The CD of “Bagels and Bongos” features an interview with 90-year-old pianist Irving Fields, who still plays six nights a week at a Manhattan nightclub. The liner notes describe Fields’ life story as one “of cultural alchemy as much as cultural preservation.” Indeed, Fields’ story seems to reflect not only his strong Jewish identity but also his use of Jewishness and music as passports to the larger world — geographically, interpersonally and creatively.
“Music is universal,” Fields told JTA. “It goes through culture, religion, race and creed.”
Born Isadore Schwartz in 1915 on New York’s Lower East Side, he began to sing in a synagogue choir at age10 with the legendary Yosele Rosenblatt, nicknamed the “Pavarotti of Jewish cantors.”
Shortly afterward, Schwartz performed in a Jewish musical called “The Galician Wedding” as a singer, actor and dancer.
“I was surrounded by wonderful Jewish music,” Fields recalled.
At 15, Schwartz began accompanying his older sister Peppy, a singer and radio talk show host who broadcast from the Lucerne Hotel on WKAT Radio in Miami. Peppy had modified her married name, Rosenfield, into Fields as a stage name, which Schwartz took as well.
When he was 17, Fields landed his first major gig playing piano aboard a cruise ship bound for Cuba, where he fell in love with Latin rhythms.
“Havana had the greatest orchestras, great Latin music,” he recalled. “I heard it and said, ‘Can I play with you?’ I played with their bands and I felt the music; they thought I was Cuban.”
After returning to the United States, Fields signed a recording contract with RCA Victor. For the next decade, he recorded Latin music under the Spanish name “Campos El Pianista.”
In the years that followed, he and other members of the original Irving Fields Trio — bassist Henry Senick and drummer Michael Bruno — traveled the world, playing in London, Singapore, Tokyo and Bombay. They also played at The Plaza Hotel and The Waldorf-Astoria.
It was around that time, one day at the Sherry Biltmore Hotel in Boston, that Fields experimented with mixing Jewish and Latin rhythms, and “Bagels and Bongos” was born.
Fields feels music has been a gateway for him to become a citizen of the world while remaining a Jew. He speaks with special longing of his close relationships with other musicians, especially Senick and Bruno.
“Music has created friendships for me with people of every race and religion,” he told JTA.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.