and Lena Horne.
Written by two of its stars, Thom Allison and Micah Barnes, the show moves from the music of the days of slavery in the United States, through to hit songs from the 1960s.
“We learned a lot about Jewish and black culture and the way they have come together, but without a doubt there’s been a lot of eye-opening moments for us in the writing of the show,” Barnes said. “It’s been a challenge trying to decide what is the most important moment that we can tell from each era.”
The Jewish influence on jazz and Broadway tends to be melodic, while the African-American contribution is rhythm and groove, he said. “Without that marriage, we wouldn’t have jazz as we know it today. We wouldn’t have the musical theatre, the Broadway stage as we know it today and certainly we wouldn’t have the pop song as we know it today.”
“The idea of the show is how Jewish tonal scales and the sensibility of the music met with the African rhythms of black music, the drums and syncopation” Allison says. “Ragtime, Tin Pan Alley, jazz, Broadway and pop all came out of that melding together,” Allison says.
“We wanted two Jewish and two black performers, but what is great about the show is it is not just Jewish performers singing Jewish music, everyone is singing everything. I do a bit of Yiddish,” explains Allison, representing one of the “grits.”
African-American and Jewish musicians collaborated on Tin Pan Alley, the name of a group of New York music publishers and songwriters who dominated popular music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many Tin Pan Alley songwriters, including Berlin and Arlen, were Jews from the Lower East Side.
Cultural links existed between Harlem’s musicians and Jewish composers like Gershwin.
“George Gershwin would go to Harlem to hear musicians play and was so inspired from that,” Allison said. “Of course, bringing with him the world of Jewish theatre and music – he put those rhythms together and we got this amazing coming together of these two worlds. Irving Berlin jumped onto that bandwagon and ragtime piano player Scott Joplin made ragtime a thing by combining European music with syncopated rhythms.”
When Gershwin wrote the score for Porgy and Bess, he not only paid attention to opera, but also researched the folk idioms of black culture. “A work like Porgy and Bess could only have been created by somebody whose ears were open to both European and black cultural forms,” Barnes said.
The discussion about the links between African-American and Jewish music isn’t always an easy one, the co-writers realized. The show addresses the issue of blackface, a style of entertainment based on racist stereotypes created in the minstrel era of the early 19th century and carried over into vaudeville, film and television.
“Al Jolson was just another struggling artist trying to get ahead at a time when blackface was accepted, however most Jewish entertainers, when given the opportunity, stopped performing in blackface as soon as they could,” Barnes said. “Sophie Tucker and Fanny Brice are two examples of artists who abandoned blackface as soon as they could. Al Jolson hung on to it longer and I’m guessing that part was because he wasn’t sure he had an act without it.”
Musically, African-Americans and Jews, both outsiders in American society, joined forces at the Brill Building in New York in the late ’50s and ’60s. There, songwriters Jerome Lieber and Michael Stoller wrote hit songs for black vocal groups. “They were two hipster, beatnik Jewish guys who felt like outsiders,” Barnes said. “Because of that outsider status, they were able to write really effectively for black vocal groups like the Drifters.”
Knishes ‘n Grits, presented by the Harold Green Theatre and starring Thom Allison, Micah Barnes, Kelly Holiff and Jackie Richardson, runs at the Greenwin Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts, from May 21 to June 2. For tickets, visit hgjewishtheatre.com. Allison will be performing “An Evening with Thom Allison” on June 25 at the Jazz Bistro as part of the Toronto Jazz Festival.