Jazz on the bima

Jazz on the bima

Tenor player expands musical horizons

Alex Stein accompanies jazz and blues singer Ayana Lowe at 55 Bar in Greenwich Village. PhotoS by Robert Wiener
Alex Stein accompanies jazz and blues singer Ayana Lowe at 55 Bar in Greenwich Village. PhotoS by Robert Wiener

Several hours before Shabbat began on Sept. 1, Alex Stein stood on the bima of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown with his hands wrapped around the keys of his tenor saxophone. Beside him was Jamale Davis, holding an upright bass.

Without hesitation, they burst into bebop riffs based on a tune written by the late alto player Charlie Parker, playing together in a close harmony that seems to parallel their intersected lives. One is a Jewish man with a close relationship to African-American music. The other is a black man with a close relationship to the Jewish community.

Stein, who was raised in Maplewood and now resides in Summit, is the band director at Industrial High School in Newark. Davis, who lives in Newark, works as the facility manager at B’nai Or, a job he has held for four years. “I take the care of the synagogue and the religious school,” he said, pointing out laughingly that his job description was once known as the “Shabbos goy,” the non-Jewish person who handles tasks forbidden for Jews on Shabbat, such as turning off lights and adjusting the thermostat. 

They met three years ago at a PATH station in Jersey City, when Stein spotted a book of Charlie Parker arrangements sticking out of Davis’ backpack. Aside from their practice sessions at the synagogue, they have played together at Greenwich Village jazz clubs such as Smalls and Mezzrow, “but not as often as we would like,” said the bassist, a self-taught musician and graduate of Rutgers University. The two get together at the synagogue whenever possible to continue their musical friendship. 

“I have my hands pretty full,” said Stein. He is a high school band director and a scholar of ethnomusicology as well as a performing musician and the father of a 3-year-old boy.

In 2010 Stein entered an ethnomusicology program at Brown University in Providence, R.I. Four years later, he took a break to pursue a teaching job as a Lincoln Center Scholar. The program is a partnership between Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and the Hunter College School of Education, where professional artists are fast-tracked through academic studies to expedite their teaching degrees in New York City schools. 

After working in New York middle schools for three years Stein began a new job in September, where he hopes to infuse his love of music with the students at Technology High School, Newark’s magnet school for applied science, engineering, and technology.

“The band will have a jazz bent to it,” he promised.

In January, he plans to return to his graduate studies, where he is working on a doctoral dissertation on jazz pianist and educator Barry Harris.

As of now, Stein’s only regular performance is at the 55 Bar in Greenwich Village on the first Saturday of each month. For the past 10 years he has been backing Ayana Lowe, a jazz, blues, and gospel singer. As part of a sextet that includes trumpet, bass, electric keyboard, drums, and congas, he can shift styles easily from straight-ahead jazz to classic rhythm-and-blues to Motown. But, he told NJJN, “I have not changed my direction at all. I play bebop and hard bop.”

His style began forming when he was a 13-year-old student at Maplewood Middle School, and began playing alongside his 10-year-old brother, Asher, an alto saxophonist. 

Together, the Stein Brothers continued performing together well into their 20s, when Asher entered medical school in 2010. 

NJJN first heard the brothers in 2003 at a gig at Cecil’s, a now-defunct jazz club in West Orange. They were backing the late legendary trumpeter Clark Terry.

To jazz aficionados, two young musicians sitting in with one of the masters of their profession was akin to a suburban garage band backing Bruce Springsteen.

Despite the prestige of performing on that level, Alex Stein told NJJN at the time, “We’re gonna do what we do, regardless of who’s there.”

Asher is now a fourth-year resident in radiology at Cooper Medical Center and lives in Philadelphia.

He said the practices of medicine and music are, in a way, quite similar. “You’re employing a similar set of skills to bring order to the apparent chaos. And both fields are truly about people,” he wrote NJJN in an email.

Playing jazz professionally was becoming increasingly difficult, he wrote.

“I found that hustling up work often took away my time from practicing and playing. When I was able to get work — not with our quintet — it was often repertoire I didn’t enjoy playing.”

But he said what he misses most “is the jazz community, the people, in Newark and Philadelphia especially, and, of course, the Stein Brothers Quintet as well. We had a great repertoire and some of the best musicians in New York.”

“Jews have always placed a high value on knowledge, on art, and you’ll see that with a lot of the jazz musicians, even back in the early days, if they weren’t black, they were probably Jewish. It is going back to a respect for high art and high music,” Asher said in 2003. 

Last September, Davis and Stein combined forces with a group of musicians from Israel who visited the synagogue to perform at a benefit for its building fund. “We made a decent amount to assist in building repairs, literally making my job easier,” David told NJJN.

It could have led to a cultural misconnection. Happily, it did not.

“There is a very big jazz community in Israel who all went to the same high school [Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts in Givatayim] and studied with the same teacher [trumpeter and drummer Danny Rosenfeld]. Then they come over here and try to make a living in New York,” Davis said. 

“We played standards from the American songbook, injecting bebop rhythms over pop songs and show tunes that were familiar to a synagogue audience of an older generation which knows all the standards,” said Stein. “It was for a good cause.”

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