Martin Elliot Jaffe reflects on his musical inspiration since 1966.
Reading the New York Times obituary for guitarist Danny Kalb, who died aged 80 in November, I was transported back in time: aged 15, Framus guitar in hand, struggling to find a chord progression as I listened to Projections, a new album from Kalb’s band, the Blues Project.
Drawn into the room by the melodic, floating, sinuously weaving flute of the melody (rather unlike the usual pounding Rolling Stones drivel I tended to overplay), my mother picked up the album cover and read aloud the names of the musicians: “Kulberg, Kalb, Kooper, Blumenfeld and Katz… Martin your musical style is getting to be Yiddishkeit!”
While my mother may have overstated the overt Jewish influence of the Blues Project, she foresaw my lifelong interest in blues and folk music and identified the vital role of Jewish musicians. The band’s Jewish pride and American chauvinism were recently noted by Martin Higgins, a filmmaker and comedian who was taught guitar by Danny Kalb in the early 1970’s, who recalls that the band “was regarded as a Jewish-American answer to Protestant-British Blues bands like the Yardbirds and Bluebreakers”.
Danny Kalb’s musical journey reads like a history of blues and folk music of the 1960s: already a guitar virtuoso by 13, he began his performing at coffee houses when a student at the University of Wisconsin, went on to live with Bob Dylan for a brief time, and played and recorded with every folk singer of the era. A performance by John Lee Hooker at the Newport folk Festival in 1964 convinced him that he should concentrate on the electric guitar and blues; as the New York Times obituary recalls, in 2009 he told an interviewer: “I knew that in my reaction to this great musician, suddenly the blues had tapped me on the shoulder”.
The Blues Project made only two albums before the music industry story of ego, creative differences and drug abuse led to the band members going their separate ways, with Danny Kalb suffering a 1967 mental breakdown which he blamed on a bad LSD trip. He went on to have a forty-year career, playing solo or in trios or ad hoc bands and teaching guitar, retaining his influence on generations of blues and other genres.
Of the other Jewish musicians of the Blues Project, some went on to major musical success while others had a more modest influence. Andy Kulberg, the band’s mesmerizing flute player, became known as a stellar bass player until his death from Lymphoma in 2002. As he told the Jewish Journal, he never forgot his father Siegfried, who escaped Austria in 1939, telling him “Always keep $5,000 in a safe deposit box.”
Drummer Roy Blumenfeld has had a lengthy career. In the summer of 2022, he regrouped with the Blues Project’s guitarist, Steve Katz, in Sonoma, California to play club dates and tour.
Perhaps the band members who went on to achieve the greatest fame were guitarist Steve Katz and Al Kooper (born Alan Peter Kuperschmidt). Kooper played the organ part that opens Bob Dylan’s anthem “Like A rolling Stone”, whilst Katz joined the influential jazz-rock fusion band Blood, Sweat and Tears.
Katz and Kooper have both spoken of the importance of their Jewish identities. Katz told the Dayton Jewish Observer in 2015 that he had taken his Jewishness with him all his life – mainly through “my humor and my sit-down-on-my-knee-sonny-boy, Al-Jolson, tear-in-my-eye sensibility”. Kooper told Tablet in 2013, “At the core of me I’m Jewish, that’s how I was raised, that’s what I am, that’s what I’ll always will be [sic] through and through”, though he added “Still, the church got to me too, because of the music”.
When I play my guitar and sing at a local coffee shop, or strap on my bass with a trio, I am trying to capture the spirit of these Jewish musicians and carry on the power of musical vision for generations to come. As the lyrics to one of my originals, Calm Soul, played as a swaying calypso beat calls out, “my soul is calm as I sail toward home.”