Jazz Talmud : Steve Dalachinsky on Jake Marmer
Jazz & poetry go back to the Harlem Renaissance & to one of its creators the greatLangston Hughes. Judaism & poetry go even further back to the Song of Songs & the Old Testament (at least in recorded history.) There have always been Jewish musicians, promoters writers, critics who played or dealt with jazz but few have ever mixed their ethnicity with their art. What Jake Marmer has managed to do is create a fresh, new genre by mixing the two in a very personal, intimate & at times rather disquietingly comfortable way. Being a secular Jew who writes little about his ethnicity & religion & a poet who has spent the better part of his life writing thru & about music (mostly jazz) I wanted to almost immediately & for very different reasons, intellectually & emotionally resist these poems. My instinct was to shy away from and be put off by the constant references to Judaism & Jazz & the mingling of the two genres but the more I heard Jake read them with & without great musical accompaniment & the more he explained to me what certain terms meant the more I found the work to be heart-warming, charming, stimulating, intriguing & finally irresistible, as irresistible as the man himself.
It is nearly impossible not to get drawn into Jake’s wordscapes, filled with warmth, passion, compassion & humanity where, as the title poem suggests, Jazz & Judaism intertwine, intersect, collide, melt & meld. Jake’s is a world where the angel Gabriel gets to blow his horn in a New Orleans funk band, where the “pure music of a jazz groan” comes out of a Golem in Brooklyn. Where Thelonious Monk gets to travel to Jerusalem, give directives, piano through the morning & where Jake even gets to try on Monk’s gloves. As you’ll soon find out Jake invents worlds that seem so convincingly real & presents real worlds that seem to only thrive in a fertile imagination. We are locked into places where abstraction & representation sit side by side with a perfect amount of social shifts & a sense of healing that feels just right. In otherwise like good music Jake has found a harmony & balance between all he sees & invents. If you examine Marmer’s road map to the promised land it is fraught with “smiles” & “dried out skulls, happy to see each other.” It is an irreverent & bumpy ride since “god is a conveyer belt … a purveyor of superb nonsense.” & since “ we know nah / thing.” We are treated to imaginative post-post-beat sensibilities without high stylization or clichéd approaches. We feel a certain emotional vulnerability, honesty & credibility. A perplexing impact, little contradiction, very bluesy almost spontaneous feelings, much social understanding & a truly American feel for someone originally born in the Ukraine & only arrived here as a teenager some15 or so years ago singing his own personal anthem.
Some of my favorite & I think Jake’s deepest pieces are his mishnahs. When I asked what a mishna was he explained - “Mishnah means a "teaching" and that's the stuff rabbis came up with and called "oral law" - i.e. law that's not explicitly in the Torah but is part of the cannon - in short, they're the basis of the Talmud. There are practical mishnah that tell you what kinda wax to use to light candles on shabbos (goat vs. camel vs. etc.) and then others that like ask whether it's better to have been born than not and that the world stands on charity and kindness to people who need it most, etc. They were usually short and
kinda poetic so they could be more easily memorized because at the time they were around most people weren’t literate so these were mostly passed down orally.” - And Jake’s are filled with poetry - “ There are three types of loneliness in the world: green, red and purple” , philosophy “Even silence has its laws” - & practical knowledge (read the little gem “Vacuum”), teaching & learning “I don’t know what beauty is but in this heat it can surely kill you” said the rabbi to his students after changing back from a giant carp to a human being. On some levels a mishna can be equated to a Zen koan.
This touching–on-every–aspect–of life book ends with Family Still Life, a short poignant deceivingly simple piece about the birth of Jake’s first child, his son Lev, a visit from Jake’s religious mother-in-law & Jake’s bike, “the angel on wheels” as alive as his son his mother-in-law & her wig. What is depicted here & in countless other images are scenes & observations that only someone who feels tightly yet securely wrapped in his own skin can embrace. These vacillations between the comedic & serious aspects of ritual & law can make one chuckle as well as weep & this is surely why there is always a light(heartedness) even in the darkness where even a wailing wall needs the golden sun of mornings or at least “intimations of sunrise” in order to exist. Marmer puts it this way: “ Ya know i don't really think of myself as particularly religious – in my head I'm mostly secular as I was born & brought up that way - it's more about the myth and the tradition -- it makes me happy -- sometimes – I also really like turning off my phone and not thinking about $ for one day every week.”
This book is an “Alternative” to what’s out there so don’t let Jake’s words linger in your “pocket like pebbles” but allow them to, as Jake puts it “fly upwards…or at least diagonally.”
The great Jazz & Surrealist poet Ted Joans stated that “Jazz is My Religion”. I do believe in Jake’s case that to some extent this statement truly applies & that conversely “Religion is Jake’s Jazz.”
steve dalachinsky nyc 2011