A feature on my performance work in the Jewish Week.
Jake Marmer’s Jazz Talmud is a work true to its title & an extraordinary & delightful yoking together of what might seem like disparate & irreconcilable worlds. It is also a small triumph of the Fancy in full flight, comic & serious by turns & written by a practitioner who knows whereof he speaks & from where he comes. That it’s also a first book of poetry only adds to the wonder & leaves this reader for one looking forward to the career & work ahead, as Whitman once wrote for himself & for all of us, “without check with original energy.”
Like me, Marmer is interested in, I mean, writes about, the Law, mulberries and Monk. So how can I resist him? Especially when he does it in his own beautiful way.
Jazz Talmud is proof (if proof were needed) that God has a sense of humor. How otherwise account for poems with so much shpritz, so much pop, so much bebop, and so much deep digging in the wild blue yonder of Jewish dialectic? Not forgetting, either, “the odor/ of the abyss” or “the peanuts of lower Manhattan?” Read Jake Marmer (please) and live a little.
Musician and poet, Jake Marmer offers us a combo – Jazz, Talmud, and Bible. Gospel is a distant cousin. For example, “Rachmonos (mercy) Blues:” “I know a little woman,/ she got a truck full of rach-/monos, yeah a truck full of parsnips and rach-/monos wonder if she’ll park it on my street tonight.” Or try “Bachelor Haiku”: “spring evening at home / folding up the warm laundry / one unmatched sock.” His voice is unmatched: no one else is playing on his street.
Introductory notes from Steve Dalachinsky
Jazz & poetry go back to the Harlem Renaissance & to one of its creators the great Langston 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. 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” & 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 some 16 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 mishnah was he explained in an email –
“Mishnah is essentially a brief 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 – mishnahs are the basis of the Talmud. There are practical mishnah that tell you what to use to make your candles for shabbos (seaweeds vs. animal fat?) and then others that ask whether it’s better to have been born or not, and that the world stands on charity and kindness to people who need it most. 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 mishnah 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 (in an email):
“ U know I don’t really think of myself as particularly religious – in my head I’m mostly secular (whatever that means) as I was born & brought up that way – it’s more about the reality of 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