Rabbi Ken Kanter to Trace Black Influence on American Broadway Music

The last time Rabbi Ken Kanter visited Chautauqua Institution, he presented a program at the Everett Jewish Life Center at Chautauqua on Jewish contributions to Broadway in the early American popular music industry. Now, he rejoins Chautauquans for a new lecture that will also be about music.

At 2 p.m. August 26 in the Hall of Philosophy, Kanter will give a lecture on “The Black Voice on the ‘Great White Way’: Tracing the Image and Influence of African-Americans in Mainstream American Music and Broadway.” The event will be a combination of lecture and performance, with encouraged audience member participation

“There will be obscure songs that [Chautauquans] don’t know, and I hope they will enjoy hearing these old songs that they won’t be familiar with, but there will also be these world-famous ones that they’re all going to enjoy singing a lot,” Kanter said. “So it’s both a little historical lesson in entertainment, and to experience the diversity of this variety of American music.”

Kanter grew up with a love of Jewish studies as well as a love of music. He planned to attend rabbinical school since he was a kid, but while in undergraduate college he followed his passion for the arts through participation in theater programs.

Later on, Kanter wrote his rabbinic thesis on the history of Jewish contribution to early American popular music, focusing on the time period of 1840 to 1940. But although Jewish religion and culture is his main field, he’s researched the music contributions of other cultural groups as well.

Kanter said the American arts are what they are because of the diversity of the American populous.

“If you look at the theater, you will see historically the contribution of the Irish immigrant, and then the Jewish immigrant, and the Italian immigrant and the African-American immigrant,” Kanter said, adding that the LGBT community also greatly influenced American theater. “When you say there is an American theater, it’s an American theater because of all of the rich diversity of the citizens of our country.”

In today’s lecture, Kanter will address the role these cultural groups played in the history of American theater, specifically the African-American community. Kanter will address both the community’s contributions and the role that race played in them.

Kanter said there have been uniquely African-American shows for almost 100 years, but different types within that group.

“There have been a number of other shows that were about black themes, but were in fact written by white composers and lyricists,” Kanter said. “So we’re going to be talking about both the role of African-American artists and composers and lyricists, as well as the thematic African-American themes [and] subjects in Broadway shows.”

Kanter said the first musical to feature racially integrated lead actors was written by a Jewish composer, which marks a crossover between this lecture topic and his typical research on Judaism.

Kanter worked as the founding rabbi of the Reform synagogue Congregation Micah for 13 years, and before that for 10 years as a congregational rabbi. He now serves as the associate dean and director of the rabbinical school for the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion.

Kanter finds his work as a rabbi extremely rewarding.

“I think the opportunity that I’ve had … to touch people’s lives and be part of their lives — I don’t think there’s anything that’s more precious than that,” Kanter said. “That would certainly be the thing that moves me the most: to have that relationship with people, and that it continues even if it’s been a long time since I’ve seen them.”

Kanter now comes to Chautauqua as the last interfaith lecturer of the 2016 season to interact with a new community. He said it’s an honor to be included in the amazing talent Chautauqua offers every year.

“I certainly hope that we can end the year with entertainment and a big smile for people,” Kanter said. “[I hope] they will come away from it feeling that they learned a little bit more about our American community, the gifts and contributions of one particular subset of that community, but also to feel a bit more inspired to recognize the kind of blessings that Chautauqua gives each year with the various themes that it provides.”

Madison Rossi

The author Madison Rossi

Hailing from Chicago, Madison Rossi is the 2016 Interfaith Lecture preview reporter. She is a class of 2018 journalism major at Northwestern University with minors in marketing and religious studies.