American Jerusalem in Tamuz: Seeing the Sounds of Cancer Redeemed Through Medeski & Scofield Quartet

Fabricated eyes when heated up would shed leaden tears, streaming down the face of the idol of Tamuz placed in the Holy Jerusalem Temple. At least that is what the Ancient Israelites expected and were drawn to in the tragic moments of life. The calling of this zodiac sign of Tamuz as Cancer is to usher in the summer months of Tamuz, Av and Elul.

Tamuz is a heavy month, laden with death and rebirth, from the ecstasy dancing round the golden calf and its apostasy to the smashing of the first set of tablets by Moses as well as the 17th of Tamuz marking the first breach in the Jerusalem Temple’s walls leading to its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE. With the resonance of this sign reverberating as I was walking down Haight street, I passed by the Terebinth altar to Janis Joplin, seeing the sounds of tears overflowing into the street. Just one more rebirthing of tragedy in American Jerusalem on the new moon of the Hebrew month, named after this Babylonian god, Tamuz.

Although I may be living in San Francisco, still all the months in the Hebrew calendar continue to play their standard riff for me, in their original Babylonian key. Of them all, Tamuz is most peculiar: as the name of a Babylonian deity. As is the case with all good tragedy, this myth became a play, casting Tamuz as the tragic hero of Ancient Israel during Temple times.

Regular showings at one of the entrances to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem were the place for Jerusalemites to watch the play and weep. Even if the sounds seem distant of Tamuz’s story as a fallen prophet in ancient Mesopotamia, tortured to death and crowned on the night of his death, resonances concatenate as the heat of the summer emerges. Perhaps our need to see and to hear about the misfortune of others to alleviate our own feelings of self-pity still points to our need for tragic stories, like the one of Janis Joplin implanted with offerings on Haight Street.

Seeing the sounds of those tears shed for Tamuz was nothing short of transformational as I found myself in the Haight.

In this age of the sovereign self, our exacerbated sense of self-pity and self-worship, perhaps has unconsciously been chiseled out the form of Tamuz in our own psyche. If the sense associated with the month of Tamuz is sight, then this new month offers moments for re-aligning our sight and rectifying it, retraining ourselves to see things in a more redemptive light.  The possibility of redemptive living emerges when we can see the sounds, and I experience this most powerfully with jazz.

Adorno was right and wrong. Right in recanting his claim that after Auschwitz poetry was impossible; but wrong in that he never recanted his critique of jazz as part of the kitsch of the American culture industry.

Even if Adorno was arguing that in opposition to the formal dimensions of classical music, it was jazz that really causes a  regression in listeners and erosion in their capacity of musical experience to illuminate a critical consciousness, doubt lingers for me, especially when I make pilgrimage to the San Francisco Jazz Center.

Summer in San Francisco abounds with music in the parks and dancing in the streets. Little surprise then that this new month of Tamuz coincided with quite the celebration of music at San Francisco Jazz Festival.

This night brought master improviser, guitarist, John Scofield considered one of the greatest figures in jazz guitar history. What this performance really made clear is how a mature and deft jazz guitarist of Scofield’s depth and caliber was a natural  partner to team up with jazz-funk harbingers, Medeski Martin and Wood on any number of sessions. Tonight, Scofield made space for MMW keyboardist, John Medeski to join his supercharged quartet, comprised of bassist, Ben Street and percussionist, Bill Stewart. Medeski’s depth and breadth could be felt throughout his improvisations on jazz standards as well as originals penned by Scofield.

Scofield Medeski SFJC

The synergy that emerged between the notes as well as the confidence to hold in the subtle pianissimo moments of near silence were simply stunning.

The sight-lines between pianist and guitarist could not be broken, even though both Medeski and Scofield played most of the night with their eyes closed, feeling the musical temporality that bound them as one.

Sight can never be divorced from sound. In partaking in the pool of sounds seen as they were channeled through the jazz of the Scofield Quartet along with John Medeski, on eve of Tamuz’s death and rebirth, the aroma of redemption could be seen coming off the keys, flying from the fret and immersing deep into the heart. The soundtrack of this zodiac sign of Tamuz as Cancer as played by Medeski and the Scofield Quartet allowed all gathered to see through the exquisite shell of SFJC’s physical space to behold its source in divine melody.

About the Author
Aubrey L. Glazer, Ph.D. serves as rabbi at Beth Sholom, San Francisco. Aubrey is the author of Mystical Vertigo: Kabbalistic Hebrew Poetry Dancing Cross the Divide (Academic Studies Press, 2013), A New Physiognomy of Jewish Thinking: Critical Theory After Adorno as Applied to Jewish Thought (New York: Continuum, 2011) and Contemporary Hebrew Mystical Poetry: How It Redeems Jewish Thinking (Edwin Mellen Press: New York, 2009).