In the winter, the Yellow Submarine hosts a collection of shows, many of them jazz, as part of the International Music Showcase. (photo from itraveljerusalem.com)
This article was written several months before the daily terrorist attacks began against Israel. While tourists may be understandably hesitant to visit Israel right now, the country needs support, and a visit is one of the tangible ways in which to give that support. (Editor)
Jerusalem may be better known for its religious and historical context than its music scene but, below the surface, a burgeoning jazz scene featuring some of the best musicians in the country delivers a steady diet of under-the-radar concerts in Jerusalem that frequently wow unassuming tourists and locals alike.
“A lot of the best jazz musicians for a couple of generations have come out of Jerusalem,” commented Steve Peskoff, a jazz musician who has lived in Jerusalem for 30 years and teaches jazz guitar and music workshops at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. “This is the only school in the country granting a degree [in jazz] at the college level,” said the former New Yorker.
Ask around town about jazz, and you’ll typically hear about three mainstays of the scene that are constantly providing a platform for local and international jazz musicians to put their considerable talents on display for the patrons of the Holy City – Birman, Barood and the Yellow Submarine.
If you’re just visiting Jerusalem and don’t have time to wait around for concert dates, then Birman Musical Bistro is your most likely destination.
The popular “musical bistro” located just off the bustling Ben Yehuda Pedestrian street hosts local musicians every day for free-of-charge live concerts. Jazz is the music of choice at least four nights of the week, and the bistro boasts the atmosphere of an old-school music club, with a clientele made up of local musicians, students and music-lovers eager to take advantage of the live music and tasty, yet reasonably priced, food and drinks.
Jerusalem-born Dan Birron opened Birman’s about 10 years ago with live music every night, four of which are usually reserved for jazz, including the Saturday night jam session.
“All musicians in Jerusalem, especially jazz, know my place,” said Birron, who also takes the stage himself on some nights to serenade the crowd with his styles on the accordion. “I’m totally booked for months.”
The performers at Birman are a mixed bag of some of the city’s most established jazz musicians and the younger crop starting out after finishing the army or graduating from the Academy of Music. The city’s jazz scene is “very interesting, with many very talented musicians,” Birron said. “The best ones are coming to my place.”
Not far away from Birman in the picturesque Feingold Courtyard, Barood Bar and Restaurant is one of the most talked-about jazz institutions in the city. Owner Daniela Lerer remembers as a young child hearing jazz and feeling that it spoke to her more than any other genre. It would be another 30 years before she opened Barood in 1995 but, ever since, jazz records have dominated the background music at Barood. These days, you can regularly catch live shows on Saturday afternoons or evenings – in the courtyard during the summer and in the restaurant when the cold weather comes.
After working as a TV producer and at other jobs, she said, “I knew for sure I would have jazz in my bar and restaurant. I began to play jazz here all the time, then I started to bring [other] musicians.”
For many years, well-known American saxophonist Arnie Lawrence, who moved to Israel in 1997, played at Barood once a week until he died in 2005. For the past year, Israeli saxophonist Albert Piamenta, has been playing at Barood one Saturday every month, while other local musicians perform two to three times a month. You won’t find a lot of promotion for the concerts, but most of the hotels in the area keep up to date with Barood’s schedule.
While the jazz community in Jerusalem is relatively small, Lerer has nothing but praise for the local musicians, students at the academy and the small but growing scene. “Jerusalem is very open to jazz now,” she said. “The scene is growing and the young people are really good.”
In addition to the music, Barood also boasts a unique Sephardi kitchen with a Greek influence, where Lerer’s son is chef, featuring pastelicos, a special meat pie made by Lerer, as well as appetizers, salads, main courses, vegetarian dishes, stuffed vegetables, and desserts, all from her Sephardi background.
No list of Jerusalem music institutions would be complete without the Yellow Submarine, one of Jerusalem’s première music venues. For the past seven years, it has offered free weekly jazz concerts.
The weekly night dedicated to jazz is designed to give local musicians the opportunity to be heard, said manager Yaron Mohar, a talented musician, as well as being a sound technician and the director of the School of Engineering and an instructor in the music education department. He explained that the Yellow Submarine is more than just a venue – it is a multidisciplinary music centre, where musicians can rehearse, record and attend programs and performances. It also offers aspiring musicians in high school the chance to earn credits toward graduation through Yellow Submarine courses.
The Yellow Submarine is where you are most likely to catch international jazz acts. Recently, it hosted Austrian jazz guitarist and songwriter Wolfgang Muthspiel and Swedish cellist/bassist Svante Henryson as part of the Israel Festival. In the winter, the Yellow Submarine hosts a collection of shows, many of them jazz, as part of the International Music Showcase.
Within Jerusalem’s community of young, aspiring musicians, there is certainly an appreciation that bodes well for the future.
Ami, a 17-year-old, attends a high school that offers a music major. Beginning in ninth grade, the program concentrates on jazz.
“Jazz is a language,” said Ami, a second-generation pianist. “I’ve been in the program three years but I’ve only actually learned what it means to be part of a jazz community now.”
Ami’s father has a doctorate in music and had a musical career in the United States before he moved to Israel, where he plays jazz piano on a freelance basis at weddings and other venues – and, not surprisingly, frequents jazz nights at Birman.
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, foreign correspondent, lecturer, food writer and book reviewer who lives in Jerusalem. She also does the restaurant features for janglo.net and leads weekly walks in English in Jerusalem’s market. A longer version of this article was originally published on itraveljerusalem.com.