Joshua Nelson could imagine the sound of the music he wanted to make. Growing up a Reform Jew and an African American, he imagined a music that would combine “the moaning and groaning” of two historically oppressed people in a form that would go straight to the heart.
“You heard that pentatonic scale,” he says wistfully, “that Dr. [Isaac] Watts metered hymn-singing, and the idea that Jewish music could sound like that always resonated in my head. And I would tell myself, ‘You just gotta get to it.’”
Nelson, who will be bringing his Kosher Gospel Choir to the Museum of Jewish Heritage on Dec. 25, has gotten to it admirably. On record, and even more emphatically on stage, he has created a breathtaking musical synthesis that unites the metered hymn tradition that grew from the 18th-century compositions of Englishman Isaac Watts and the African-inspired rhythms that black gospel singers used to underpin it, with Hebrew liturgy, Jewish theology and Yiddish soul.
“The Hebrew prayers really fit to the style of gospel music phrasing, all that melisma,” Nelson says of multiple notes to sing one syllable that is common to both traditions. “Then it’s just a matter of adding a certain syncopation from gospel music.”
When the syllables are stretched over many notes like that, the famous “krekhts,” the cry that is the heart of both classic hazanut and klezmer horn and reed playing jumps to the forefront. And when the krekhts are linked to the thrilling syncopations of African-American music, the result is a Jewish musical experience like no other.
Klezmer trumpet giant Frank London enthuses about Nelson and his musical synthesis: “Joshua is the loudest, baddest, funkiest singer I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with!”
Nelson grew up in Brooklyn and New Jersey. He was an avid member of a Reform synagogue at a time when what he heard in services was the rather German Protestant sounds of classical Reform. He was happy enough with that sound until he found a recording of Mahalia Jackson in his grandmother’s house. It was purely serendipitous.
“My family weren’t musical,” he says. “Even my discovery of Mahalia didn’t happen because I heard the record being played. I just happened to find it and put it on because I was curious. And I loved it. That was my first musical interest after the music I heard in synagogue.”
Someone once defined “serendipity” as being “surprised by joy.” That’s a perfect definition of what happened to the 7-year-old Joshua. And the sound stayed with him. (Even today he does a dead-on impression of Mahalia’s idiosyncratic diction.)
He became something of a unique double-act, teaching Hebrew school at Shaarey Tefilo in South Orange, N.J., for 15 years while also serving as musical director at a black Baptist church in Newark. (Of course, he is hardly the first nor the last Jewish musician whose day jobs include church music.) He spent two years in Israel in a program run by Hebrew University and HUC-JIR, and it was there that he began to work through the musical synthesis he had dreamed of for years.
In one respect, the link between black church and synagogue liturgies is an obvious one.
As Nelson observes, “There’s always call and response in the synagogue, even in the most formal Reform congregations. You have the same setup in gospel. In the old Baptist churches in the African-American community, the whole congregation was the choir, responding to the preacher, and that corresponds to the Hebrew service.”
He adds, “There are lots of variations of settings in Judaism. There are Orthodox traditions in which they dance during services — the Chabad do this all the time. When I prayed at the Wall in Jerusalem, the chasidic Jews would be just … majestic in the way they threw their whole beings into their prayers. In America you have some [Jewish musical traditions] that reflect a Middle-Eastern feeling, very expressive, with some kind of percussion. The Reform movement began by mimicking the Protestant churches, but even they have embraced all kinds of music.” (Nelson is particularly fond of the late Debbie Friedman, whom he calls the Reform movement’s Mahalia.)
Still, he admits, there are moments of hesitation.
“We perform in a lot of Reform synagogues and people are not quite sure how to behave,” he says. “My thing is to show them that clapping your hands and dancing is also Jewish. I always tell them, ‘I want you to break the stereotype that Jews don’t have rhythm.’”
That is not the only stereotype he wants to shatter. Nelson adamantly insists that the non-Jewish world take Jewish music seriously. Invoking the fact that the Klezmatics, which whom he frequently performs, won a Grammy for folk music, he says the music business “has got to take Jewish music seriously. We should have a Grammy for Jewish music. We are told, ‘Sing unto God a new song,’ and we do that on [as high a] level as any other music.”
Joshua Nelson and his Kosher Gospel Choir will be performing at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust (36 Battery Place) on Wednesday, Dec. 25, at 1:00 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. For information, call (646) 437-4202 or go to www.mjhnyc.org. To purchase Joshua Nelson’s recordings and to learn more about his music, go to www.joshuanelson.com.