Jazz pianist Joel Weiskopf, 49, has performed with jazz greats such as Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Anita O’Day and Clark Terry. He has recorded CDs with renowned jazz musicians such as John Patitucci and Brian Blade for the highly-respected Criss Cross jazz label. But it’s what he expresses through his music that is most important to him, profound personal experiences that he emotes musically, without words.
Weiskopf grew up in a Reform Jewish home in DeWitt, a suburb of Syracuse, New York. His dad, Richard, played classical piano; his mom, Adrienne, was an avid reader and art lover. Joel started piano lessons at age five and trumpet at age nine. His older brother Walt is now a professional jazz saxophonist who has recorded with Joel.
The Weiskopfs attended synagogue on the High Holidays and the boys went to Hebrew school—though Joel was very disruptive in class and was never bar mitzvah. “Even so,” he says, “I did believe in God and used to pray.” Joel and his family also enjoyed celebrating holidays such as Hanukkah and Passover together.
As a teenager, he enjoyed sports, summers at camp and playing trumpet in his school’s bands. When Joel was fourteen, Walt began playing jazz records for him, and he fell in love with the music of Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock—but things had already begun to fall apart.
“My parents divorced when I was twelve,” recalls Joel. “I blamed God for this and stopped praying. Walt went away to college; I was left to care for Mom, who was clinically depressed. Out of frustration, I smoked marijuana, drank, vandalized and was arrested at age sixteen for harassing my neighbors. I came home from school one day to find that Mom had committed suicide. I went into shock for ten years. Though I believed we Jews were God’s chosen, I couldn’t understand why all this had happened to my family.
“At college, my drug use became habitual. Jazz and rock music provided a temporary salve, as did an occasional girlfriend—though I certainly was not emotionally available for any type of serious relationship, as my heart had been deeply wounded by Mom’s death.”
After graduating from the New England Conservatory of Music, Weiskopf was hired by the legendary big band leader Woody Herman. “Traveling and performing nightly, I began to feel an inner dissatisfaction with things,” Weiskopf says. “I began to explore eastern religions and the New Age. Over the next ten years I read many self-help/metaphysical books, meditated daily, practiced yoga, Tai Chi, consulted psychics and trance-channelers, all in vain. I was not aware of Deuteronomy 28 in the Hebrew Scriptures, which warns against these type of occult practices.”
Weiskopf was getting many opportunities to play music in New York; his career was developing. However, after five years of New Age living, he began to feel ill. “I felt tired and spacey after meals,” he explains. “I was diagnosed with an intestinal Candida infection and multiple food allergies and put on a strict diet. I wasn’t able to stick to it and usually ended up eating whatever I pleased, which made me feel even worse. This difficult cycle went on for five years. I spent much money on many doctors, to no avail.”
Some friends encouraged him to do something he hadn’t done since age twelve: pray. “Praying to God felt good,” says Weiskopf. “In the New Age, I had only searched (in vain) for ‘answers within.’ I began to meet some who were followers of Yeshua (Jesus). They had a joy and peace that was attractive to me.”
On September 2, 1995, Weiskopf went to his friend Kevin’s wedding in Schroon Lake, New York. “At the wedding I roomed with a guy named Paul,” he recalls. “My difficulties with food came up in conversation. After having told him some of my story, he responded that Jesus could help me. I considered what Paul had to say.”
Shortly after, Paul sent Joel a Bible. Weiskopf says, “In it I read that Jesus healed the sick, but that he also died and rose from the dead so that we could be forgiven and have eternal life.”
In early 1996, Weiskopf accidentally wandered into The Brooklyn Tabernacle church. “It didn’t look like a church” he says. “Nevertheless, I was moved by the love in this multi-racial congregation.”
Later that year, Weiskopf was invited to a meeting in New York led by a pastor from Georgia. “I was afraid to go,” he recalls. But Weiskopf attended the meeting, which was held on September 2, 1996—exactly one year since he had first considered Jesus at Schroon Lake. “At the meeting the pastor shared several stories of how Jesus had healed people in body, soul and spirit,” he says. “A broken heart was often at the root of their difficulties, but Yeshua came to ‘heal the brokenhearted'” (Luke 4:18).
“Some people at the meeting offered to pray for me,” says Weiskopf. “As they prayed, I asked myself, Do I believe that the Bible is God’s Word and that Jesus is God’s Messiah? Yes, I admitted, but I had to ‘get off the fence’ and make a decision.
“At that moment, I surrendered my life and will to God and Messiah Yeshua. I felt an incredible loving presence come into my being and heart from above. I was filled with a joy and a peace unlike anything I had ever known. I took all foods back into my diet and started eating balanced meals. I began to attend Jews for Jesus Bible studies and became a member of The Brooklyn Tabernacle.”
Things changed for Weiskopf musically as well. “Serving, helping and sharing God’s love with musicians replaced old desires for recognition, praise and popularity,” he says. “This was freeing! Yeshua said ‘If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed'” (John 8:36).
There have been trials as well as triumphs. “In 1997, I noticed symptoms of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), which I had experienced sporadically in the past,” he says. “My doctor gave me a glucose tolerance test, which I failed, as my blood sugar had plummeted to an abysmally low 37. The diagnosis was indeed reactive hypoglycemia, which my mother had also. It is the body’s exaggerated response to carbohydrates, resulting in muscle weakness and other symptoms. The treatment requires discipline with food—the area in which I needed it the most. Through it, God has also taught me compassion for others.”
Weiskopf wants his music to reflect his faith. But how does a jazz musician do that when playing music without words? He responds, “I believe the sound of the music itself can and should portray the meaning of the song—even without lyrics. I want my music to sound hopeful—not dark and foreboding!
“I wake up each day with joy in my heart, knowing God is with me. I can do all things through Messiah Yeshua who strengthens me,” (Philippians 4:13) he says.
Weiskopf says “Salvation happens the instant one believes that Yeshua is the Lamb of God who died for our sins, but becoming more like Jesus happens gradually.” But as some other musicians once said, he’s “got to admit it’s getting better, a little better all the time.”1
Weiskopf teaches jazz studies at New Jersey City University, as well as privately. His clientele includes professional jazz and gospel players. He continues to compose and record for the Criss Cross label, plays concerts and is planning to do some gospel-jazz recordings in the future.
This content was adapted from an earlier Jews for Jesus article.
1 The Beatles, “Getting Better,” 1967.
Matt Sieger is the editor of ISSUES: A Messianic Jewish Perspective. ISSUES is our publication for Jewish people who are willing to consider the question, Who is Jesus? Matt also writes blogs, articles, and reviews for our publications and has edited the book, Stories of Jews for Jesus.