Issue 6 - Fall 2007 - The Sound Issue
Scat, Jive, and Yiddish, 1938-1953

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“The Jews’ rockin”: Yiddish roots of scat?

Scat — vocal solo composed of nonsense syllables — first appeared in Louis Armstrong’s 1926 song “The Heebie Jeebies Dance.” Armstrong initially claimed that back in the days of one-take recording, with no technology to add in an overdub, he had dropped the sheet music and just began singing sounds on the spot as a substitute for the missing lyrics. However, Armstrong reportedly later told fellow bandleader Cab Calloway and others that scat derived from the sound he described as “the Jews’ rockin,” which he had heard growing up in a mixed black-Jewish neighborhood in New Orleans.

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.

Blackface: love, theft, and payback

In his film The Jazz Singer (1927), Al Jolson, a descendent of European rabbis, played Jake Rabinowitz, the son of a cantor who lived a double life as a “jazz singer” performing in blackface. Jolson argued that his enthusiastic performances and strong fan base demonstrated his love for African-American culture in all its forms. While others may perceive a rather more insidious theft and mockery in blackface entertainment, scholars examining the film from a Jewish point of view have nuanced this discussion by framing “blacking up” as a way for Jolson and other children of Jewish immigrants such as Eddie Cantor and Sophie Tucker to redefine themselves as “American,” with jazz as a symbol of American musical culture at large.

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.

Hi-de-ho and vout: black-Yiddish “slanguage”

Yiddish is, in a sense, a form of argot: a private in-group slang. It is rarely understood by non-Jews, and even today, dropping a Yiddish phrase into a conversation is a way to gauge whether one’s conversational partner is Jewish or not.

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:

My mother used to sing to me
A haunting little melody
Nobody knows where it came from
Or where it was composed ....

The tune is based on a sardonic Yiddish lament about the fate of tailors, who toil all day in order to earn enough to sustain them until the following day, when they must begin the drudgery of sewing again. The original version begins, sarcastically, “Ot azoy neyt a shnayder/Ot azoy neyt a gut!” (“This is how the tailor stitches/This is how he sews so well!”) In Calloway’s update, the lyrics become:

Utt-da-zay sings the tailor
As he fashions pretty clothes
Utt-da-zay sings the tailor
As he sews and sews and sews

He’s as busy as a bee
Making lovely finery
That my baby loves to wear
When I take her to the fair

Utt-da-zay sings the tailor
All it means is “that’s the way”
When I buy the things he made her
Says the tailor “utt da-zay”

Calloway’s version turns a song that commiserates with producers into one that celebrates consumers — the ironic ot azoy becomes the customer-pleasing “utt-da-zay.”

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:

STEWART: What’s the matter, man?
GAILLARD: What’s that “Vol Vist du Gaily Star” mean?
STEWART: Man, I don’t know. What does it mean, man?
GAILLARD: Don’t mean a thing, don’t mean a thing.
STEWART: Well, all right, man.
GAILLARD: It’s a little jive talk, in the Floogie language, that’s all.

Gaillard and Stewart also recorded a version of “Bei Mir Bist du Schoen.” As the live-sounding recording begins, an announcer intones, “Until we heard Slim and Slam play it, we thought everything had been done with ‘Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen.’ Listen to what they call their ‘Hungarian version’ — strictly from Hungary.” From that promising beginning, Slim Gaillard sings a brief scat solo that resembles Yiddish, and then launches into the following:

By mir, bist du spaghetti
By me, bist du beef stew
By mir, bist du pork chops
With plenty gravy.

I could say “gefilte fish,”
But I’ll take some orange stew
Give me some ice cream pie
With plentiful good
Baked potato pie.

This is not the only reference to Jewish food: as Gaillard sings:

Well, matzoh balls, gefilte fish
Best ol’ dish I ever, ever had
Now matzoh balls and gefilte fish
Makes you order up an extra dish
Matzoh balls, gefilte fish
Really, really, really very fine,
Now you put a little horseradish on it and make it very mellow
Because it really knocks you right on out.

Calloway’s song, “Everybody Eats when They Come to My House,” features couplets rhyming foods and names:

Have a knish, Nishe
Have a bagel, Fagel
Have an hors d’oeuvrey, Irvy

These artists clearly enjoyed the sound of Yiddish, incorporating it into the jazz lexicon at large.

Who is Yehoodi?

Someone please lend me a hand
Solve this mystery if you can
If he’s mice or if he’s man
Who’s Yehoodi?

G-man Hoover’s getting moody
Got his men on double-duty
Trying to find out who’s Yehoodi
Who’s Yehoodi!

The little man who wasn’t there
Said he heard him on the air
No one seems to know from where ...
But who’s Yehoodi?

The phrase “Who’s Yehudi?” seems to have originated on Bob Hope’s radio program in the late 1930s. Apparently, one night when violinist Yehudi Menuhin was a guest, Hope’s sidekick Jerry Colonna repeatedly interjected the phrase whenever Hope’s gags fell flat. On subsequent shows, Colonna continued to use the term to fill space, and for a while, Yehudi became a national catchphrase for “the man who wasn’t there.”

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?

Cab Calloway sings in his 1940 “A Bee Gezint”:

I’m hinky-dink, a solid sender
A very close friend to Mrs. Bender
Bender, schmender, a bee gezindt
I’m the cat that’s in the know.

The use of Yiddish in African-American jazz seems — like minstrelsy itself — to involve admiration, parody, and simply silly entertainment. We “cats” today are not sufficiently in the know to fully solve its mysteries. &

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