Rediscovering The East End's Yiddisher Jazz Scene

By Maire Rose Connor Last edited 64 months ago
Rediscovering The East End's Yiddisher Jazz Scene
A brand new compilation of recently-discovered Yiddisher jazz

When some one says 'Jazz Age', beigels, bustling markets, and Jewish brides probably aren't what spring to mind. But put flappers, bootleg liquor, and other F. Scott Fitzgerald-style excess aside for a moment, because we're travelling back in time to 1920s-1950s Whitechapel, where a rather different flavour of jazz well and truly flourished.

Way before the arrival of hipster cafes, Crossrail construction, and saree shops, London's multicultural melting pot was the epicentre of London Jewish life. Yiddish was spoken on the streets. Kishke and chraine were hawked alongside jellied eels. And talented young Jewish cockneys were putting their own unique stamp on the red rhythms taking the western world by storm.

Planet Recordings Label Whitechapel, 1941

Generations later, though, traces of the Yiddisher jazz phenomenon were scarce. That is, until broadcaster Alan Dein — himself a descendant of late 19th century Eastern European Jewish migrants — did some digging.

The award-winning radio documentary presenter has compiled a fascinating new collection of recently-unearthed Yiddisher jazz sounds, featuring legendary big band icons like Bert Ambrose and his Orchestra to the "siren of the Yiddish song", Rita Marlowe.

Cohen the Crooner, Feldmans sheet music, c.1935

It's a wonderfully eclectic mix, featuring Kosher foxtrots about Petticoat Lane Market, sentimental ballads, and 'Yinglish' linguistic mash ups. Alan has kindly agreed to share some of his highlights from the record with us, as well as some fascinating nuggets of Yiddisher jazz trivia.

1. Beigels - Max Bacon (1935)

“In Aldgate East, to Aldgate West, I work and I never complain, I laugh and I sing, and they call me the king of the beigels in Petticoat Lane”

Max Bacon was a "portly multi-talented drummer in Bert Ambrose’s Orchestra", says Alan. He released a "series of playful musical sketches on disc, all performed in ‘Yinglish’, a cod European/Cockney mash-up of Yiddish and English". The above clip is one of them, a Whitechapel-set rumba recorded for Decca.

2. Mahzel - Johnny Franks and His Kosher Ragtimers (1950)

You got to have a bissel (a little bit of) mahzel

Mahzel means good luck. If you got that bissel mahzel

You’ll never come unstuck

This cover of Artie Wayne and Jack Beekman's Mahzel brings a "wacky assortment of Yiddishisms, whistles, and sneezes" to the 1947 song.

3. Selection of Hebrew dances - Ambrose (1934)

Polish-born Bert Ambrose grew up in New York as a "teen prodigy" who "swiftly rose from a member of a cinema orchestra to musical director at the Palais Royal". After moving to London in the 1920s, he enjoyed residencies at the Embassy Club and the May Fair Hotel before releasing this "pounding medley of Jewish tunes".

4. A Brivella Der Mama - Lew Stone (1933)

A letter to your mother you shouldn’t forget. Write soon, my dear child, and send her a consolation. Your mother will read your letter and she will be nourished by it. Heal her suffering, her bitter heart. Refresh her soul.

This popular Yiddish tear-jerker was first recorded in 1908 by its composer, Solomon Smulewitz. Band leader Lew Stone recorded this version 25 years later and thanks to some innovative arrangements and star turns from trumpeteer Nat Gonella and vocalist Al Bowlly becaome a "huge favourite with the listening public and music critics alike".

5.  Kosher Fox Trot - Petticoat Lane Mendel & His Mishpoche Band (1929)

The women rush to get bargains, a chicken with schmaltz, a new sock, a bit of chrain, soup, a beigel with a hole, all this you can get in the Lane. A fish-sweet, half a kishke, an onion, fish, a meaty bone, a bride with a dowry, a woman looking for a husband, such things you can get in the Lane

The earliest piece in Dein's collection, this "Kosher" fox trot medley conjures up a fantastically vivid picture of a bustling Petticoat Lane Market. "The market became almost synonymous with Jewish London with the increasing Jewish presence in the Spitalfields locality."

Sheet music for Petticoat Lane: A "Kosher" Fox Trot

6. Whitechapel - Chaim Towber & Johnny Franks

Whitechapel, my Whitechapel, the heart of Yiddish London

You were once the crown of the Jews,

Whitechapel, my Whitechapel, where is your Yiddish shine.

Sung in Yiddish, Dein describes this lament as a "nostalgic yearning for a world fading out of sight in front of his eyes - as the old community has disperses into a new homeland in suburbia". Sure enough, the lyrics wax poetic over the Whitechapel of yore, from the point of view of a gentleman who decamped to Golders Green.

Music is the Most Beautiful Language in the World — Yiddisher Jazz in London's East End 1920s to 1950s was compiled by Alan Dein and is released by JMW Records. Click here to buy the album.

Last Updated 13 November 2018