The list of musicians who have successfully crossed into the mainstream from the world of Jewish music is a short one. It’s basically limited to one name: Matisyahu.
But Sam Glaser hopes to join him, and after 20 years in the business, he doesn’t intend to give up any time soon.
A Los Angeles native who cut his first album at age 11, Glaser is nothing short of a lifelong musician. The dedication has paid off — Glaser was named one of the top 10 Jewish artists in the country by Moment magazine and has performed all over the world and in synagogues nationwide.
This weekend, he will end his two-week Chanuka tour at Temple Emanuel of South Hills, where he’ll lead a discussion called “The Art of the Nigun” Friday, Dec. 10, and perform his brand of easy-rocking traditional Jewish songs Saturday, Dec. 11.
Temple Emanuel is hosting Glaser as its scholar-in-residence, but song leader-in-residence might be more fitting — the Berklee College of Music graduate is a natural.
The Chronicle spoke with Glaser (who was en route to New Jersey) about striking out on his own, loving classic rock and finding his Matisyahu moment.
Jewish Chronicle: You’re going to be leading a talk called “The Art of the Nigun.” Can you tell me what people should expect?
Sam Glaser: Well, we’re going to discuss the role of music in Jewish life. Prayer is a wonderful thing and a good Torah class is a good thing, but when you combine it all with music, it elevates the whole experience exponentially.
JC: What role did Jewish music play for you growing up?
SG: I grew up in a very sweet, loving family. Friday night for us meant singing around the table when we were done with Shabbat dinner, and then we’d sit around the piano and sing for the rest of the night. I strayed pretty far in my high school and college years. When I got out of college a few years alter, I was able to take a few trips to Israel and had my mind opened.
JC: Did you listen to secular music much as a kid? What did you like?
SG: It was a pretty broad range. I used to tell people I liked everything except for country, but now I like country. I loved classical piano and went to see the L.A. philharmonic almost every week with my mother. I fell in love with jazz in high school and began playing in piano bars. My piano teacher got me a job in a piano bar, so it was a bunch of middle-aged divorcees and me. All that time from elementary school on, I was heavily influenced by the Beatles, Stones, the Clash and piano players like Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Billy Joel.
JC: When did you begin playing music on your own?
SG: Between 1985 and 1990, I was running my recording studio and working for my father’s garment business. When we went out of business in 1990, it was a sink or swim year. I made a commitment that I wouldn’t look for any work other than musician. I’m a tenacious guy; I had no fallback position. Twenty years later, I’ve seen so many of my musician friends become contractors or CPAs. It’s hard to stay in the business. Being able to reach out to Jews around the world is a gift that I don’t take lightly.
JC: What about Jewish music really appeals to you?
SG: I feel like we are on this planet with a purpose and our time is so short. So while it’s fun to sing about sex, drugs, and rock and roll, music can be used to lift soul, to connect with our creator, to give incredible joy, to bring people together. Jewish music fulfills all of those things — even when I was writing secular music, it was always deeply meaningful.
JC: Is it difficult to expand beyond mainstream Jewish audiences? Do you even want to?
SG: I’ve been doing programs with churches. Anybody who has a relationship with God or loves Israel tends to be my audience. I don’t change up the show too much. It’s essentially the same message. There’s a phenomenon of thousands of people going to Matisyahu shows — they’re grooving on the beat and loving his talents instead of something that’s degrading. I hope to have that kind of breakthrough.
JC: What are you looking forward to about coming to Pittsburgh?
SG: In Judaism, we believe that we save the best for last. We conclude the Passover seder with an afikomen. We finish Yom Kippur with the Neila service. This will be the culmination of my year on the road and this two-week Chanuka tour. It’s a feeling of satisfaction — I’ve survived yet another season. And I love coming to Pittsburgh.
Want to go?
Sam Glaser: “The Music of Our Soul”
Temple Emanuel of South Hills
Programs Friday and Saturday
Concert Saturday, Dec. 11, 7:30 p.m.
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)