Arts & Entertainment
2 min

Music: Jew jazz

Finding the rhythm of personal history

Credit: (Paul Hoeffler)

For pianist Marilyn Lerner, practising psychology fits right in with being Jewish, lesbian and an artist.

The versatile Lerner — who composes and plays jazz, classical, improv and Jewish traditional music — originally planned to study psychology in university. “I couldn’t handle animal behaviour,” she says. “I switched from psychology back to music. But three years ago, I decided to go back to psychology. I studied to be a therapist, and I’ve just started to see clients now.

“It relates to my struggles as an artist, probably as a lesbian and a Jew as well. When one’s culture is not seen, it’s what that does to the psyche. It makes you very angry.”

Lerner says that her participation in the Jewish musical scene has helped deal with that anger. She says the scene is very opento gay men and lesbians, more so than other genres she participates in. “It’s not like the jazz scene where the number is small, or at least the number of out people is small.

“I think being Jewish gives you a little taste of being an invisible minority. I feel very fortunate I’m not Catholic. There isn’t that kind of sin, we don’t have that kind of condemnation.”

Lerner is certainly doing her part to make sure her Jewish culture is made visible. She’s recorded a number of albums of Jewish music and has played often with the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band. Her new CD, Romanian Fantasy, is a collection of solo piano interpretations of Eastern European Jewish melodies. At Toronto’s Ashkenaz festival, she’s presenting a song cycle set to the poetry of 1920s Jewish poet Anna Margolin.

She says her introduction to her musical heritage came at a very early age, as her father hosted a radio show of Jewish music. “It’s like eating very hot food from a young age. It just goes in.”

But Lerner says her initial leanings were not toward Jewish music. “I studied classical music until I was 15. But as I got older, I found it totally uncool. I got into Joni Mitchell, so I dropped it.”

It wasn’t until Lerner was in Cuba — where she was the first Canadian to record a contemporary jazz album — that she decided to rediscover her musical roots.

“Those Cubans really know their culture, their history. I thought maybe I should get back into that part of my own history. I thought if I was playing world music, I would feel more comfortable if I threw something of my own into the mix. When I started playing with the Flying Bulgars, they gave me a whole repertoire of tunes other than ‘Hava Nagila.'”

Lerner says her latest projects not only allow her to explore Jewish culture, but also allow her to make personal connections of her own. On her new CD, for example, she takes tunes also played by large klezmer bands and performs them solo.

“Piano in this music is not normally a solo instrument, it’s a rhythm instrument. This is a way to play lead.”

She also says she has found her Anna Margolin song cycle inspiring. “My partner, Adrienne [Cooper], who is singing, was way into Anna Margolin. She only wrote one book, then she went nuts. Her life was very hard and she never got the recognition she deserved. She was compelling to me, very imagistic.”

Lerner has also recently written a three-minute piece in tribute to composer Dmitri Shostakovich for the CBC for the centenary of his birth and is reworking music by French avant-garde composer Erik Satie for a jazz combo. Her improvisational trio Queen Mab is also preparing to tour Europe.