Issue 6 - Fall 2007 - The Sound Issue
Scat, Jive, and Yiddish, 1938-1953
BY JONATHAN Z.S. POLLACK
“The Jews’ rockin”: Yiddish roots of scat?
Fans have come up with two interpretations of this: either Armstrong was walking past a synagogue and heard rapid-fire davening, which struck his ear as nonsense, or he heard nigunim, Hasidic melodies intended to induce a meditative state before prayer (nigunim can also serve as lullabies).
In his writings, Armstrong also recalled lullabies sung by a Mrs. Karnofsky — a woman whose family befriended and employed him as a kid, and to whom he largely attributes his admiration of Jews and Jewish life.
Could Hebrew have inspired the “heebie jeebies”?
Scat was soon ubiquitous, with Armstrong’s friend Calloway becoming a second master of the form. In his greatest hit, “Minnie the Moocher,” Calloway calls out scat phrases and his band responds in black gospel style, yet the minor key and sweeping sound of his scat also recalls cantorial song.
Jolson and Cab Calloway appeared together in the film The Singing Kid in 1936, in which Calloway performed a sort of blackface-in-reverse, impersonating Jewish entertainers, the most iconic sign of which would have been Yiddish. Similarly, Johnnie and George, two 1930s black singers from Harlem, thrilled a Cotton Club audience by singing “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” from an obscure Yiddish musical. Songwriters Sammy Cahn and Lou Levy obtained the rights to the song, wrote new lyrics in English, and had a monster hit. But why did Johnnie and George’s Yiddish song get such a huge response from a primarily black audience? Perhaps their use of Yiddish functioned as a kind of “love and theft” itself, its contradictions mirroring inner-city black-Jewish tensions.
In his autobiography, Cab Calloway articulates the alliances and barriers between blacks and Jews during the 1930s. After a particularly hectic touring schedule, one of Calloway’s Jewish associates suggested that Calloway take his family on a vacation to his beach house in the Long Island resort of Lido Beach; nevertheless, despite his fame, Calloway relates, the Jewish neighbors appeared alarmed to see a black family on vacation at their resort.
Slim Gaillard, the other main “Yiddishist” in mid-century jazz, also would have had mixed encounters with Jews. As a young man, Gaillard reputedly transported bootleg liquor for the Purple Gang, Detroit’s Jewish-dominated organized crime syndicate, and his home base in Los Angeles was Billy Berg’s nightclub (as in his instrumental piece “Boogin’ at Berg’s”).
Calloway, Gaillard, and other African-Americans inside and outside the entertainment business described their relations with Jewish employers as ranging from close and respectful to disdainful and exploitative.
Over three hundred years in segregated communities gave African-Americans the space to develop multiple slang forms of their own. From the earliest patois of various African languages mixed with French and English to 1930s jive, there have always been ways for African-Americans to speak without white listeners fully understanding, and black slang has always played a part in jazz culture.
Cab Calloway and Slim Gaillard were revered linguistic innovators. Calloway’s Hepster’s Dictionary, published in several editions, introduced the world to terms such as “all reet” (all right), “hincty” (snooty), and “hard spiel” (interesting talk), the last term having a Yiddish base. Not to be outdone, Gaillard also published guides to his brand of jive, the Vout-O-Reenie Dictionary, which contains terms such as “steak-o-reener” (butcher), “tool-o-vooty” (fork), and “ut-ta” (tailor), a reference to Calloway’s song “Utt-Da-Zay (That’s the Way).”
“Utt-Da-Zay” begins with Calloway’s bandmates singing a moaning vamp, at which time Calloway comes in, singing:
Gaillard’s “Drei Six Cents” also betrays a Yiddish influence. Seemingly the cry of a street peddler or discount-store merchant (“three for six cents”), the title phrase concludes with what sounds like “gibben gelso, gibben valso,” a phrase that is not actual Yiddish. (Gaillard frequently composed songs from snippets of overheard conversations in other languages. His biggest hit, “Yip Roc Heresy,” allegedly came from hearing kitchen staff yelling out orders in a Lebanese restaurant. The words yiprak and harissa — lamb-stuffed grape leaves and hot sauce — are audible, but much of the rest of the tune appears to be gibberish.)
Gaillard’s “Meshugana Mambo” combines Yiddish with Cuban references. There is, perhaps, no particular reason to include the term “meshugana” other than its percussive sound and nice scan: “Here’s a dance/You can learn at a glance/Filled with charm and romance/Meshugana Mambo.”
Gaillard’s “Vol Vist du Gaily Star” also sounds like it ought to be Yiddish, but isn’t. Much of the song is actually in fake Spanish (“maña, maña, lambelo”), and at the end of the song, Gaillard and bandmate Slam Stewart have a brief recorded exchange as the song is fading out:
A short musical film featuring Kay Kyser and his orchestra illustrates a more troubling yet familiar meaning for Yehudi. In the film, Kyser’s singer, Lane Truesdale, sings in front of a portrait of a stage Jew who is wearing an obviously fake beard and black hat and holding a book. After the camera zooms in on her body, the camera cuts to the “portrait,” who is leering at her.
Cab Calloway’s “Who’s Yehoodi?” (written by Bill Seckler and Matt Dennis) hit the charts in 1940, an especially anti-Semitic era in America as well as in Europe. “G-man Hoover” refers to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who, in the early 1920s, jailed and deported political radicals, including many Jews. Perhaps the song predicts that the FBI will ferret out, like Hitler, exactly who’s “Yehoodi” and who isn’t. The “Yehoodi” of the song is omnipresent on the airwaves, yet he finally escapes detection. Is the song anti-Semitic, pro-Semitic, or something more mixed?
Learn how to scat from the pros.