Klezmer Pioneers 1905-1956

KLEZMER PIONEERS 1905-1956 / Dem Rubens Tanz (The Rabbi’s Dance). Zapfenstreich (Reverie Dream) – A Jewish Fantasy. Mit Der Kalle Tanzen (Dancing With The Bride) / Art Shryer’s Modern Jewish Orch. / Fon Der Choope (From the Wedding) / Abe Elenkrig’s Orchestra / A Heimisher Bulgar (A Homey Bulgar). Der Fetter Max’s Bulgar (Uncle Max’s Bulgar) / Sam Musiker & his Orch. / Ma Yofus (How Beautiful). Bessarabian Hora / Belf’s Rumanian Orch. / Grichisher Tantz (Greek Dance). Odessa – Bulgar / Mishka Tsiganoff / Ai Raci Ku Ne Draci (Liebes Tanz) / Orchestra Romaneasca / A Dreidele Far Alle-Freilachs (A Dance For Everyone). Tantz-A-Freilachs (Dance A Freilachs) / Abe Schwartz’s Orchestra / Kalle Bezetzns Un A Freilachs (The Bridal Serenade And Congratulations) / Joseph Cherniavsky’s Yiddish-American Jazz Band / Die Chasidim Forren Tsum Rebbin (The Chasidim Visit The Rabbi). A Laibediga Honga (A Lively Honga) / Harry Kandel’s Famous Inlet Orch. / Doina Un Sirba / Mihal Viteazul / Ein Kik Af Dir (Once Glance At You) / Alexander Olshanetsky & his Orch. / Tantz-A-Freilachs (Dance A Freilachs) / Abe Schwartz’s Orch. / Orientalishe Motive II / Josef Solinski / Der Heisser (The Hot One) – Tartar Dance / Naftule Brandwein’s Orch. / Bessarabier Chosid’l (The Hassid From Bessarabia) / Israel J. Hochman’s Jewish Orch. / Doina / Joseph Moskowitz / Dem Trisker Rebbin’s Chosid (The Disciple Of The Rabbi From Trisk) / Dave Tarras / Erinerung Fun Kishnev (Memories Of Kishnev) / Abe Katzman’s Bessarabian Orch. / Rounder Records 1089, available for free streaming on YouTube

I chose to review this rather strange recording for two reasons: 1) Fremeaux & Associes, the French label, is releasing a similar CD next month but I know from experience that you rarely get copies or even downloads of their albums for review, and 2) I’ve long been fascinated by klezmer music, which lies somewhere in that strange alleyway of music between ethnic pop and art. As we all know by now thanks to such latter-day revivalists as the Klezmer Conservatory Orchestra, the music itself is lively Jewish folk music from the ghettos of Eastern and Western Europe, it uses “kissing” trumpets and wailing clarinets in an almost orgiastic frenzy of odd rhythms, often in 6/8, and contains elements of both Eastern European and Mediterranean music. But much of it was improvised and some of it damn difficult to play (just ask clarinetist Don Byron, a charter member of the KCO), and it had a strong impact on the development of jazz. Indeed, I consider klezmer to be the “hidden influence” on the development of early jazz. They even had klezmer bands in New Orleans when “jazz was born,” and even such famous African-Americans musicians as Joe “King” Oliver, Larry Shields, and even Louis Armstrong borrowed some tricks from the klezmer players. On top of that, it was also the youthful music of such noted Jewish-American jazz musicians as Mannie Klein, Benny Goodman and Ziggy Elman, the latter of which brought klezmer directly into jazz with his Frahlich in Swing which he later renamed And the Angels Sing. And never forget the “ghetto swingers” in Nazi Germany, former klezmer musicians who began playing their own form of “Jewish jazz.”

The Jewish immigrants who flooded America (along with other ethnicities) between 1900 and 1925 reveled in klezmer, which they considered “their” music, along with the religious recordings of the great cantors like Josef Rosenblatt and Moishe Koussevitzky. It even influenced the music of Yiddish theater, whose denizens included the lively and popular chanteuse Molly Picon, but by the end of World War II most of them, and their offspring, had moved on. They were now reputable businessmen, accountants, store owners, lawyers, doctors etc., and they wanted to blend into society and be assimilated, not stick out like sore thumbs. For them, klezmer was an embarrassment, a reminder of a time when they were poor, grimy factory and textile industry workers, and so it faded from view (thus the few later recordings included in this set were really an anomaly). Those who hadn’t gravitated towards classical music were often serious jazz aficionados. When comedian-singer Mickey Katz formed his Yiddish-flavored Spike Jones-styled band, the Kosher Jammers, in 1947, he was shocked to discover that few radio stations would play his records—especially those owned and/or operated and manned by Jews. They didn’t find his klezmer spoofs funny, and were especially offended by the fact that he often sang in Yiddish, which they considered the language of the Jewish ghettos. Thus, ironically, Katz’ biggest audience consisted of the “goyim,” white Protestants and Catholics, who found his spoofs hysterical. If it hadn’t been for them, he’s probably have starved to death trying to sell his Yiddish-flavored schtick to an offended Jewish-American population.

The other side to Katz’ success was the assumption by those who did buy his records that klezmer WAS trashy, whiny, offensive music meant to be denigrated. Ironically such older jazz stars as Elman and Klein were members of the Kosher Jammers, and although their playing was always on the comic side it was also improvised and pretty interesting. Yet you can see how, by the time Hankus Netsky formed the KCO in the late 1970s, many people were startled to hear that the music was not only fun but quite complex. Somehow, the artistry required to be a great klezmer musician had been forgotten along with Mickey Katz’ schtick.

Since this Rounder CD was released in 1993 and is now long out of print, I was unable to find much information on the musicians and bands presented here or who the full personnel of such bands were, but as you can hear, very often the term “orchestra” was applied to one klezmer clarinetist or trumpeter playing with a three-man rhythm section; not all of the orchestras are really orchestras, though most are. These are the kinds of records that helped to inspire Netsky to

Belf’s Rumanian Orchestra

form the KCO in the first place, and most of them were long out of print and had never been reissued on LP or any other format before this CD came out. I did discover a few things, however, for instance that the Art Shryer recordings were part of Vocalion’s 13000 series in 1924, a special numbering sequence devoted to ethnic records. By 1928-29, Shryer was recording for Brunswick and Victor (also in their ethnic series). Josef Solinski was a famous klezmer clarinet virtuoso much admired by Goodman, and Abe Elenkrieg or Elenkrig (1878 – 1965) was a trumpeter, barber and bandleader. Joseph Cherniavsky’s Yiddish-American Jazz Band, though also featured in Victor’s ethnic series, created music that was very close to the Charleston-influenced stomp bands of the late 1920s. But many of the other names turned up nothing for me in a Google search except references to this album and similar recordings (though I did turn up a photo of the Belf band).

Some of these performances are, like the first track by Art Shryer, purely ensemble, with no solos to speak of. In these cases, one listens for the use of rhythm, which has its own sort of ersatz-belly-dance feel to it. This, in its own way, is a more commercialized version of klezmer, but in Shryer’s second recording there is an excellent clarinet solo that commands attention—along with a plunger-muted trumpet solo that reflects the influence on such black jazz musicians as King Oliver and Bubber Miley. By contrast, Abe Elenkrig’s Orchestra really whoops it up, klezmer style, in From the Wedding, a record that sounds for all the world like the Klezmer Conservatory Orchestra in more primitive sound. Sam Musiker’s Orchestra really hams up A Homey Bulgar, complete with mechanical bird calls and a “laughing” vocal by the leader. This record was so popular that, believe it or not, it was reissued by RCA Victor on a 45 after World War II. By contrast, Mischa Tsiganoff’s Greek Dance is a really fascinating piece, starting off slow and then increasing speed like a czardas. This is, however, more through-composed than improvised; it sounds like something that classical violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja might play as an encore in a recital…except for the last section, when a muted trumpet suddenly increases the tempo for the coda.

The Liebes Tanz by Orchestra Romaneasca has a really primitive sound to it: this could easily be one of the 1905 recordings. It also has some interesting, pre-jazz-styled solos set to a slow, rocking beat. Update the sound by 80 years, and this, too could be a Klezmer Conservatory band performance. Abe Schwartz’ A Dance for Everyone also has somewhat primitive sound but is probably from the immediate post-World War I era. This is more of an ensemble piece, but peppy and in an authentic style that doesn’t compromise or simply copy American “jazz” bands of the time.

The lone recording by Joseph Cherniavsky’s Yiddish-American Jazz Band opens with a long, slow, soulful violin solo over a chord cushion played by the brass. Then the drums kick off a syncopated 6/8 beat, and the band goes to town—not sounding at all like a real jazz band but much more Jewish than that. And a lot of fun it is, too. I think even the musicians were enjoying themselves while making this record; it sounds it, anyway.

Mischa Tsiganoff

I could similarly describe every track in this interesting program, but rather than spoil the fun for you I’ll just let you discover the music for yourself. You’ll probably be easily able to tell the real klezmer from the Americanized product, particularly if you’re already a fan of Netsky’s many recordings with the KCO. Yes, there are a few duds in here, but they, too add to the narrative of how klezmer not only developed but attached itself to the exciting new American culture called jazz before again receding into its own little world before collapsing in the late 1940s-early ‘50s. It’s an interesting journey, and one worth taking to understand a musical culture that flourished for many years, adapted, fizzled out and then came roaring back at a time when it was least expected. This is extremely vital, earthy music, certainly not harmonically or structurally complex but rhythmically inventive and well worth hearing for its effects on both American and European culture.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz


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