Improvise to Survive: An Interview with Lawrence Bush

Larry Bush headshot for blog

Lawrence Bush, a many-times-over author and the editor of the progressive website/magazine “Jewish Currents”, has an octopus-like curiosity and a deep reach into the uncountable facets of Jewish life and sensibility. Among the topics he has written on are the Jewish Resistance, showbiz, racism and Apartheid, poetry, Communism and of course, American politics.

Insisting he knows much more about rock ‘n roll and the blues than jazz, he has nevertheless written about jazz, and very succinctly and beautifully so.

With a well-rounded world view and as a critical observer of society, Larry agreed to expound a bit on jazz and a writer’s life.

How do you choose your topics for Jewish Currents, or is it that “they choose you”?

I’m the editor of a small, 72-year-old, progressive Jewish magazine, which also has a very active website, so I always feel the pressure to be writing about what’s happening in the news. But most of my writing is filtered through personal experience — what’s happening in the news, yes, but through the lens of what’s happening in my life. I’m a confessional writer, I do that well. The main emotions that inspire me to write are outrage at how people are getting shafted, delight in people’s creativity, and wistfulness about how, in the words of that great song by Lou Singer and Hy Zaret, “It Could Be a Wonderful World.”

I also write a daily historical blog, “Jewdayo,” about the date in Jewish history. That brings me into many worlds, as Jews have been so extensively and dynamically involved in culture and science and political change over the last couple of centuries.

Do you think the spirit of jazz, especially the improvisation process, resonates particularly with the Jewish heritage?

Interesting question. There’s a Yiddish word, “shpilkes,” that describes can’t-sit-still energy, which often combines anxiety with creativity. A lot of Jews have shpilkes, thanks to historical displacement and the constant need to improvise in order to survive. A lot of Jews also have ambition, which is part of shpilkes. I think both improvisation and ambition are big elements of jazz.

Favorite jazz artists, dead or living?

I love Louis Armstrong, especially playing with Duke Ellington. Did you know that Armstrong wore a Jewish star throughout his adult life? He was paying tribute to this Jewish New Orleans couple who helped him out as a kid, helped him get his first horn. I love Miles Davis, always thought of Kind of Blue as the aural equivalent of taking heroin (which I’ve never done). I love Oscar Petersen, find him very soothing, which helps me tune in. I love the amazing percussiveness of Dave Brubeck’s piano playing, and I love dancing to Paul Desmond, he has provided my wife and me with many moments.

I’ve been encouraged as a musician (guitar player) by Diana Krall because of the simplicity of her playing, and also by Rickie Lee Jones because of the originality of her jazz covers; she makes the songs her own and wrings the emotion from them. I love Cassandra Wilson, another true original, and how she covers such a wide range of material. I listen a lot to Keith Jarrett, and I’ll buy anything with Charlie Haden on it. I’m afraid I’m pretty out of it with current jazz, though I am making some discoveries . . .

Opinion on klezmer?

When I watch Betty Boop cartoons or other creations of Max and Dave Fleischer, I say, Ahh, there’s the true essence of klezmer! And I love the music’s energy. But while I’m very glad that the klezmer revival has brought so many young Jews into consideration of the creativity of Jewish identity, I never put on the music, it doesn’t turn me on for more than a few minutes before I get weary. 

Politically, do you think jazz as an art form bridges ideological differences?

I have no idea, but I think if you love jazz or play jazz you’ve got to have some kind of anti-racist consciousness, some ability to appreciate rather than worry about human variety, and I would HOPE that this makes it hard to be a killer-conservative.

Just like folk music was an expression of social unrest, do you think jazz has (OR had) as strong a connection with challenging the status quo?

Jazz is black music, black American music. Along with West Side Story and “The New Colossus” (Emma Lazarus’s sonnet about the Statue of Liberty) and the polio vaccine and a few movies, I would say that jazz is the greatest American contribution to world culture. That means that black Americans are responsible for the greatest American contribution to world culture. That acknowledgment of black people as quintessentially American is, sadly enough, a strong challenge to the status quo in our country.

Jazz is also about intellect, expertise, sexual energy, cooperation, and uncertainty. All of those elements are challenging to the status quo, which tends to be anti-intellectual and individualistic, often favors the pacification of mediocrity, and is unnerved by sex and by uncertainty.

How did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I’ve been writing forever. I was fortunate to come of age in the 1960s, when people actually believed we would be able to make a living by expressing ourselves. My definition of a writer is someone who, when they’re feeling deeply, wants to go and write (and does it).

How did you get the position of speechwriter for Rabbi Schindler? What is most memorable about those experiences?

In 1984, I was four months into unemployment insurance and my wife and I were driving the Taconic Parkway and talking about what my next job should be. We stopped at a diner and sat at the counter — the place was empty, just one other customer — and I told her that I’d be interested in still focusing on Jewish politics and culture in my next job, instead of trying to write on other subjects, if I could land a job with Al Vorspan. Al was the second-in-command in the Reform synagogue movement and I knew him only by reputation as a politically courageous guy. IF I could get a job with someone like him, I said, and take my radical ideas into the Jewish liberal mainstream, I would remain, professionally, in Jewish life. Well, that other customer came over to me and said, “I hear you talking about Al Vorspan. He’s my brother-in-law.” And he called Al from the pay phone there in the diner, and put me on the phone, and Al wrote a book with me and then handed me over to Rabbi Schindler, the president of the movement, who was looking for a speechwriter. I did that for the next thirteen years.

Another book in the works?

I’ve had seven books published and, while there’s always a novel in the drawer, I’m not sure if book-writing is where I’ll go when I have more time on my hands. I’m involved in visual art, in music, in making little videos, in a lot of non-fiction writing, and I’m not sure if the pace of the culture surrounding me will encourage me to write a book or to spin out a lot of smaller projects.

I will be putting out a book next year of my Jewish essays and artworks, kind of a culminating collection of whatever I’ve had to say of value on those subjects, and there may be another book or two in my future, but who knows? What I don’t want is to be involved in any more is the emotion of “Who’s going to publish this? What if nobody publishes this?”

Current projects/future wishes?
Jewish Currents just landed some significant funding that will allow us to staff up and build generational bridges, so I’m very excited at the prospect of building my own legacy there. I’m also about to become a grandfather for the first time, and I LOVE baby energy.

Right now I’m trying to master John Lennon’s strum on “All My Loving,” which is hard because I play with my fingers, not with a pick (worth listening to!). Overall, I’m trying to learn how to learn, which is the main thing I’d like to be doing for the rest of my life.

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(c) Debbie Burke 2017

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