Re(Jew)vinating Jazz Part I: A Survey of Klezmer Music

by “Joyful Joe” Miterko

To some of us, “Klezmer” sounds like the name of a faraway planet. To others of us, it sounds like a gourmet pasta dish served at a five-star Italian restaurant. Both of these are incorrect. It is a rich musical genre that gets greatly underappreciated in many circles.

Usually, when my musician friends ask what Klezmer is, I answer, “Have you ever seen the musical Fiddler On the Roof? Or have you ever danced the hora at a Jewish wedding? That’s Klezmer. L’chaim!” There is so much more to it than those simple answers. These experiences are just a glimpse at the vast world of the genre; an appetizer before the meal, if you will. For a long time, Klezmer was the heart and soul of Eastern European Jewry. Today, we can learn how it can spark a creative engine for us.  

The name “Klezmer” comes from two words combined in Hebrew: כלי klei (instrument, vessel) and מרז zemer (song). Its origins can trace back to the late 1800s in Eastern European shtetls (small Jewish villages), and it is a product of Yiddish cultural revival. For example, Avrom Goldfadn, a Ukrainian playwright, started writing and staging Yiddish theatre.  Alongside of him, Zelig Mogulescu composed, arranged, and produced the scores for these plays. One of the most important of Mogulescu’s pieces is “Rozhinkes mit mandlen” (Raisins and Almonds) , which is still widely regarded as an important work in Jewish culture today.

Sadly, the Ashkenazim (Eastern European Jews) faced a large amount of antisemitism through boycotts and pogroms. As a result, life was hard. Many lived in poverty. Engagement with the outside was brutal. One consequence included that Jews were not allowed to perform in public places.  So, Klezmer groups and ensembles started out very small with very few members. Despite the small size, it also became known as wedding music, because most Jewish weddings would integrate a festive nature with their tragic surroundings. One of the most common tunes in weddings was “Firm di Mekhutonim” (Escorting the Bride and Groom). Even though these were intense situations, the simcha (joy, gladness) still went on!

In the early days, common instruments included the clarinet, violin and cymbalon (an Eastern European version of a hammered dulcimer). These were considered “quieter” instruments, because they would not resonate like a brass or woodwind instrument would.  Unfortunately, with the dawning of the Shoah (Holocaust), the fame of the music dwindled and declined. Many people forgot the message of joy they had heard. Within ensembles, the mood became more saddened and composers would write darker pieces. After the Shoah, though, Klezmer made a revival and people began to experiment with it. More instruments were added to ensembles including the upright bass, accordion, percussion, other woodwinds (flutes, saxophones), and brass (trumpets, trombones, and tuba). American musician Abe Schwartz started combining sounds of jazz and blues (that were so prevalent in the outside world) within the genre. One of his famous contributions is “Sher Medley”.  

There is a tremendous amount of music to listen to; whether it be the older or more contemporary version of Klezmer. Currently, I am blessed to live in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Very often, I get to hear Klezmer blaring outside my window; it is pure bliss. For many Ashkenazim, the older tunes from Eastern Europe still are important in family gatherings, lifecycles, and all year round. It reminds them of the joy of simchas (special occasions) and the bitter history of the past.  They still listen to such greats like Naftule Brandwein (“King of Klezmer Clarinet”) and Giora Feidman

Then, as time progressed, more experimentation and creativity went on. Musicians wanted to make Klezmer more hip and accessible to younger generations; it was no longer their grandfather’s music. These included ensembles like The Klezmatics, mandolin player Andy Statman, and trumpeter  Frank London. All of them have tried a lot of blending and succeeded. While instrumentation is updated to include electric instruments (guitar, bass, Fender Rhodes, etc.), the listener can distinctively recognize that it is the classic sound and feel. Some is very heavily orchestrated, while often times it is not. The tradition and lineage still matters to these modern artists.

Not only does the Jewish world hold on to Klezmer, but even the outside world is beginning to love and embrace it, which is exciting! A group called Golem seeks to combine the classic sound with a punk/rock feel. In addition, the popular band Snarky Puppy has a song that features quite a lot of influence from Ashkenazi flair. There is also a favorite of mine called, “Oy to the World: A Klezmer Christmas” by a one-album-wonder group named The Klezmonauts that recreates popular Christmas carols into something completely different. In fact, my extended family that is not involved with the Messianic movement absolutely loves this album!

As we see, Klezmer can convey a lot of feelings: both joy and sadness, dancing and sighing, happiness and mourning. It is an expressive art that is important in the world around us. And I think you can be a cool cat by listening to the Jewish Jazz - Klezmer!