The Common Roots Jazz Ensemble performs “The Madison Avenue Shul,” an original composition by Mitch Mirkin. Recorded at the Music Workshop, Baltimore, Maryland, November 2019. Video by The Wright Visions. Musicians: Ron Pender (tenor sax), Yawn Jones (guitar), Justin Taylor (keyboard), Blake Meister (bass), Byung Kang (drums).
Background on the “The Madison Avenue Shul,” by Mitch Mirkin:
This tune took shape in my mind as I was commuting to work by bicycle one day. My route into downtown Baltimore takes me down a street called Madison Avenue. With a typical gritty urban Baltimore feel—charming nonetheless—it’s decidedly different than its ritzy same-named counterpart in New York City, home to posh retail shops and the hub of the Big Apple’s advertising industry. There’s nothing of that sort on Baltimore’s Madison Avenue.
But one humble building did catch my eye: It was an old shul, or synagogue, identifiable by the Ten Commandments tablets embossed above its entrance. Like many old synagogues in the city, it had been converted into a church with the passing of the years and the shifts in neighborhood demographics, from Jews to African Americans. The stark, unadorned concrete and cinderblock construction spoke to an era when Baltimore’s Jews were largely immigrants from Eastern Europe and far from affluent. The building is now a Seventh Day Adventist church, and one would assume its worshipers today are in similar economic circumstances as its original prayerful inhabitants.
I thought about similarities and differences. Commonalities and divergences. The inevitability of change, evolution, transformation. The composition that came into my head would open with a classic Jewish klezmer feel—evoking the simple folk music that no doubt accompanied many “simchas” (happy occasions) in this unpretentious structure in its early days. It would then progress to a cool, hard-swinging jazz vibe, reflecting the transition to a modern-day African American congregation.
Both traditions are earnest, beautiful, and precious. Two peoples, both yearning to come closer to God, both looking for hope, renewal, salvation from everyday trials and tribulations. Yes, the two cultures are different in many ways, but at the core, perhaps they are more alike than any of us might appreciate. (It’s interesting, also, to note the musical similarities between klezmer and jazz.)
Important footnote: Little did I realize when I wrote the tune that an elderly neighbor of mine, Mr. Phil Marcus, has a very special connection to this building. His father, Rabbi Joseph Jacob Marcus, of blessed memory, himself an immigrant from Lithuania, was the spiritual leader of this Jewish congregation, known then as Mishkan Israel. When I visited Mr. Marcus in his apartment recently, he showed me an old photo of himself, as a small boy, standing with his father on the same block where the shul/church building stands till today. I dedicate this tune to Mr. Marcus, a proud World War II Navy combat veteran who is a shining example of America’s “Greatest Generation.” His service, like that of so many others who have fought for our liberty, is a testament to the common values that unite us as Americans, regardless of where or how we pray, the color of our skin, or the lands from which our ancestors came.