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Jazz Survives in Jerusalem

By Mike Zwerin

JERUSALEM, 9 October 2001 - Professor Emeritus of the New School Jazz and Contemporary Music Program; Artistic Director of the Center of Creative Music founded in Jerusalem, four years ago in cooperation with the Queen Nur Music Conservatory in Amman, Jordan; veteran of Doc Severenson's Tonight Show band; composer, librettist, educator; manager and star attraction of Arnie's Jazz Undergound, Arnie Lawrence was marching along Hebron Road playing "The Saints Go Marching In" on his saxophone between his new club and the Jerusalem Cinemateque next door.

He was followed by a camera crew from a Saturday night prime time TV news magazine. The opening of a jazz club in Jerusalem, even a small one like Arnie's Underground, is an event.

Lawrence knows how to unite promotion and musicianship as well as when to keep them apart. For a year, quietly, with no publicity, he worked with a young Israeli band (all of them his students) every Thursday night in the Flamingo restaurant in Ramallah, in the Palestinian territories. The round trip entailed, as he put it, "a certain amount of risk." It quietly ended when violence increased during the second Intifada.

Trying to bridge the cultural distance between Israel's Arab and Jewish communities makes people increasingly nervous. Although not a mass happening, the Festival of Alternative Israeli Theater in Akko, an essentially Arab town on the coast north of Haifa, was considered symbolically important. For some years, the festival took place during each Sukkoth holiday, bringing together Arab and Jewish artists, musicians and performers. Last year it was cancelled after the start of the second Intifada. This year's resumption presented "a multi-media event including a musical response in the jazz tradition."

Several layers of checkpoints circled the town. The police were polite but firm. Traffic was backing up, horns were honking. Recognized credentials of some sort were required. Those carried by Lawrence were apparently insufficient and he had to use all of his considerable charm in order to get through one barricade after another. For a minute, he considered taking out his horn and playing "The Saints Go Marching In." It turned out that his guitar player could not get through at all, and he sat on his amplifier by the side of the road for two hours.

After expending admirable energy and restraint dealing with police at roadblocks, Lawrence finally entered the festival grounds - a picturesque garden by the sea behind dramatically lit restored-ruin walls. About 250 unthreatening bi-cultural people were calmly eating and drinking at tables on a lush lawn outside a room that had been renamed the "Normal Café" for the evening, a Bob Dylan record providing ambiance.

Being in this jumpy country is like going through the looking glass. "Maybe we are no longer us," the writer David Grossman recently said on TV. A poster showing two women in a suggestive pose advertises an erotic movie called "Ex (o) dus" being screened as part of the Haifa Film Festival. Arnie's Jazz Underground opened on the infamous September 11, 2001. Wearing a cowboy hat with a Lion of Judah pin, a gift from the mayor of Jerusalem, on the crown, Lawrence performed on the small stage of the Normal Café with three young Arab musicians - percussionists Elias Habib and Wisam Aram and oud player Naizar Francis - all students of his. The same band toured China a few months ago, sponsored by the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Their mélange of jazz and Arabic folk music was effortless and ecological. They were followed by the renowned Israeli Arab author Salman Natour reading from his works, telling stories about his life and commenting on current politics, in Hebrew.

Two nights later, Lawrence led a modern quartet in the Hemdat Yamin, a cozy chalet perched near the peak of Mt. Meron, a 1 ½ hour drive northeast of Haifa. The road passes Afula, where three people had been shot to death at a bus stop sometime during the short life of the Normal Café. Just before reaching the top, a family of seven wild boars crossed the road in the headlights. This time his guitar player arrived safely, though murmuring something about Lawrence's remote gigs. The band played with swing and organized abstraction. The remote room remained surprisingly crowded with interested, interesting looking people until one a.m. You might almost have been in the West Village. While one thousand meters down below, the lights of Tiberias twinkled peacefully on the shores of the Sea of Galillee.

Arnie's Jazz Underground is on Mt. Zion slope across from the old city. In the Ben Hennom valley ("Valley of Hell") in between, a Christian rock band had been singing "Hallelujah, Love The Lord" in the early evening. Around midnight, while a convoy of flatbed trucks hauling tanks inched up Hebron Road in front, Arnie's Jazz Underground was packed as Lawrence played "Getting Sentimental Over You."

Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The Village Voice. Mike Zwerin is the author of several books on jazz and the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.

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