Rock musician celebrates beautiful chaos of Jewish music

When he was a young boy, Jeremiah Lockwood definitely made an impression on his third-grade teacher at P.S. 87 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

“One day I had classical music playing when the kids came in the room,” the teacher, Diane Wirtschafter of Berkeley, still remembers. “When Jeremiah noticed, he approached to ask me if I liked classical music. He was gleeful upon hearing that I did and followed up with, ‘Do you like Wagner?’ He wanted to know if he could bring in a tape so that the class could listen.”

Those who have heard Lockwood perform with his band the Sway Machinery probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that even in third grade, his eclectic musical taste included the controversial German composer.

Hearing about his teacher’s memory, Lockwood recalls that his brother, who is five years older, was “a serious opera person” at the time. “His focus on 19th-century opera was at its peak then, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I was listening to Wagner at that age.”

 

Jeremiah Lockwood photo/scott irvine

Lockwood, 36, who is living in Palo Alto with his wife and two sons while he works toward a Ph.D. at Stanford University, recently played a few Bay Area gigs with the Sway Machinery. He’ll speak at the Jewish Community Library on May 7 about hazzanut, the cantorial tradition of Ashkenazi Jews, and will incorporate classical cantorial recordings with some of his own performance.

 

In his talk, he’ll differentiate between cantorial recordings and singing in synagogue, and talk about the aesthetic of noise and chaos in cantorial and Jewish music.

Lockwood’s music defies easy categorization. It’s rock ’n’ roll with a wide ranges of influences, from classical cantorial vocals to American blues to guitar riffs from Mali, a region in Africa home to numerous world-famous musicians, including Tinariwen and Ali and Vieux Farka Touré (Lockwood’s band played Mali’s famed Festival of the Desert and recorded an album there as well).

Perhaps because describing his music to journalists gets so tiresome, Lockwood characterized it as such: “It’s the best! It’s got a story and a mission behind it, which is preservation and celebration. It’s about creating community through music, but also about rock ’n’ roll and creating an experience that transcends visceral pleasure. It’s rock ’n’ roll and funk and the destruction of expectations, and the celebration of the personal, and trying to create spaces for people to remember how to have a good time and not be hooked up to the machine and to celebrate the primal machine of creation.”

Got that?

Lockwood’s two biggest musical influences were his grandfather, Cantor Jacob Konigsberg, and Carolina Slim, a blues musician whom Lockwood met playing on the street.

Konigsberg was a generation younger than those European-born cantors who sang in the “golden age of cantorial music,” said Lockwood, but he nonetheless was educated in that same tradition and sang in synagogues throughout the United States.

Given that his father is a composer as well, Lockwood said theirs was a musical home, where every Jewish holiday turned into “mini concerts in my grandparents’ living room.”

He started playing guitar at 12 and, consciously or not, began trying to incorporate the music he heard growing up.

By 14, Lockwood already thought he was a pretty fine guitar player and went to a New York street fair to start “busking blues on the street” when he found Carolina Slim (born Elijah Staley) playing.

“I was very impressed by him, and asked if I could sit in with him,” recalled Lockwood. Thus begun an apprenticeship that lasted until Slim died last year.

“He was critical but also graceful,” said Lockwood. “The paradoxical thing is you get your learning by being broken down a little bit. I already played well, and had a bit of a swollen ego. At 14, I already knew a little about music, and thought I was perfect, but he taught me the value of self-criticism and self-respect, which is very important for a young musician to learn.”

Lockwood especially admired how Slim took music from the African diaspora and used it as a basis to create new music, an approach that Lockwood is now doing with Jewish music.

From Slim, Lockwood also learned “how to be a professional musician, meaning how to present yourself as an artist and what that means, and valuing your own work and learning to face the world and be brave and assertive about who you are and what you can offer people.”

In the last years of his life, “We’d sit in his basement and sing gospel music together, which was a very sweet and beautiful coda to our friendship,” said Lockwood.

Their relationship, which spanned over 20 years, had such a great impact on Lockwood that musical apprenticeship as a form of education is the topic of his graduate studies at Stanford. He’s studying in the education department with a concentration in Jewish studies.

His cantor grandfather lived until 2008 and was able to hear the beginnings of the Sway Machin­­ery. “He appreciated what I was doing,” Lockwood said.

As does his former third-grade teacher. “As a fan of both cantorial music and Tom Waits,” Wirtschafter said, “I delight in the Sway Machinery’s surprising and haunting blending of the traditional liturgical melodies with bass-y and brassy contemporary sounds.”


Jeremiah Lockwood
, 7 p.m. Thursday, May 7 at Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. Free. Co-presented by the Jewish Music Festival and KlezCalifornia. www.jewishlearningworks.org/library/adult-events

Headshot of Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."