Rockin’ the Shtetl

Rockin’ the Shtetl

Seth Rogovoy

As a jazz and rock critic, one of the things that excited me in researching my book, The Essential Klezmer: A Music Lover’s Guide to Jewish Roots and Soul Music (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2000), were the many correspondences I uncovered between klezmer and contemporary music. As it turns out, klezmer—the music and the musicians—has always pushed the envelope—what I like to call “rockin’ the shtetl.” From the colorful Old World wedding musicians to the boisterous, jazzy, immigrant-era bandleaders, to today’s klezmers with one foot in the shtetl and the other in the downtown avant-garde—klezmorim have always reflected the particular geographic and cultural milieu of the musicians and their audience. And their music has always spoken the very particular language or accent of its time.

I. Old World klezmer

Much of what we know of Old World klezmer is contained in the pages of 19th century Yiddish literature. Fortunately for our purposes, the colorful klezmorim were favorite characters of great Yiddish writers like Y.L. Peretz and Sholem Aleichem. If these writers couldn’t quite record the actual sound of the music, at least they did leave us with rich, colorfully descriptive, well-rounded written accounts of real and imagined klezmer musicians and their milieu.

Perhaps the most famous literary account of a klezmer is found in Sholem Aleichem’s Stempenyu. Based on the historical figure of Yosele Druker, Aleichem’s novella includes some beautifully descriptive passages of the violinist’s playing: “He would grab his fiddle, give it a swipe with his bow—just one, no more—and already it would begin to speak. But how do you think it spoke? With real words, with a tongue, like a living person.… Speaking, arguing, singing with a sob, in the Jewish manner, with a shriek, with a cry from deep within the heart, from the soul…. Different voices poured out all kinds of songs, all so lonely, melancholy, that they would seize your heart and tear out your soul, sap you of your health…. Hearts would become full, overflowed, eyes would fill with tears. People would sigh, moan, weep.” In this passage and others, Aleichem captures so much of the essence of the music as we know it—its mournful aspect, its questioning tone, its spoken quality.

The main role of the Old World klezmorim—much like today’s ordinary working musicians—was to play music at weddings. Klezmer’s happy, upbeat, frenetic quality can be traced back to its origins as a functional music intended for the highly-codified ritualistic dancing that made up a large part of the wedding ceremony. Equally important, however, was klezmer’s function as music for listening and reflection—poignant music that expressed and enhanced the serious religious and spiritual aspects of the event. Each part of the wedding ceremony had its own choreography, its own ritual, and its own style of music. The klezmorim led processionals of the bride’s and groom’s parties, greeted the arrival of the guests, entertained during the banquet, provided the rhythms for dancing, and led the guests home at the end of the night. Working in tandem with the badkhn—the overall master of ceremonies—the klezmorim gave shape and structure to the entire event.

In Eastern Europe, Jewish folk and instrumental music developed a strong identity of its own, borne of its particular cultural and geographical influences. The distinctive modes of the khazones, or synagogue music, blended with Oriental Jewish melodies creeping up from the Jewish community of the Ottoman Empire south of the Black Sea. Various native, non-Jewish musics, including Russian drinking songs, Romanian dances and shepherds’ laments, Hungarian and Gypsy melodies, and Turkish music, also exerted their influence on the repertoire of the klezmorim and the style of music they played. Through their travels throughout the region and through swapping tunes with non-Jewish musicians, klezmorim became familiar with the indigenous folk music of their particular geographic region, and local and regional songs and dances, such as polkas, quadrilles, and waltzes, made their way into the klezmer repertoire, albeit given a klezmerish spin.

II. Klezmer immigrates to the New World

The late 19th century was a time of great political upheaval across Europe, particularly in the east, and Jews of the Pale bore the brunt of the turbulence. From across the ocean the United States beckoned with the promise of freedom from persecution and the hope of prosperity. As a result, from 1880 until 1924, when the doors of Ellis Island finally slammed shut, approximately two and a half million Eastern European Jews made their way to the United States. The vast majority of these immigrants washed up on the shores of New York City, and most of them were ushered into the half-square-mile neighborhood of New York’s Lower East Side. Overcrowded tenement apartments replaced the ramshackle wooden houses of the shtetl, and busy, noisy, city streets replaced the dirt roads that spanned the countryside of the Pale.

For the musicians, this meant change. Weddings were now held in catering halls instead of at private homes and inns. As for the ceremonial rituals that comprised the Old World wedding, these were soon abandoned by the new immigrants, many of whom had already been chafing at the religious practices of their parents or grandparents’ generation. Others, on arriving in the city, were eager to shed all aspects of immigrant culture in favor of adopting the ways and manners of their new homeland.

The peak years of immigration coincided with the early growth years of the American recording industry, when New York-based record companies sought to broaden their scope beyond the “parlor songs” and all-American marching band music that comprised the bulk of their catalogs. The vast immigrant populations beckoned as valuable markets for “ethnic” recordings, nostalgic evocations of their homelands. Klezmer, heretofore a folk genre passed down orally, became a style of commercially marketed popular music; this had a significant impact on the music itself. Songs that formerly were performed in continuous twenty-minute suites for dancing at weddings and celebrations were now sold to individual consumers in the form of sheet music or 78 r.p.m. shellac platters containing three minutes of music per side that were played in private living rooms. As the music slowly left the firsthand world of live performance for the secondhand world of recording, whatever wound up on those recordings became the “record” of the music, in every sense of the word.

One of the first attempts to cater to the burgeoning immigrant Jewish population was made in April 1913, when trumpeter Abe Elenkrig and his ensemble, the Hebrew Bulgarian Orchestra, laid down some of the earliest known klezmer tracks in America. The dozen or so sides they recorded were typical of the brassy, marching-band style that predominated at the time, both in recorded klezmer and in American music at large. The violin-led kapelyes of the Old World were usurped by bands led by clarinets and horns, playing melody over a strict, oom-pah beat propelled by precise, military-style drumming.

Recordings of this era were also clearly geared toward playfully evoking nostalgia for the Old World, recreating wedding scenes with a theatrical, Vaudevillian flair, such as on “Dem Rebns Tanz (The Rabbi’s Dance)” by Art Shryer’s Orchestra, on which you can hear musicians irreverently mocking the figure of the Old World rabbi and his devoted followers. This piece is also a gem as it explicitly reveals the connection between the klezmer melodies and the nigunim, or the wordless vocal melodies of the Khsidim: the tune begins with the musicians singing the melody once through, and then playing it on their instruments, thus recapitulating the historical process that saw religious music find its way into the repertoire of the ostensibly non-religious music of the klezmorim.

The 1920s saw the emergence of the star soloist from the anonymity of the klezmer ensemble, roughly analogous to, as well as contemporaneous with, the same trend in jazz, which saw innovative, virtuosic players such as Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet eclipse their New Orleans-styled ensembles. The first such figure in klezmer was Naftule Brandwein, who was noted as much for his wild behavior as for his virtuosity. He supposedly once performed dressed as Uncle Sam, strung with Christmas tree lights that nearly electrocuted him when he perspired. Foreshadowing another moody, paranoid musical genius with an affinity for mood-altering substances, he is said to have often performed with his back to the audience, Miles Davis-style, the better to hide his fingering techniques from studious onlookers. He was a daredevil behind the wheel of a car, speeding down the curvy, winding roads of the Catskills while simultaneously serenading his passengers on the clarinet. He wasn’t above surprising his audiences by playing with his pants around his ankles, and at times he is said to have played with a neon sign reading NAFTULE BRANDWEIN ORCHESTRA strapped around his neck. Brandwein was a shikker, a gambler, a card player, a womanizer, allegedly the favorite musician of Murder, Incorporated, the so-called Jewish Mafia. His tenure with the various bands he passed through never lasted long, due to his unreliability and the refusal of his fellow musicians to bunk with him on the road.

Nevertheless and in spite of himself, Brandwein was a fantastic musician, much in demand for playing parties, weddings, and hotel gigs in the Catskills until his death in 1963. The two-dozen-plus recordings he made on his own, mostly between 1922 and 1927, remain some of the most influential of the period. Brandwein’s playing style matched his outsized personality. He played with great emotion and florid phrasing. Where just a few notes would do, Brandwein played many and in quick succession, as acknowledged in a 1924 press release which boasted, “Here’s speed for you! Observe the swiftness of this remarkable music, the clarity and ingeniousness of the melodies that come so rapidly from Naftule Brandwein’s musicians, and you will be thrilled.”

Right behind Brandwein was a clarinetist equally gifted but the complete antithesis in his behavioral and personal style. Just at the time when Joseph Cherniavsky’s musicians were fed up with Brandwein’s drunken antics, Dave Tarras came to the attention of the bandleader, whose vaudeville-style outfit played concerts dressed alternately as Cossacks and Khusids.

Unlike Brandwein, Dave Tarras could read music, and this helped him enjoy a successful career as a recording artist and bandleader, as a player in the Yiddish theater and on Yiddish radio. He and Brandwein were as different musically as they were personally. Where Brandwein’s playing was lively, elastic, and cantorial—the notes just seemingly pouring out of his clarinet in long, wailing, emotional arpeggios—Tarras’s playing is much more stately and dignified, each note and phrase carefully parceled out as its own, carefully punctuated statement. Tarras makes much more use of pauses and rhythmic gestures and seems more aware of, and communicative with, the other musicians—he is genuinely playing with the band. Tarras was so successful that he became known as “the Jewish Benny Goodman.”

The swing era ushered in the most overt and commercially successful fusion of Yiddish and American popular music. The Andrews Sisters’ recording of “Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn” was the best-selling popular record of its time, sparking a brief fad of similar attempts that saw the Yiddish folk song “Di Grine Kuzine” remade as “My Little Country Cousin.” The Andrews Sisters themselves followed up “Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn” with “Joseph, Joseph,” their Anglicized version of “Yossel, Yossel,” originally a hit for Yiddish theater performer Nellie Casman in 1923.

As for Benny Goodman himself, while there is no evidence that he ever played Jewish music, klezmer did work its way into his band. Trumpeter Harry Finkelman, better known as Ziggy Elman, played Jewish music before joining Goodman’s band. Along with his klezmer style, Elman brought to Goodman’s band the Yiddish tune “Der Shtiler Bulgar,” which he had recorded under his own name in 1938 as “Frailach in Swing.” The Goodman band rerecorded it in 1939 as “And the Angels Sing,” with vocals by Martha Tilton and lyrics by Johnny Mercer, and thus was a swing-band hit made out of a tune first recorded by the Abe Schwartz Orchestra in 1918.

These examples of Yiddish-pop crossover successes were the exception to the rule. As a popular music, klezmer had already begun a long, slow decline at the end of the 1920s. By the mid-1920s, the wave of Jewish immigration from Europe had ended. Most of those who had been in America for a while had begun the long, slow process of assimilation into the American mainstream. Along the way, they became as enamored of big-band swing, Broadway, and other popular American styles as they once were of Yiddish theater and cantorial music.

In postwar America, brides wanted to hear the latest popular tunes from the hit parade at their weddings. What little interest in Jewish music remained was confined to a few token bulgars at a party. Jewish audiences were more likely to request one of the new Israeli folk dances coming from that young nation, its new Hebrew culture edging out the old affinities of American Jews still in shock over the destruction of their Yiddish culture in the Shoah. By the 1960s, the rise of pop music and rock and roll had all but driven klezmer music underground.

III. The Klezmer Revival and Renaissance

For the most part, through the 1960s and early ’70s, klezmer was dormant. But in the 1970s, a new generation of Jewish musicians, or musicians who happened to be Jewish, rediscovered the music of their parents’ or grandparents’ generation. The revival of klezmer in the 1970s and ’80s has been attributed to a variety of causes: to a growth in ethnic pride among American Jews spurred both by the popular success of Fiddler on the Roof and Alex Haley’s book and TV miniseries Roots; to a reaction against the predominance of Israeli Hebrew culture at a time of some political disillusionment with Israel; to a more widespread folk revival and growing interest in world music; to a gradual spiritual awakening following the disappointments of the cultural revolution of the Sixties; and finally, to the sheer passage of time since the horrors of the Holocaust understandably caused American Jews to repress or ignore painful reminders of Eastern European Jewish culture.

The truth is likely to contain a bit of all of these reasons. Then again, it is perhaps best summed up by Hankus Netsky, who as the founder and leader of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, has played no small role in the revival and perpetuation of klezmer music since the late-’70s. “Archaic things come back,” says Netsky. “The blues came back….And the same thing eventually happened when our generation came of age and said, ‘Wait a minute. What happened? Where’s our folk music?'”

Or, as violinist Alicia Svigals, a co-founder of The Klezmatics says, “It was natural that klezmer should come back. The good stuff always does.”

For one pioneering revivalist, it was a case of realizing that all the different kinds of music he liked had a common stylistic influence. In 1975, when folk and jazz musician Lev Liberman stumbled upon a box of old klezmer 78s in a closet at a museum in Oakland, he found the missing link he had been looking for among all the music he liked. He and his musical partners began adding klezmer songs to their band’s repertoire of Eastern European and Balkan folk music, and they made their official debut as The Klezmorim in a series of concerts in Berkeley in April 1976—the first public performances of a klezmer revival band. The popular success of those and subsequent shows led to the release of the group’s first album the next year, thus paving the way for the full-fledged klezmer revival that was to follow. Like most early revival bands, the Klezmorim re-recorded playful versions of the early tunes by the likes of Brandwein, Tarras, and others they had found on the old 78s.

A few years after the Klezmorim kick-started the revival in the Bay Area, Hankus Netsky, a teacher at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, was asked to put together an evening concert of Jewish music. Netsky assembled various groups and ensembles consisting mostly of students from the conservatory, many of whom were not Jewish and most of whom had never played any Jewish music, including a big band that learned three, swinging klezmer numbers. The band was such a hit that by the end of the evening it got two offers for gigs. Thus in the winter of 1980 the Klezmer Conservatory Band was born.

The KCB, as it is known, remains one of the most perennially popular recording and performing groups in klezmer, and numbers among its alumni members of all the top contemporary klezmer bands, including the Klezmatics and Brave Old World. Avant-jazz clarinetist Don Byron was a founding member, and he went on to explore the work of Borscht Belt musical comedian Mickey Katz on the 1993 album Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz, which implicitly argued that Katz’s blatant send-ups of the assimilationist streak in postwar American Jewry—to say nothing of his Spike Jones-influenced musical pastiches—were brilliantly inventive social satires.

By the mid-’80s, the Klezmorim had played Carnegie Hall, and the KCB and Kapelye, another early revival outfit, had appeared on Garrison Keillor‘s public radio variety show, A Prairie Home Companion, that bastion of middle-Americana, thus solidly establishing a place for klezmer alongside other mainstream American folk musics.

In the mid-1990s, world-renowned classical violinist Itzhak Perlman suddenly discovered his musical roots and invited several of the leading revivalists, including Andy Statman, to accompany him on a journey to his ancestral home in Poland for a PBS documentary. The subsequent concert tours and recordings by Perlman and company brought klezmer to the top concert stages of the world for the first time in history, including places like Wolftrap, Ravinia, and Tanglewood.

The groundbreaking work of the pioneer revival bands did more than just popularize an old style of music. By defining the parameters of modern klezmer, they helped point the way toward a future for the music. Musicians brought up on jazz, rock, classical, and other genres could approach it not only as revivalists, but also as creative partners in its ongoing development. As we have seen, since its earliest days, the history of klezmer was in part the story of a give-and-take with other styles of music. Thus it was only a few years after the first bands learned the rudiments of so-called traditional klezmer that they and others began building upon that foundation to create a new klezmer that spoke with a contemporary voice and attitude, ushering in today’s full-fledged klezmer renaissance.

The Klezmatics embody this new dynamic; their version of klezmer combines the party music of the Old World and the New. They take the essentials of the old-time music—the repertoire, the melodies, the ornamentation—and they carefully filter them through a modern sensibility attuned to rock music and its contemporary offshoots. Their piece, “Khsidim Tants (Hasidic Dance),” based on an old Khsidic dance melody, is at once utterly traditional, but given a subtle, rhythmic tweaking which puts it into the realm of contemporary rock or even hip-hop.

IV. Klezmer and the Avant-garde

Having carefully built a bridge from functional dance music to hard-rocking nightclub music, the Klezmatics embody the Old World/New World dialectic of the klezmer renaissance, and helped chart a path for a new generation of klezmorim.

They have also opened the doors to other experiments. With his band Klezmer Madness, former Klezmatics clarinetist David Krakauer has combined klezmer with found sounds, electronic effects, New Orleans jazz, and James Brown-derived funk. On some of his more recent efforts, he has begun working with hip-hop techniques, including sampling.

Other musicians have discovered that the unique Yiddish modes are as rich a source of melodic and harmonic possibilities as blues and pop standards once were to mid-century jazz musicians. For Jewish musicians especially, the expressive potential of the ancient scales strikes a deep chord within them and within particular members of their audience who recognize and resonate with the poignant sound of the synagogue cantor.

The locus of John Zorn‘s Jewish work is his Masada project, aptly named after the hilltop fortress in the Judean desert where in 73 C.E. a band of Jewish patriots took their lives rather than surrender to and be enslaved by the Roman conquerors. It was the prototypical struggle against assimilation, and undoubtedly Zorn was attracted to the image of the relentless resisters, refusing to succumb to or to assimilate into the mainstream—a theme that runs through his entire career. For Zorn, Masada is several things at once: a jazz quartet, a group of chamber ensembles of various shapes and sizes, a set of over 200 original compositions in traditional Jewish modes that Zorn has written for these groups, and a conceptual framework and redoubt from which he could channel his creative attempt to do nothing less than to expand the Jewish musical tradition.

In the Masada Jazz Quartet, which includes trumpeter Dave Douglas, drummer Joey Baron and bassist Greg Cohen, Zorn plays alto saxophone and leads the group through the paces on compositions which veer from straight-ahead jazz to free improvisation, with snatches of blues, ballads, and traditional melodies thrown into the musical mixture—all, however, in a recognizably Jewish mode. Take, for example, Douglas’s solo on the Zorn composition “Hekhal”: what works as a post-bop improvisation also works surprisingly well as one of those Khsidic nigunim—the wordless prayer chants that were the original sources for Old World klezmer melodies.

On Sephardic Tinge, keyboardist Anthony Coleman reposits the classic Yiddish theater tune “Belz” as a bit of Afro-Cuban piano jazz—a pointed commentary on the cultural divide between the prevailing Yiddish/Ashkenazi/Eastern European Jewish heritage and the equally rich but curiously overlooked Sephardic/Ladino heritage, a tradition with glorious roots in Jewry’s “Golden Age” in pre-Inquisition Spain. Having lived much of his life in New York City rubbing elbows with its large Hispanic population, Coleman’s musical esthetic is highly informed by the Latin rhythms of salsa, mambo, and montunos. Coleman, who interestingly enough attended the New England Conservatory in the late-’70s alongside the Klezmer Conservatory Band founder Hankus Netsky, decided to explore this aspect of his “heritage” from the point of view of one whose family name was originally Cohen—hence the sly play on “Spanish Tinge” in the album’s title.

The Boston-based group Naftule’s Dream was formed by the members of the more traditional-based klezmer group, Shirim, as an outlet for their experimental inclinations (although Shirim itself was no mere reconstructionist-oriented revival band—its most popular project reinterpreted Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker as a klezmer suite, and they recently had a go at Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf on their Tzadik album, Pincus and the Pig). The individual musicians in the sextet boast a vast range of experience: trombonist David Harris was a charter member of the Klezmer Conservatory Band and Frank London‘s Les Miserables Brass Band. Clarinetist Glenn Dickson is a graduate of the New England Conservatory who has performing in rock bands and played Greek and 19th-century American music. Other musicians have played ska, rock, New Orleans, South Indian classical, military marches, and avant-garde jazz. These various influences get remanufactured as Naftule’s Dream, a borscht of free-klez, speed-klez (both descriptions are song titles) and anarchic punk-klez—sort of like what Metallica might play if it was a mostly unplugged klezmer band studying under Cecil Taylor.

The premonitions of Radical Jewish Culture were also being felt in the 1990s on the West Coast, where refugees from Hotzeplotz and The Klezmorim had formed the New Klezmer Trio. Clarinetist Ben Goldberg had been growing restless with performing music that he felt was merely recapitulating earlier styles rather than creating new ones. “I wrote a kind of manifesto then that said something like, ‘Think of the difference between John Coltrane and Sidney Bechet, yet we consider them to be of the same lineage’,” he recalls. “If klezmer music had been similarly evolving since the ’20s, then we certainly wouldn’t be here today trying to sound just like Naftule Brandwein. That was important to me.”

As a result, Goldberg began thinking about the imaginary line between “traditional” and “avant-garde” music. “I wanted to take the kind of pent-up, stuttering, neurotic energy of klezmer and spread it over a long form and see what happened.” In 1988, he began jamming with former bandmates Kenny Wolleson and Dan Seamans. Building upon a firm foundation in traditional klezmer modes and melodies, they began exploring the “claustrophobic, quick and darting, hurried, nervous” aspects of the music in extended pieces. In 1991, the group released its first album, Masks and Faces, which at the time was a truly groundbreaking effort that mixed klezmer with strategies gleaned from such jazz and avant-garde visionaries as Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Steve Lacy, Lee Konitz, and Andrew Hill, prefiguring the shape of avant-klezmer to come. Listened to over a decade later, it still sounds startlingly fresh and original and stands as the benchmark for all subsequent attempts at a progressive, klezmer-jazz fusion.

Hasidic New Wave, co-fronted by Frank London of The Klezmatics and saxophonist Greg Wall, blends free-jazz, fusion, and funk-fueled improvisations, often based upon pre-existing Hasidic dance tunes, and its instrumental lineup features electric guitar in addition to trumpet, saxophone, bass, and drums. Hasidic New Wave itself has spawned some of the most exciting recent efforts in the klezmer avant-garde, including Wall’s Later Prophets, on which he bases his jazz improvisations on trope, the ancient melodies used to chant aloud the books of the Torah, and drummer Aaron Alexander‘s Midrash Mish Mosh, which expands the Hasidic New Wave approach and applies it to an avant-big band.

Klezmer hasn’t only had an impact downtown. Uptown, too, the sounds of Old World klezmorim have begun to make their way into composers’ works.

Paul Schoenfield, born in Detroit in 1947, splits his time between Israel and the U.S. Among his major works are Klezmer Rondos (1986), a concerto for flute, tenor, and orchestra. While Schoenfield considers himself primarily a folk musician, he has variously been compared to Gershwin and Bartók for the manner in which he infuses native Jewish idioms into his orchestral forms.

While a fellow at Tanglewood, Osvaldo Golijov—born in Argentina in 1960 to a family of Eastern European Jewish origin—wrote his work, Yiddishbuk, the first of several compositions to draw upon the music of his Ashkenazic heritage. The Kronos Quartet has recorded many of his works, including The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, which also featured clarinetist David Krakauer. Pieces by Schoenfield and Golijov are found on Klezmer Concertos and Encores, a 2003 recording released as part of the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music series on Naxos.

To coin a phrase, performers like the Klezmatics, David Krakauer, Hasidic New Wave, and John Zorn are all rockin’ the shtetl. As it turns out, that just happens to be the utterly traditional thing to do.


Seth Rogovoy is the author of The Essential Klezmer: A Music Lover’s Guide to Jewish Roots and Soul Music (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2000).

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