Without Jews America would have little culture

WRITING his latest book was much more than a labour of love for Ben Sidran. In fact, it made him understand what being Jewish meant to him.

The musician, writer, producer and teacher uses his first person experience to frame the story behind Jews in American popular music in There Was a Fire: Jews, Music and The American Dream (Nardis Books).

And the whole project — which began when he was an artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin — took 10 years to complete.

“I realised that there was not single work which comprehensively covered the participation of Jews in American popular music,” Ben told me.

“Here is a group which never exceeded two per cent of the American population, yet seemed to contribute to 80 per cent of the American songbook.”

From Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and George Gershwin to Lou Reed, Billy Joel and David Lee Roth, Ben explores how popular music made the ethical framework for 20th century America possible.

And, at the same time, he took a deep dive into his own roots.

The 78-year-old said: “I realised I was writing about myself, but it didn’t occur to me until I was halfway through that I was searching for things which are important to me, such as social justice and the connection I have to African-American music.

“It helped me understand who I was in the historical sphere, and understand my father and friends.”

But pianist Ben is much more than a writer.

The jazz devotee, who was a member of the Steve Miller Band, worked as a session musician with such names as Eric Clapton, Peter Frampton and Charlie Watts, produced albums for Van Morrison and Diana Ross, and had a song, Nardis, named after him by his friend, jazz legend Miles Davis.

Ben was born in Chicago, but raised in his mother Shirley’s native Racine, in Wisconsin.

His father, Louis, arrived in America with his own mother from Poland in the early 1920s.

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