Brook Zern (1941 – 2019): A Remembrance

by K. Meira Goldberg

The New York flamenco community is small and tight-knit. I got to know Brook Zern soon after I came to New York, hanging out together with the artists performing at the Mark Hellinger Theatre on Broadway in Claudio Segovia and Héctor Orezzoli’s legendary 1986 show, Flamenco Puro

to r.: Luis Suárez, Fernanda’s nephew, the author, Fernando Jiménez Peña, “La Fernanda de Utrera,” Jacinto Kantor. Photographer unknown.

Decades later, just the day before the 2013 exhibit 100 Years of Flamenco in New York City, which I co-curated with Ninotchka Bennahum, opened at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Brook came into the gallery with a suitcase full of treasures for the cases: records, programs, flyers, including a flyer of a 1965 concert of the legends Pete Seeger and flamenco guitarist Carlos Montoya…

People’s Songs Inc presents “The Midnight Special at Town Hall,” featuring Pete Seeger and Carlos Montoya in “Strings at Midnight,” 1965. Courtesy of Brook Zern
Medal given to Sir Brook Zern by the King of Spain. Courtesy of Brook Zern

… and the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Queen Isabella given to him in 2008 on the occasion of his being knighted by King Juan Carlos I of Spain for the dissemination of Spanish culture in the U.S., the highest honor, writes Brook’s friend, flamenco author and journalist Estela Zatania, that a non-Spaniard can receive.

Here’s what we wrote in medal’s exhibit text panel:

The series of television programs filmed in the 1960s and ’70s, Rito y Geografía del Cante, Rito y Geografía del Toque and Rito y Geografía del Baile (Rite and Geography of Flamenco song, guitar, and dance), precious records of major Flamenco artists, were forgotten and turning to dust.  Due to the persistent efforts of Brook Zern, they have been preserved for posterity.  In 2008, King Juan Carlos I of Spain knighted Brook Zern for his work in the dissemination of Spanish Culture in the U.S.  Zern received the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Queen Isabella (Cruz de Oficiál de la Órden de Isabela la Católica), the highest honor that Spain can bestow on a foreigner.  This is the first time that this rare recognition has been given for the examination, explanation and illumination of the art of Flamenco in all its facets, within its cultural and historical context. Zern also wrote, at the request of Spanish Flamenco authority José Luis Ortíz Nuevo, the U. S. contribution to the Spanish petition to UNESCO in May 2004, documenting Flamenco’s long presence and continuing impact in the New World and requesting that Flamenco be declared an Intangible Heritage of Mankind, a status granted in 2010.

Brook wrote a chapter for the 100 Years catalog, “And Throughout its Remarkable History, Flamenco Dance had a Partner…”and two years later, when I co-edited Flamenco on the Global Stage: Historical, Critical, and Theoretical Perspectives (McFarland, 2015) with Bennahum and Michelle Heffner Hayes, Brook contributed a chapter,  “The Real Stories.”Here are some excerpts of the draft biography he sent us for the book, which reflect his passion for flamenco, his modesty, and dry wit: 

Brook Zern, who calls himself a Freelance Flamencologist, has no academic affiliations, though sometimes he wistfully wishes he did. 

His lifelong research project began in 1959, when as a Columbia freshman he took over his father’s fifteen-year obsession with the flamenco guitar and it gradually spread to the art as a whole. He has since spent many years studying flamenco in situ, in the smoky bars and ramshackle roadside ventas in southern Spain, mostly in Seville and Jerez.  Over there, he listens. Over here, he talks.

 He has talked about flamenco at scads of U.S. schools, colleges and universities including Harvard and Columbia.  (A recent lecture at the University of New Mexico, was titled:  “Sez Who? The Top Ten Flamenco Arguments and the Announcement of the Winning Sides.”)

He has played a vital and often lonely role in the conservation, restoration and ultimate public revelation of hundreds of hours of crucial Spanish audio recordings and documentary film including the 100 television programs of the 1972 masterpiece “Rito y Geografía del Flamenco”, very costly to preserve and now viewable on YouTube. He feels honored to have known and learned about flamenco directly from most of the now-legendary singers of the past half-century, as well as many great dancers.  He has also known and studied flamenco with virtually all important guitarists except Sabicas and Paco de Lucía, who did not give lessons (though Sabicas gave hints, which could be more than enough).  He suspects he may know more extraordinary music from the guitar tradition than anyone else alive – though he may never grasp the more recent material that relies on jazz and other outside traditions for its new sound.   He wrote the American contribution to the international petition that recently led UNESCO to declare flamenco an Intangible Patrimony of Humanity. 

In 1971, he taught what was likely the world’s first university course on “Flamenco: The Art and the Life” at the New School for Social Research. His 1973 article in a Spanish publication was the first to analyze the painful cultural parallels between the blues and flamenco, including the traumatic experiences of American blacks and the Spanish Gypsies whose respective contributions were central to each art. After the recent death of Paco de Lucía, he initiated an intensive effort to have Spain honor its greatest musician with a postage stamp – an extraordinary two-person campaign that led to the issuance of that stamp within just six weeks of the great artist’s passing.  (Who says you have to wait forever to get anything done at the Post Office?) 

He probably forgets a lot of other stuff that he probably did. 

But we do not forget, old friend. We miss you.

Brook Zern (left) with Sabicas, c. 1980. Photographer unknown. Courtesy of Brook Zern