Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series

Part 71 - Fred Eisenberg Records Jazz
Story filed November 27, 2002

Rabbi Fred Eisenberg has a huge collection of jazz recordings in his Cleveland Heights home, not commercial records, but private tapes he recorded of live performances by some of the biggest names in jazz history.

Among them are reel-to-reel tapes of Lionel Hampton playing at jam sessions in the 1970s. "Hamp was thrilled," said Eisenberg, "because I did the recordings in four channels and he knew what I was doing and knew that if he wanted them, he would have those tapes."

Eisenberg, now retired, spent years combining his love for jazz and recording -- by capturing on tape -- live performances by dozens of jazz artists. He said, "The feeling of the live music from the live musicians, even making mistakes, was much, much better than the beautifully-engineered recordings of the time."

Eisenberg began recording jazz more than half a century ago. When he was 13, before the perfection of wire and tape recorders, his father gave him a home disc recorder which recorded on paperback discs. Through high school in Boston and Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Eisenberg played clarinet and sax -- and developed his recording techniques. He was soon hired by a Cincinnati radio station and Columbia Records.

"My best gig was to record Dave Brubeck for Columbia, Jazz Goes to College. All of the material from the University of Cincinnati, I recorded on an old Magnacorder with pinhead Altec condenser microphones. It was great." He recalled, "I set up the microphones, listened as they were warming up, set the volume levels, and went and sat down and watched the concert. It was incredible!"

After becoming a rabbi, Eisenberg served as an Air Force chaplain and began tape recording the jazz artists who entertained at Lakland and Keesler Air Force bases. "I taped everybody I could," he said, "everybody from the Buddy Morrow band to Louis Armstong, to the Jack Teagarden band. You name Ďem, if they were there in the South in the early Ď50s and the late Ď50s, we got them."

In November of 1958, the Stan Kenton Orchestra played at Keesler Air Force Base. Eisenberg was there with his tape recorder and microphones. "We had four ElectroVoice KT-66 microphones," he remembered. "We had one in the center and two hanging above the band on the side and another one for the announcer. And we just let it rip." Eisenbergís tapes of that concert were released years later on a limited edition compact disc.

Rabbi Eisenberg recorded countless jazz artists. There are boxes of reel-to-reel tapes on the third floor of his home. Heís really not sure how many he has. Pointing to them on the shelves, he said, "I must have a hundred of live performances that I taped."

But, he quickly asserted they are not "pirate" recordings. He said, "I recorded them for the bandleaders mostly, a lot of stuff for Hampton and some for Harry James."

He believes his recordings of live performances, before live, appreciative audiences were far superior to carefully-engineered studio recordings. "The studio recordings, even the best ones," he said, "are absolutely dead. They donít have the proper ambiance. They donít have the crowd noise in behind the music."

Eisenberg was also critical of recordings that are made with dozens of microphones and later mixed by engineers. "I feel that what Iím getting is a fake," he said. "The engineer is making the music, not the band. That hurts because it shouldnít be the engineerís choice as to what goes out or what goes on a disc or a CD. It should be the bandís decision of what people hear."

While privately recording jazz performances from the early 1950s to the early Ď70s, Eisenberg also continued playing his clarinet and saxophone. While serving as a rabbi in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he played with a small group that included a banker, a lawyer and some teachers. The group played for fund-raisers for four or five years before Eisenberg left Grand Rapids to come to Cleveland. His last gig with the group was in 1971 with jazz legends Bobby Hackett and Vic Dickenson.

"In Ď71, I came to Cleveland with Arthur Lelyveld at Fairmount Temple," he said. "There was no time for playing or collecting jazz." He was too busy teaching and preaching. "Now that I have retired, Iím going back and sort through my collection and see what I have."

With the large collection of jazz that he recorded, Rabbi Eisenberg plays some of his tapes for friends, but he flatly refuses to sell them. "We listen to them and we share them," he said, "and we donít sell them -- for any amount of money!! My philosophy has always been: I am recording this for posterity. Iím not making any money from it. I was never interested in making money from it. I wanted to be sure, in the Mosaic tradition, that I wrote down the Ďwords of God.í In other words, I wrote down the music, the excitement of these good musicians."

And the retired rabbi saw a parallel between the music he loves and his lifeís work. "Jazz is like a religion," he said. Itís beautiful, itís lovely, itís expressive and a good musician is praying. Heís praying that he hits the notes, and praying that the people listen and like what he is doing."

Copyright 2002 Joe Mosbrook

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You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30 and Friday afternoons at 12:30. Mosbrook's 1993 Cleveland Jazz History book, based on research for earlier broadcasts, is available at some Cleveland area bookstores, libraries and the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society (216-426-9900).