By Ben Shalev
...Naftali Aharoni was born in Vilna ( c1918) and graduated from the
city's Jewish conservatory.
He had the honor as a teenager of playing at the funeral of Polish
president Josef Pilsudski. "The funeral for his heart," Aharoni
emphasizes. "Pilsudski bequeathed his brain to science and instructed
that his body be buried in one place and his heart in another, near
his mother's grave," Aharoni said.
"It was a splendid funeral," Aharoni continued. "All the rulers of
Europe came to it. While we were preparing for the procession, our
conductor, AKIVA DURMASHKIN, approached me and said: 'One day you'll
have the privilege of playing in a procession of an Israeli army that
will overcome its enemies and scatter them in every direction.' The
guys around me laughed. It seemed so impossible then," Aharoni
"And behold, in 1948 or 1949, I played in the first parade of the
Israel Defense Forces at the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds. [Israel's
first prime minister, David] Ben-Gurion spoke from the podium. I
remember he listed the names of all the villages that were conquered
and the image of Dormashkin telling me, 'One day you'll have the
privilege of playing...' came to mind," Aharoni continued. "I usually
don't cry, but I burst into tears at that moment. The conductor
thought Ben-Gurion's speech had stirred my emotions, and when I told
him the real reason, he also began to weep."
Aharoni immigrated to Palestine with his family in 1936, after an
electrifying speech by Zionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky convinced them
that they must not remain even one more day in Europe.
After two years in Petah Tikva, the family moved to Jerusalem, where
Aharoni joined the police band. It was 1938 and swing was the thing:
Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey. Swing made its
way to Jerusalem thanks mainly to the British soldiers serving there.
"At the Zion Theater, they had Soldier's Night," Aharoni recalls.
"They brought artists from England especially for these evenings -
singers, musicians and bands that played jazz and popular music. We,
the young musicians in Jerusalem, would hurry to listen and learn from
Besides the places where regular British soldiers went, there were
officers-only establishments. One of these was the Haseh restaurant,
where Prof. Haim Alexander earned his living. Now 90, he taught for
decades at the Jerusalem Academy of Music.
"I got to know everyone [at Haseh], from junior officers to generals,"
Alexander says. "They were not interested in hearing what I thought
about the political situation; they just wanted me to play songs they
knew. Sometimes they sang me English songs I didn't know and I would
write down the notes and play."
"It wasn't jazz [he pronounces it "jess," in the accent of German
immigrants from Germany], but I would play with the songs, add jazz
harmonies, make the chords more dissonant," Alexander related. "Most
important: I had the talent for improvisation. I could play for two
hours without any preparation, without knowing what I would play the
next minute. Improvisation - that was my thing then."
In the line of fire
"The thing that really ignited the spirit of jazz in Palestine was the
outbreak of World War II," Aharoni recalled.
"The British army sent musicians right up to the line of fire, and in
Eretz Yisrael [pre-State Israel] there were tens of thousands of
British soldiers, so plenty of bands came here. I especially remember
the No. 1 Royal Air Force Command Band - a wonderful Big Band from the
British air force. There were two trumpet players who were excellent
swing musicians and a saxophonist named Jack Howard, who was a big
drunkard but a wonderful musician. We were crazy about the way they
played. Our luck was that one of the players in the band came down
with hepatitis and they had to stay in Jerusalem for two months. So
not only did we have opportunities to hear the band many times, but
the excellent English musicians would come to the cafes where we
played and would join us."
Where did they play jazz then in Jerusalem? And who played?
"In the bar of the King David Hotel, 'La Rejence', there was Yorik
Mandelbaum, who played a real soft saxophone, real cool, and the
pianist Helmut Frank, who played as if he had four hands. To be
honest, there were a bit too many ideas in his playing. Another place
was the Queens Bar, which was full every night. The saxophonist Dusia
Wexler played there. He breathed jazz and did beautiful
improvisations. And do you know who his pianist was? You'll be
surprised: Moshe Wilensky [a veteran composer of popular Israeli
music]. He played nicely, catching on to the style. I remember that he
really loved the blues."
Between 1940 and 1945, there was a blackout in Jerusalem, a fact that
only increased the attraction of the bars and cafes where jazz was
"There were places where they closed the curtains and left the lights
on," Alexander said. "But in the Queens Bar, for example, they played
jazz in the dark and danced to jazz in the dark. It was very
romantic," Aharoni recalled. "You have to understand that today jazz
is music of the elite, but in those days it was the popular music, the
music to which people danced."
The peak of Aharoni's jazz career came in the early 1950s, when Louis
Armstrong visited Israel. Armstrong's bass player slipped while
deplaning, so the manager quickly called Aharoni and rushed him into a
taxi to the rehearsal for that evening's performance at Jerusalem's
Binyanei Ha'uma (now part of the International Convention Center).
"Do you know what it means to play with the greatest jazz musicians?,"
Aharoni said. "My hands were shaking. Armstrong saw that I was nervous
and said, 'Don't be tense. Read the notes, everything will be okay.'
And it really was okay. I played by the notes, and there was even a
moment when Armstrong turned to me and made a motion with his head to
indicate, 'You can take a solo now.' But I preferred not to play solo.
Like I said, my hands were shaking," Aharoni said.
He does not remember exactly what they played at the concert. "But I
clearly remember how Armstrong's trumpet shined and how he perspired a
lot and kept mopping his face with a handkerchief. At the end of the
performance, I went up to him with the concert program and asked him
to sign it. Later, when I was having financial problems, I sold the
program to a collector for the respectable sum of 25 pounds sterling."
Jazz leaves Jerusalem
The first years after independence in 1948 were bad for jazz in Jerusalem.
"Jerusalem was a miserable city after the war. Many people fled to the
coastal plain and it was no longer economical to maintain bands of
five or six musicians," Aharoni explained. "All sorts of places began
to spring up with just a piano, or an accordion and guitar. And at a
certain point, the electric guitar made its entrance, rock 'n' roll
appeared and they killed popular jazz. At weddings, parties, at the
King David - they played less and less jazz. From time to time, I saw
some showoffs who wanted to demonstrate that they knew how to dance
swing, but in general jazz lost its preeminent position."
Jazz itself also changed during those years: In the U.S., the big
swing bands gave way to small ensembles that played fast and very
complicated music. For the Jerusalem jazz musicians, this was just too
much. "We liked to listen to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker,"
Aharoni says. "The music was exciting, fascinating, with lots of
tension. But that went beyond the limits of our ability."
Jazz returned to Jerusalem only in the late 1950s, with the arrival
from the U.S. of saxophonist Mel Keller, who became the most important
figure in the development of jazz in Israel. The charismatic Keller
began to gather young musicians around him, formed the first jazz
ensemble in Israel, recorded a weekly jazz program on Israel Radio,
and traveled throughout the country, particularly to kibbutzim, to
demonstrate musical improvisation. But until Keller, nearly all of the
jazz action in Israel was in Tel Aviv.
One night in 1955, someone came to the cocktail bar in the Dan Hotel
in Tel Aviv, where the band of Maurice (Pisi) Osherowitz was playing
and told the musicians that Lionel Hampton was on his way there.
Hampton, one of the most famous jazz musicians in the world, was on a
concert tour. Thousands of Israelis came to the Ziratron in nearby
Ramat Gan every night to hear Hampton and his band.
An argument broke out at the cocktail bar: Should they try to impress
Hampton or abandon the idea for fear of humiliating themselves? Pisi
decided that they should try. When Hampton came down the stairs into
the club, the band launched into his biggest hit, "Flying Home."
"After we finished playing, we went over to Hampton and asked him,
'Mr. Hampton, how were we?'" drummer Hugo Landwehr recalled. 'He said,
You don't fucking swing for shit.' It wasn't very nice to hear, but
after we overcame the insult we decided that we had no choice - we'd
have to improve for the next time he came. A year later, Hampton
returned to Israel and when he heard us he said: 'Now you
motherfucking swing,'" Landwehr concluded.
At 80 and 78, respectively, Osherowitz and Landwehr are about a decade
younger than Aharoni. They belong to the generation of jazz musicians
who came to Israel from Eastern Europe in the late 1940s and early
1950s and settled primarily in Tel Aviv. The two met in Romania, when
Landwehr was playing in a band with one of the greatest Romanian
musicians of the era, Theodor Kosma.
One day Landwehr and Kosma traveled from Bucharest to a distant city
where a brilliant accordionist with perfect pitch was said to live.
"His wife opened the door for us, and when Pisi entered the room and
saw Kosma, he immediately began to play Rimsky-Korsakov's 'The Flight
of the Bumble Bee' on his accordion," Landwehr related.
Landwehr came to Israel in 1949. He became the first percussionist of
the most important jazz band of the period, the Israel Air Force band.
The conductor, Erich Teich, was known for his great ability to
identify talent and his lack of ability as a saxophone player. ("To
his credit it must be said that he recognized his limitations and made
himself third saxophone in the band," Aharoni noted.)
Osherowitz immigrated in 1950 and immediately joined the band of the
violinist and saxophonist Ziggy Greiler, who played at Tel Aviv's Park
Hotel. For a month, he slept on a bench near the hotel after the show
and then traveled to the suburb of Bat Yam in the morning to sleep at
the home of friends after they left for work. Later, he and his wife
found a small room near the beach. "Sixteen floor-tiles long, six
tiles wide. That was the epitome of happiness," Osherowitz recalled.
When he first arrived in Israel, Osherowitz played accordion and
trumpet. He later taught himself to play the vibraphone, with which he
Osherowitz was not an exception in that he played several instruments.
Among the jazz musicians of the 1940s and '50s, it was rare to meet
one who did not. Every violinist was also a saxophonist or
accordionist; every trumpeter also played bass or piano; and the
percussionists usually also sang. Aharoni, for example, plays bass,
trumpet, piano and the euphonium (similar to the tuba). "There was
logic behind this phenomenon," he explains. "The idea was that if you
knew how to play only one instrument, it wouldn't be enough to make a
The jazz musicians of the 1950s actually played very little jazz. Most
of them made a living with hotel and cafe bands, which mainly played
the popular music of the day. A typical program began at 8 or 9 P.M.
with Latin dance music (what Osherowitz calls "mambo shmambo"),
Italian and French songs, American pop, and favorite songs from
various diasporas - a little Russian, a bit of Romanian, and sometimes
even Bulgarian and Hungarian. There was also usually a guest artist -
an entertainer, singer, comedian or tap dancer.
Who sat in the audience? "Bourgeoisie," Osherowitz responded. "People
of means. Engineers, lawyers, tourists, and sometimes politicians.
Sometimes they would come with shady characters, all kinds of
self-styled gangsters, like the one who came into the club once where
we were playing, kicked everybody out and ordered the band to play 'My
Yiddishe Mama' in memory of his beloved mother. When we played it he
burst into tears and we had to switch to a cheerful song to calm him
down," Osherowitz recalled.
Around 1 A.M., after most of the crowd had left, the band would
finally begin to play jazz "swing style," as they called it then. As
the incident with Lionel Hampton indicates, the level was not
especially high at first. "I can say about myself that it was only
when Hampton's musicians came to Tel Aviv and played with us that I
heard and learned how to feel the jazz, what's right and what's not
right," Osherowitz explained.
Tango at Piltz
Musicians made a relatively good living in Israel in the 1950s.
According to Osherowitz, "Except for one musician who was also a
pharmacist, we all made our living solely from playing." Landwehr
explained: "When I played in Pisi's [Osherowitz's] band at the Dan
Hotel, I earned 450 lirot a month. Add to this some more money from
recordings I would play during the morning, and you reach more than
800 lirot." He called to a nearby table in the cafe, "Meir, how much
was the dollar worth in 1953?" Meir responds immediately, "In 1953,
there were three dollars to a lira."
"You see? Not a small amount of money," Landwehr said. "My father, who
was an aeronautical engineer, would say: 'How could it be that you
bang on the skin of someone else and earn three times as much as me?'"
But the sums that Landwehr and Osherowitz earned were small change
compared to what the members of Dutzi Karlo's band, who played waltzes
and tango at the Piltz Cafe [located in what is now the McDonald's
overlooking the Tel Aviv boardwalk], were rumored to earn.
"Those bastards demanded - and got! - an apartment for each musician
for six months of work," Landwehr fumed. He is agitated, as if this
just happened yesterday. "And the funny thing is they were lousy
musicians. Moonlighters. One day I went there, sat at the drums, gave
one tap and the drum came apart."
In 1959, as Osherowitz was establishing himself as one of the leading
bandleaders of the period, Landwehr decided to leave Israel. "I
thought I was a big fish in a small pond," he explained.
Landwehr went to Brazil, where he stayed for 40 years. He had a club
called Stardust in Sao Paulo. His band produced Brazil's leading jazz
musicians: pianist Hermeto Pasquel, percussionist Airto Moreira and
singer Flora Purim.
Landwehr returned to Israel nine years ago. For the past several years
he has been playing three times a week at cafes. On one recent Tuesday
evening, he sat behind the drums at the cigar bar of the David
Intercontinental Hotel in Tel Aviv, waiting patiently for the
basketball game between Israel and Greece to finish. When the screens
no longer occupied everyone's attention he played and sang "New York,
New York," "My Funny Valentine" and other timeless hits with his band.
He did not even object when the manager asked him to sing "Happy
birthday, dear Amnon" for one of the bar's patrons.
"Don't teach people what they don't know, make life easy for them,"
Landwehr explained as his philosophy. To demonstrate, he begins to
sing, a la Nat King Cole, "Autumn Leaves."
Osherowitz continued to play at the Dan Hotel for a few years and
trained some of the musicians associated with the next generation of
jazz - the first generation of Israeli-born jazz musicians. During the
1960s, he moved on to play at other hotels and restaurants until
retiring from full-time performances in the early 1970s. Why? He was
tired of playing six evenings a week, and in addition his type of band
was going out of style.
Osherowitz continued to do arrangements for recordings and today
manages a recording studio with his son. He also plans to perform at
the club of the Hed music school, probably in November. Osherowitz is
still angry about a journalist who wrote 10 years that he is a
"dinosaur" and that his music is "nostalgic."