The 2019 Molly Blank Concert Series kicked off the first of three programs at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum Sunday night. The evening, “Salute to Hollywood” was a leisurely stroll through a broad cross section of Academy Award-winning songs written in whole or in part by Jews. It was generally an easy program to enjoy, with much toe tapping and even one sing-along.
There were occasional reminders of how we view some of these songs today from the perspective of decades past. The song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” from the 1946 Disney film, “Song of The South,” doesn’t seem so innocuous as it once did, particularly when it is presented, as it was at the concert, with some approximation of the original film performance in terms of racial undertones. The seductive rendition of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” the 1949 winner by Frank Loesser also may not be as charming when viewed against the protests of the Me Too movement.
But the generally appreciative sold out crowd didn’t seem to give all that much mind. They seemed happy to hear a series of familiar and often beloved film favorites given a professional performance in a city where live music, particularly outside the symphony hall and the big arenas, is becoming more and more rare.
The concert was also sponsored by the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival and a close reading of the evening gives some insight into the sharp change in direction the festival has taken this year. No longer is it marketed as a World Music Festival appealing to a young, hip demographic. Many in the audience who listened to music from films from the 1950s and 1960s were old enough to have seen the original screenplays and probably have no idea of what you mean when you mention world music.
There was a sense that this was music to be appreciated on its own terms, whether or not the lyrics or melodies were written by someone with a Jewish surname or it reflected in some way the ethnic sensibilities of the composer.
Although last year’s festival had 36 events and this year has only six, this year the festival gives the appearance of being more diverse and making an honest attempt to bring in a new audience that might not have previous considered it their own.
And finally, the theme of Hollywood film music brings to mind the possibility that the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival and the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival might be ripe for a deeper partnership.
The music festival sponsored the film, “It Must Schwing!: The Blue Note Story” this year and the film festival co-sponsored the concert by Itzhak Perlman. Given the growing interest in appealing to similar audiences and the natural synergies that are apparent, there is always the possibility of closer ties.
Sunday’s concert also reinforced the consummate musicianship of the new director of the festival, Joe Alterman, whose jazz instrumentals with his trio were received enthusiastically by the audience. Alterman was at least partially responsible for the standing ovation at the end.
He has good reason to believe that, after eight years playing each night in New York City’s jazz clubs, he made the right choice to come home.
He wasn’t quite sure he was doing the right thing when he first decided to move. He sought out the counsel of a friend and mentor, jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis, who reassured him that if you live where you are happy it will show up in your music. Don’t worry about the music he remembers being advised, just take care of you and go with those who are really nice.
Last Sunday night the audience at The Breman was very nice to Alterman, and the AJMF and the Molly Blank Concert Series were richer for it.