Scott A. Tepper
#BaalTefilla #DeadHead #ShalomAleichemHeyNow

Improvisation and Chazzanut

My previous post was about things being the same a lot. Let’s look at the other side now.

We Jews call the professional (or semi-pro) who leads tefilla with some greater skill (voice, musicality, repertoire, song-leading, stage presence, etc.) a chazzan. In English, a “cantor.”

According to Google Translate, “cantor” is the Latin word for “singer.” Roman Catholic churches (and others) have cantors – they do the singing. But if we translate “cantor” from Latin to Hebrew, we get זמר (“zah-MAHR”) which is indeed “singer”. Translating “cantor” from English to Hebrew, Google Translate gives us the idiomatic חַזָן (“chah-ZAHN”.)

Chazzan comes from the root  חזה, which has to do with seeing-beyond, envisioning, forecasting, etc.:

  • In the Prophets, a chazzon (“cha-ZOHN”) is a vision.
  • Hasidic rebbe Yaakov Yitzchak Ha-Levi Horowitz (1745 -1815), was called “the Chozzeh/Seer of Lublin” (החוזה מלובלין‎).
  • Hareidi Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz (1878 – 1953) was known as the Chazzon Ish/“Vision of a man” (חזון איש).
  • In modern Hebrew, the weather forecaster is a chazzai.

From these usages we can see the chazzan as much more than just a singer. A chazzan is someone who wants to lead us to a vision through the music and the words of the tefilla. It may be a realistic or abstract image in our minds, some more transcendent vision, or an emotional vision. The chazzan will engage in extended soloing, and might even venture into improvisation if, shall we say, the spirit moves. If they improvise, they also bring the musical thread back to a satisfying resolution or segue successfully to something else.

And do we know when the chazzan is singing a long-practiced solo, and when improvising? We might sense a difference, or we may decide it really doesn’t matter and just go along for the spiritual ride. This is also a Deadhead approach.

Here’s modern Cantor Benzion Miller discussing cantorial improvisation with Jewish music expert Hankus Netsky:

If you grew Cantor Miller’s hair out about 10 inches and put him in a black t-shirt and aviator glasses, you might think you were watching Jerry Garcia talk about “Space” (the improvisational segment of a Dead show) – “You can do whatever you want with it, there’s no limit… I do whatever I feel like…” etc. Miller also describes a spiritual aspect of improvisation, being free to improvise from a feeling of being “at home”, something that Jerry and the other band members would agree with. One improvises best with those with whom we feel most comfortable/”at home.”

The Dead’s move to extended improvisation was very much influenced by the extended improvisation of St. John Coltrane (there is a church dedicated to him in San Francisco). Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh recently commented,

“It was the careful exuberant freedom that [Coltrane’s groups] had, the way they listen to one another and how everybody is improvising all at the same time, there’s nothing that’s fixed… It just kept changing and evolving and yet you always were aware wherever you were coming from… When you’re in the middle of this and it’s all happening, you’re not really there as an individual consciousness, you’re just a conduit. Your personality kind of disappears.”[1]

For Coltrane, improvisation wasn’t just music theory exploration, it was spiritual exploration. Coltrane said, “I think the main thing a musician would like to do is give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things that he knows of and senses in the universe… That’s what I would like to do.”[2] Coltrane sought to produce mental images through music, to create a vision. Coltrane sought to be a chazzan.

Many Deadheads would attend a Garcia-era show specifically anticipating “Space” – the time when the band would segue to pure improvisation. “While the music plays the band”, as one song puts it. One would turn oneself over to the music and allow the music to take the listener wherever the band took it. One would particularly tune in to Jerry Garcia’s improvisations. Those who enjoyed LSD will tell you that Garcia’s improvisations could guide and influence your trip, guiding and influencing the images in your mind. Garcia and the band acted as chazzanim, not necessarily with any vision in mind, but reaching their own visions and inviting you to reach yours. Whether under the influence of drugs or not, many Deadheads will describe the sensation of joining with “Space” jn spiritual and mystical terms.

Improvising to reach a vision and One-ness is a Deadhead path, and a Coltrane path, and a Jewish path. If your synagogue has a cantor, when’s the last time you heard them try a “Space”? How many cantors crave to improvise (they studied it), but are too fearful of repercussions from complaints about “that weird stuff the cantor did/the cantor didn’t do it like they always do/that’s not the traditional tune”? Are we willing to let cantors take that chance and go along with them as they follow the path of Koussevitzky, Rosenblatt, Miles, Bird, Trane, and Jerry? Tell your cantor it’s OK with you. “Sometimes the songs that we hear are just songs of our own.” (“Eyes of the World”, music: Jerry Garcia; lyrics: Robert Hunter.)



About the Author
Scott A. Tepper (Him etc., a/k/a Reb Zisha) has been a ba’al tefilla and teacher in Boston's Jewish community and beyond for decades. Scott has a BA in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and an Ed.M. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He created and teaches the webinar “Grateful Jews – Exploring Jewish Connections to the World of the Grateful Dead” and is a member of the Grateful Dead Studies Association. His first Grateful Dead concert was May 7, 1977 at the original Boston Garden. Scott's primary career has been in applications and software training.
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