Jazz Great - and Gone

Students, teachers and performers alike in the world of Israeli jazz are mourning the death of Amit Golan, 46, last week. A consummate musician and passionate educator.

On Friday morning, the ninth-grade students in the jazz program at the Thelma Yellin High School for Arts were learning about the history of jazz with their beloved teacher, Amit Golan. That same day there was a test. The questions were about Duke Ellington, Art Tatum and other early jazz giants, whom Golan had taught his students to love. Because the test finished early, and there remained another hour of the double lesson, Golan suggested to his class that they go down to the yard and play basketball. He, too, joined the game.

"We went downstairs, started playing and after a few minutes I saw that Amit was getting tired and breathing heavily," said one of the students, Eyal Tzur. A few minutes later Golan collapsed. A Magen David Adom crew summoned to the school was unable to revive him. He died of a heart attack, at the age of 46.

David Bachar

Grief spread through Israel's jazz community upon learning of Golan's death. Students, colleagues and jazz fans alike had a hard time digesting the news that this energetic and passionate man who taught hundreds of students, including some of the leading jazz musicians in the country - and who set up a solid educational infrastructure for teaching music that will doubtless educate many more generations - will not be able to continue with his important life work.

"If you would have asked me last week what could be the biggest loss for the jazz scene in Israel, if one person were to depart one day, Amit would be the first name," said pianist Roi Ben Sira.

Golan, who left a wife and three children, started his educational project 16 years ago, when he returned from studying in New York and started teaching the history of jazz at Thelma Yellin.

"He had this fanatic enthusiasm for music, it was infectious," says trombonist Jonathan Voltchuk, who studied with Golan over a decade ago and has since become a leading jazz musician.

"The bottom line is, this was the person we loved most," says another student, Eyal Tzur, who started studying with Golan just a few months ago. "The way he talked about music. When we looked at him while he was listening to music, it was amazing to see how into it he was. We really loved his class."

Adds Ben Sira, who now teaches the history of jazz at the Allon School in Ramat Hasharon, where Golan taught in the past: "As someone who also teaches jazz, there's was nothing for me to do but stand by and be envious. He had an incredible passion for what he did, and managed to convey this passion to the students. Being able to infect teens with a bug for jazz is really not something that is a given. I didn't agree with his approach that nothing interesting happened in jazz after the 1960s, but he was directly responsible for almost an entire young generation of Israeli jazz. Everyone's path went by him. Everyone was his child. It is impossible to exaggerate his contribution to the development of the field."

Apart from his class on the history of jazz, Golan also taught piano and improvisation at the Thelma Yellin School and directed numerous ensembles. In addition to stressing the importance of the roots of jazz ("I send the groups off to hear the good recordings," he once boasted ), Golan also instilled in the young musicians an important insight: "I explained to them that jazz is the 'Oral Law,'" he said in an interview several years ago. I learned this by myself the hard way. One day I went to a jam session in New York with 'Real Book' (a book of chord charts of jazz standards ). I hadn't even sat down at the piano and one of the musicians grabbed my 'Real Book' out of my hand and threw it to the other end of the room. He was right: You have to have everything in your ear. Jazz cannot be dependent on paper."

Eight years ago, Golan set up the jazz department at the Israel Conservatory of Music in Tel Aviv (known as the Stricker school ); under his leadership it became the leading hothouse of jazz in the country. Saxophonist Yuval Cohen, one of the top teachers at Stricker, says the news of Golan's death reached him in the middle of a lesson at the conservatory, "and we just sat there for hours, unable to leave the place where Amit was such a central figure."

Golan invested everything in the conservatory. He formulated the curriculum, raised funds to cover the budget - "and it was all done with pathos," stresses Cohen. "He was a very sensitive person. Every little thing relating to the kids, who would and wouldn't get a scholarship, made him crazy."

Golan also managed to forge a strong connection with the prestigious New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York. Two years ago, a joint study program involving Stricker and the New School was created thanks to him, in which 20 students are accepted each year to a four-year course - involving two years of study here and two years in New York.

Cohen relates a wonderful anecdote about Golan: "Amit studied in New York with the pianist Barry Harris, and under his influence frequently used a scale known as mixolydian. For years, he taught his students this scale, until they started calling it 'the Amit Golan diminishing scale.' We had to remind them that the original name was the mixolydian scale. With all due respect to all the other wonderful and important teachers, there is not another teacher in Israel who got scale named after him while he was still alive."

Golan's devotion to jazz actually began at a late age, only after he unenthusiastically completed his studies in classical music composition at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and traveled to New York. During his first years there, his "god" was pianist Bill Evans. Golan tried to imitate the classic touch which he said "floated over the beat" of Evans and his successors, such as Keith Jarrett.

"But I was missing something," he said once in an interview, "and then I realized my mistake: I started from the top of the pyramid. Bill Evans created his own style, but he was deeply influenced by the pianists before him such as [Bud] Powell or Horace Silver. I tried to be Bill Evans without known Powell and Silver. I didn't have the foundations and without the foundation you can't be a good jazz musician."

Amit Golan started digging, as he put it, into the history of jazz, took classes with pianists from the older generation, including Harris and Junior Mance and Walter Bishop, went to countless concerts ("mostly of the old-timers" ) - and also attended the funerals of Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. Eventually he realized that the style he felt most comfortable with the hard bop style of the 1950s and '60s. The black groove, the deep blues, the dominance of the trumpet and tenor saxophone, and other fundamental elements of hard bop simply entranced him, as did its emphasis on melody and arrangement, at the expense of the virtuoso improv that was typical of earlier bebop.

"I'm not a virtuoso musician, I admit it," said Golan. "I will never play like Omri Mor [a brilliant pianist almost 20 years his junior]. But in my performances I try to make my trumpet player and saxophonist sound like the best in the world. Jazz has over the last few years become music that is too individualist. No one thinks about the element of being together. This is another reason why I'm a kind of weirdo, who is stuck in the jazz of the 1960s."

Until recently, Golan had no desire to compose, a rare phenomenon in a musical world that stresses originality and individualism: But from the time he composed music as part of his studies in New York, 20 years, ago until about three years ago he did not write a single note. But in 2007, he sat down next to his piano and to his great surprise, wrote seven pieces that were included in his premiere album, "I Decided." "Enough, I'm already 43, the time has come to do something that is truly mine," he said at the time.

Golan's admiration for the hard bop musicians of the 1950s, and the fact that the album cover of "I Decided" was designed exactly like the old hard bop albums, at first raised concern it would be a copycat that paled in comparison to its sources of inspiration and did not stand on its own merit. But no: It was a wonderful album, with a lively beat and elegant melodies. Golan dove so deeply into the aesthetics of hard bop that he himself turned into a composer from the period - even though he did so 50 years later. Therefore, his works were perhaps anachronistic, but they were totally authentic. But in effect, they were not anachronistic: A beautiful melody is always relevant.

Golan was to have recorded his second album next month. And in September 2011 the jazz department of the Stricker school is scheduled to move into its new premises.

"After hard work for years, against all the odds, we will finally reach safe harbor," his colleague Cohen said. "In this sense, Amit is a little bit like Moses. Our hearts are shattered by grief, bleeding. What a huge hole he left."