One man’s quest to bring Jewish music to Jacksonville
BY MATT FRANZBLAU
Federation Communications Director
On Sunday, Apr. 2, the local Jewish community will be treated a unique and free concert at the Jacksonville Jewish Center, courtesy of the group ‘Pharoh’s Daughter’, headlined by lead singer Basya Schechter. The music being played that afternoon is part of a larger movement known as ‘Radical Jewish Culture’, which found its way to Northeast Florida through very circuitous means and a man named Keith Marks. Marks. Marks is a Jacksonville native who became involved in this movement and eventually founded a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization called Avant, aimed at creating exploring new and exciting music outside the confines of genre and expectation.
“I have been somebody who has always been into music, art and culture, so I connected to this music and this movement,” Marks said. “I really became a fan when I lived in Israel and I went to a couple of shows featuring different artists and musicians as I was really just blown away by the range and diversity of it all.”
This unique sound was born three decades ago in the lower east side of New York City and has been growing ever since, forming an even stronger identity in the Big Apple and around the nation.
“A lot of musicians who were Jewish had no real bridge to create a connection to the music they played and their Jewish identity, Marks said. “So in the late 80’s, John Zorn, who was at the time an up and coming Avant-garde composer, came up with the term ‘Radical Jewish Culture’, helping create this movement.”
That movement helped give birth to a record label known as ‘Tzadik’, which houses eclectic collections of Jewish jazz inspired tunes, a far cry from more traditional Jewish themed melodies such as Klezmer.
“Zorn basically asked a philosophical question, and that was ‘what does it mean to make Jewish music?” Marks explained. “He’s just simply posing the question and not giving answer.”
That’s because as the local Avant founder explained, it’s up to the individual musicians to look within themselves to help create the answer.
“The closest thing to an answer is the collection, which he’s asked hundreds of musicians to help,” explained Marks. “So he would go up to for instance, a Jewish jazz saxophone player, or a heavy metal guitar player, and ask them, ‘if you were to make a Jewish record, what would it sound like?”
The result is this pedestrian yet extremely unique and innovative collection of Jewish melodies which is a tangible response to this philosophical question. But for Marks, this project and this movement is more than just music, it’s an identity framed upon a set of ideals.
“You could strip away the word music and it becomes more relevant, because you are asking the question, ‘what does it mean to make Jewish culture today, or more importantly what does it mean to be a Jew today?” he explained. “These are all relevant questions because we are all searching for ways to inspire young people to keep Judaism alive.
Once Marks left the land of milk and honey to return to Florida’s First Coast, he saw that his hometown did not have much in the way of the Radical Jewish Culture he had fallen in love with, so he decided to do something about it.
“So I had the idea that it would be cool to get some of this music to the library so the community had access to it,” he recalled of his initial actions. “But then I thought, ‘wait I’m going to donate music that no one knows? I can’t do that, so I need to bring some artists to town to get some momentum for the collection.”
Fast forward nearly a year later and his new non-profit has put on four events in the community, with a fifth on the horizon, aided by a grant awarded from the Jewish Community Foundation of Northeast Florida.
“The Hazzan, (Jesse Holzer) over at the (Jacksonville Jewish) Center, really helped promote what I was doing from the first concert,” Marks graciously stated. “So we found an artist that we thought would be a good fit and that’s where we find ourselves today.”
“Keith is avant in every sense of the word as he's a highly motivated, passionate music lover who truly thinks outside the box,” Hazzan Holzer said. “As a friend and supporter of his, and a lover of Jewish music in all its forms, it became a no brainer to create a partnership to bring more Jewish music to Jacksonville.
Avant’s first concert was ironically enough held at the Jacksonville Public Library and featured Uri Cane, a Grammy-nominated pianist and composer, where at the conclusion, 280 CD’s, along with anthologies of musicians’ writings and DVD’s were donated to the library. The collection itself is valued at $4,200 but according to Marks, the addition of it and its potential impact on the community is priceless.
“Music is a powerful tool which can bring people together, so for me a successful concert means there are kids running around and there are older members of the community enjoying themselves at the same time,” he said. “The goal of this concert with Pharoh’s daughter, is to really bring in a wide and diverse section of the community, so they will be informed, educated and inspired to push their own boundaries.”
“Keith and I ran through a hundred Jewish performers which spanned from jazz to middle eastern to cantorial, but we kept coming back to the eclectic sound of Pharaoh's Daughter, and a concert was born. ”Holzer explained. “Listeners will hear rhythms and sounds that transport them around the world, which is why it’s truly a concert for all ages.”
Community members will get to hear that most unique sound, 4 p.m., on the first Sunday in April at the Jacksonville Jewish Center. For more information about Keith Marks and Avant, log onto facebook.com/Avantcurious, and for more on Pharoh’s Daughter and lead singer Basya Schechter, go to pharaohsdaughter.com/