Mail Archive sponsored by
- From: dan_fox <dan_fox...>
- Subject: Ben Sidran
- Date: Thu 06 Oct 1994 20.25 (GMT)
Mike Leavitt brought this article to the attention of the group a few
weeks ago, and I finally got around to typing it in.
Jerusalem Report, August 11, 1994 - copied and posted without permission
Thanks to Mike Leavitt for sending me the copy to transcribe
Life Lessons From A Space Cowboy
Jazz/rock artist Ben Sidran has moved from performing with the Steve Miller
Band to setting Jewish prayers to a swinging beat
Sheli Teitelbaum Los Angeles
Ben Sidran sits behind a table at the back of a posh Santa Monica bookstore
signing copies of his last book, "Talking Jazz: An Illustrated Oral History."
It contains the transcripts of 50 conversations with jazz giants like Miles
Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Herbie Hancock, originally broadcast on "Sidran
on Record," the National Public Radio (NPR) program he hosted from 1985 to
Yet many of the people who show up to meet Sidran don't seem terribly
interested in the book. What they really want to know is where they can get
a copy of "Life's a Lesson," Sidran's independently produced album in which
he successfully fuses contemporary American jazz with Jewish liturgical music.
"I've looked *everywhere* for the damned thing," a bearded man in his late
30's says to Sidran. "Who do I have to kill for one?"
Sidran can't offer a quick fix. The rush for "Life's a Lesson" had begun a
few months earlier after a broadcast of NPR's Weekend Edition show featuring
Sidran and cuts from the album. He brought a stack of CDs to the signing,
and they sold out in 15 minutes. But with no national distributor, they are
hard to find in shops, and are largely being sold through mail order.
Sidran is a man of 50 who looks like might be your dentist. Happily married
with teenage kids, he lives in the burbs of Madison, Wisconsin. The only
giveaway of his background in music is the staccato manner in which he speaks
of his passion for jazz. But there is nothing about him that suggests he is
the same fellow who has jammed on keyboards with rock legends like Eric
Clapton and the Rolling Stones, and who earned his own footnote in pop
history by writing the memorably goofy lyrics for the Steve Miller Band's
late 60s hit, "Space Cowboy" (*I'm a space cowboy/I bet you weren't ready
for that/I'm a space cowboy/I'm sure you know where it's at*). The song,
he'll tell you, was about Miller, not him.
(transcriber's footnote - I think the lyrics were "I'm sure you know where
"I still like 'Space Cowboy,'" he says, "but long after it's been forgotten,
I think people will still be listening to 'Life's a Lesson.'"
Ben Sidran was born in Chicago to first-generation Americans of Russian stock
and raised in the small Illinois town of Racine. There were only 500 Jewish
families, in a Catholic and Lutheran population of 100,000; he and his sister
were the only Jews at his high school.
"I experienced some significant anti-Semitism around the same period I
discovered jazz, roughly from 1956 to 1958," he recall. "I had assumed being
Jewish was something we did on Saturdays. When I was maybe 11, though, my
best friend asked me why I killed Christ and whether it was true we drank
the blood of Christian babies on Passover."
With jazz in place of Judaism as his "spiritual center," Sidran attended the
University of Wisconsin, where he studied history, hoping to teach college.
The university was a counterculture hotbed during the 60s, and he fell in
with a jazz-living crowd of largely Jewish ex-New Yorkers. He drifted into
rock and played in a band that included future rock stars Steve Miller and
Upon graduation, he left for England for doctoral work in American studies
at the University of Sussex, where he successfully avoided the U.S. draft.
When the Steve Miller Band came to England in the late 60s to make a record,
Sidran sat in with them and wrote "Space Cowboy," their breakthrough hit. He
also worked as a session player for British rockers like Clapton and the
After receiving his doctorate, Sidran returned to the U.S. Facing a glut of
college teachers looking for work, he went to Los Angeles to become a record
producer specializing in contemporary jazz, and toured with the Steve Miller
band. He has also written several books about jazz, and spent six years
hosting "Jazz Alive," his interview program on NPR.
In the early 80s, Sidran returned to live in Madison with his wife Judy and
their young son Leo. It was Leo, now 17, who inadvertently inspired "Life's
a Lesson." Despite his own alienation from Jewish life, Sidran wanted to give
his son some sense of identity as a Jew. This yearning brought his family,
about a decade ago, to a small, alternative High Holy Days service at the
Gates of Heaven, the oldest synagogue in Wisconsin.
Their services featured guitar accompaniment by Hannah Rosenthal, a former
Jerusalem seminary student now chairing the state Democratic party. Sidran
later took over the musical chores on the piano, and the shul's services now
attract standing-room only crowds.
The idea for making a record came when Sidran realized that there really
wasn't any Jewish music he knew of in the U.S. - he has never been to Israel,
and admits to a dearth of awareness of the Israeli scene - that sounded
contemporary. "There was no record I could put on for my son," he says, "that
sounded like the music I listen to."
"Life's a Lesson" features some 15 cuts, with vocals supplied by Sidran
himself, two Jewish singers - folk star Lynette and singer-songwriter Carole
King - and instrumentals by a veritable who's who of contemporary Jewish jazz
artists - Bob Berg, Randy Brecker, Eddie Daniels, Lee Konitz, Mike Mainieri
and Josh Redman. Most are traditional Jewish prayers and songs - "Hineh Mah
Tov," "Yedid Nefesh," "Kol Nidre" - set to unorthodox modern jazz melodies
composed by Sidran. There are also swinging renditions of more contemporary
Hebrew music - "Eli, Eli" and "HaTikvah" - and the album's title track, an
original English composition penned by Sidran ("Life's a lesson, you can fail
it/You can set your spirit free or jail it") which has become a regular
feature of his synagogue's service.
While Sidran was able to enlist enthusiastic contributions from the many
Jewish artists who perform on the album, he had less luck with the Jewish
recording industry executives he approached to support his effort. With no
small irony and a hint of bitterness, he says the backing for the album came
from "The Axis powers" - a small Japanese recording company he works with,
and their German distributors.
"Life's a Lesson" was released last autumn with little fanfare, and has sold
some 20,000 copies through mail order (Go Jazz Records, P.O. Box 2023,
Madison, WI, 53701) and Judaica retailers. It received positive reviews from
jazz critics, and Sidran thinks it might have a crack at a Grammy - if there
were a single category in which it could get nominated. He points out that
there are at least five Christian categories, and two for Gospel music, but
none that might accommodate a jazz/Jewish liturgical fusion. He's written a
letter complaining about to Mike Green, the Jewish president of the National
Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
"I said that, given the contribution of Jews to popular music in this
country, wasn't it ironic that there was no category for contemporary Jewish
Sidran has yet to receive a reply.