Glasgow born Elliot Meadow, who died recently, was very well known in jazz circles. He was a record producer, agent, journalist, broadcaster, impresario, manager, and expert who was obsessed with the world of jazz from an early age. He knew almost every major jazz musician during his lifetime on both sides of the Atlantic. He was an irascible loner. Some thought he bordered on the autistic. He did not suffer fools gladly and offended or rejected almost everyone who came into contact with him. Not many people knew that he was proudly Jewish. Here’s my personal recollection to put the record straight.
In 1968 I took up my first full-time rabbinic position in Glasgow, Scotland. In those days the city was home to some 15,000 Jews, Lithuanian in origin with a strongly cerebral and rational approach to Judaism. Its Jewish communities were islands of warmth and incredible creativity but also social separation, caught in between different sections of Glaswegian society. There were those whose life revolved around work, alcohol, football, and Saturday night brawls. Catholics and Protestants fought each other at soccer matches and afterwards in the pubs. While on the other side, the wealthy and aristocratic old Scottish society that was, in those days, more positively inclined towards Jews than England was, because the Scots themselves felt discriminated against by the “auld enemie”. The Jewish community was upwardly mobile. Jewish boys and girls topped the honors in most schools. They rose up the social and commercial ranks. But often, in the process, the ties that bound them to their forebears began to fray.
When I became rabbi of Giffnock and Newlands, it was the largest Orthodox community in Scotland—even if, as was typical in those days, those who belonged to Orthodox synagogues were rarely actually Orthodox in practice. But that was the great challenge that excited me. Traditional Orthodoxy, led mainly by Eastern European rabbis or those with a fundamentalist mindset, was regarded as outdated, boring, and irrelevant, other than as a sort of club one rarely attended but couldn’t be bothered to cease one’s membership in. It was an exciting challenge for a young, wet-behind-the-ears rabbi, and I threw myself into it with abandon and delight.
One of the things I enjoyed most, and which was regarded as almost unheard of in those days, was to go out to engage my congregation, since they were not coming to me. Whether it was the Bonnyton Golf Club, the Jewish school Calderwood Lodge, concerts, or parties, I appeared, so that I could to meet my constituency and present a new and different type of rabbi. In those days, it was controversial and no small source of gossip. Soon I was the go-to address for rebellious teenagers and others who had drifted away. My home was open, and much of my time was devoted what we now call outreach.
That was how I came to meet Elliot Meadow. His family lived in the elegant suburb of Whitecraigs, with the rest of Glasgow’s Jewish crème de la crème (though Jews were still banned from Whitecraigs Golf Club). He absolutely adored his mother. But when she died, and his father remarried, he did not get on too well with his father’s new family. To make matters worse, although he loved fashion, he had no intention of joining his father’s clothing company. The one thing he was passionate about was jazz. Thus began a process of detachment both from his family and Glasgow Jewish society altogether.
At 18, Elliot the jazz fanatic headed to America on his own to be near the music. He managed to sweet talk his way in to being a “band boy” for the great Count Basie Orchestra, which enabled him to tour all over America learning firsthand from the masters. When his mother became seriously ill he returned to Glasgow and suffered her final illness. That was around the time that I arrived in town.
He stuck out like a sore thumb. He was rude to some, avoided others, and withdrew into his shell. Friends and family approached me to see if he might respond to someone new. I relished the challenge and was told that I could always find Elliot at Morrison’s, the local deli, around lunchtime. That's where I first met him. He was several years younger than me. He had blond, almost white, hair, thick glasses, and an intelligent but angry look, as if the world had offended him.
Hunched over a pastrami sandwich, he positively exuded alienation and indifference. I sat down at his table. A quick look was all I got. Then he picked up his food and walked over to another table. I followed him. I started speaking about jazz. He ignored me. Then I did what I have often done since—said something provocative to grab his attention. I rubbished Sinatra, said he was just a smooth crooner like Bing Crosby. Elliot adored Sinatra. He came alive, excoriating me as an ignorant fool with no sense of music, no ability to understand Sinatra’s timing, improvisation, and unique capacity to take a tune and inject it with soul and angst as well as love.
I started laughing. He laughed back, and so began a friendship that lasted until he passed away. We adopted each other. He taught me how to dress more elegantly. He inducted me into the secrets of Glasgow Jewish life. Despite his seeming detachment, he knew everyone—those in and those out. Most importantly, he put me in touch with some families that had completely withdrawn from Jewish life.
He often accompanied me on my lecture tours and tried to manage me. He even helped me through some of my problems. Above all, he taught me about jazz—who was good, who was great, and who was in a league of his or her own. We went to jazz clubs and I even ended up writing jazz reviews for the Glasgow Echo under his tutelage. He never came to Giffnock synagogue. And I never tried pushing religion on him. But we spent a lot of time together.
I left Glasgow, and Elliot started commuting between Glasgow and the USA. Every now and again, he would appear wherever it was that I was living at the time. We would spend time together, go for walks, and then he would disappear for years. In his final sickness, he did indeed for the first time talk about his Jewish soul. He told me he had finally been able to go into Giffnock shul.
Elliot Meadow never married. But he had some very close male and female friends. Not everyone could cope with him. But if you could, his humor, warmth, and charm were enriching. In the right mood, he was a great conversationalist, full of anecdotes and stories of musicians and characters he had met and admired. He died aged 71, after a two-year battle with prostate cancer, leaving his mark on the jazz scene in Scotland, in America, and on me.