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The Klezmer Revival

Folklorist/scholar Mark Slobin writes about the klezmer revival.

This film lovingly introduces what can now be seen as the high point of the early klezmer revitalization movement. While the bands presented in the film have survived into the twenty-first century, the surrounding Jewish-American and world music culture have shifted. "A Jumpin’ Night" captures the energy and vibrancy of a pioneering moment.

"Klezmer" in the Yiddish language means a musician, usually hereditary, who animates Jewish celebrations, principally weddings, but also communal events like the blessing of a new Torah scroll in a synagogue. There was no such term as "klezmer music" in Yiddish or English until the time that "Jumpin" appeared. Klezmers (or klezmorim, the most common Yiddish plural form) played whatever audiences wanted to hear. In eastern Europe, those versatile musicians were hired by both non-Jewish and Jewish clients, so they had to satisfy anyone’s requests, be it for local ethnic folkdance tunes, the latest ballroom dance, or even classical music selections. A musician like Dave Tarras, the hardy klezmer we meet in the film, was proud of being able to play in many styles, and recorded in a number of traditions for American commercial labels.

Klezmers came to the United States in the great wave of eastern European Jeewish immigration that began around 1880. By the time Tarras was recording, this population was ten times larger than the earlier Jewish-American community and provided a ready market for the record companies, but primarily for each Jewish locale. We have our best information from Philadelphia, researched recently by Hankus Netsky, the major bandleader profiled in "Jumpin’." As we see in the film, Netsky comes from a klezmer family, and tries to impress his uncle with the Klezmer Conservatory Band, but Uncle Jerry just sniffs at the upstarts. In Philadelphia, Netsky found handwritten manuscripts of klezmer tunes dating back to 1916, and the eloquent oral histories he has collected bear witness to the importance of the klezmer as the focus of the wedding, a major communal event that, as much as anything else, kept the Jewish community cohesive and coherent in a situation of immigration and assimilation for the early decades of the twentieth century.

By the 1940s, and more so in the 1950s, the americanized audience turned away from the klezmer to more mainstream popular musicians for celebrations, and embraced new styles, like Latin danceforms (mambo, rhumba). By the time Henry Sapoznik, Walter Zev Feldman, and Andy Statman found Dave Tarras, the word "klezmer" had become almost an insult among musicians, signifying a musically provincial person. Only among some ultra-orthodox Hasidic immigrants did the old tunes flourish at celebrations.

But the social atmosphere in the United States had shifted once again, allowing for a new appreciation of the old styles. By the late 1950s, Jews stopped being victims of social discrimination in higher education and the high-end professions, so began to feel freer to express ethnicity. America rewarded this instinct with the development of a new multiculturalism that had an impetus from the black civil rights movement, the relaxation of immigration laws in 1965, and the generous urge of the Bicentennial era (1976), which fell exactly when the first klezmer album came out. This was a vinyl record by the Klezmorim, a group from Berkeley, California who came from a mix of folk music and world music. Other Californians such as Michael Alpert and Stuart Brotman also rediscovered the old 78 rpm recordings of klezmer giants, particularly Dave Tarras and his clarinet rival Naftule Brandwein. Meanwhile, on the east coast, Netsky had begun his experimental klezmer band (The Klezmer Conservatory Band, or KCB) while teaching at the New England Conservatory in Boston, and Alpert joined with Sapoznik and others to form Kapelye, another band featured in "Jumpin’ Night."

The klezmer revitalization (Alpert’s term) snowballed, bringing along former jazz musicians, bluegrass players (Statman), old-timey musicians (Sapoznik), Balkan players (Lauren Brody of Kapelye) and other types who were simply drawn in by the magnetism of the music and the shift in the social climate. The KCB has always been particularly open to players of all backgrounds, as we see in the contribution made by African American clarinetist Don Byron to the first version of the group, or the blond non-Jewish trumpeter Ingrid Monson (now an ethnomusicologist of African American music at Harvard University).

The new diversity meant that every band could have a distinct profile under the klezmer umbrella. The KCB leaned towards large-group arrangements that recalled some early recordings that reflected klezmers’ interest in the American band sound of the early twentieth century. Kapelye stressed eastern European roots more, and Feldman and Statman tried for a nineteenth-century sound. But everyone drew on a number of repertoires beyond dance tunes. The lively songs of early twentieth-century Jewish-American pop music proved a great draw for audiences, some of whom remembered the songs from their youth. Some bands were attracted to the songs of the Jewish dedication to social justice in America, ranging from the labor movement to socialist anthems. Eventually, klezmer music became a way for secular American Jews to identify with their past without reference either to Zionism or religious practice.

Gradually, this klezmer vitality leaked out to the general music market as the mainstream became aware of a new energy source. So it is not surprising that ‘Jumpin’ Night" ends with the Klezmer Conservatory Band triumphantly appearing on "A Prairie Home Companion," then a new and exciting Public Radio program that featured the latest and hippest mainstreaming musics.

The next wave of klezmer development went in unexpected directions. One was the export of the music and the bands we see in "Jumpin’ Night" to Europe, bringing a music once European back to its homeland and having a great impact on the local mind, particularly in Germany, with its anguished relationship to Jewish culture. Another direction led the klezmer idea to the experimental music scene in "downtown" New York, where, for example, Don Byron forged a career as an avant-gardist after leaving the KCB. Frank London, also of the early KCB, joined up with several other stars to form the Klezmatics, one of the most influential bands of the second wave. Michael Alpert moved on from Kapelye to Brave Old World, another groundbreaking ensemble. Andy Statman moved into the ultra-orthodox community both personally and musically in pioneering ways. And klezmer was to some extent engulfed by the spreading wave called "world music," invented by the record industry as a label and marketing tool just after the release of "Jumpin’ Night." Meanwhile, the growth of institutional structures like Klez Kamp, which started in 1985, tended to institionalize the discoveries, philosophy, and playing style of the revitalization pioneers. Increasingly, what we see and hear in the film could now be considered "classic" klezmer.

Acknowledgements to: This article was prepared for Folkstreams in 2004.

For rights and permissions contact: For permission to use this material, contact Mark Slobin through our website.

Contact Folkstreams about this material.

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Judy Bressler of KCB All rights reserved.
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