Saturday, August 7, 2010

Time-Travelers From a Golden Age

Time-Travelers From a Golden Age
'Cantors, Klezmorim and Crooners 1905-1953,' a 3-CD set of U.S. recordings, brings the past to vivid life


Two intertwining traditions of music—jazz and Jewish—became part of my life in early childhood. Hearing a cantor, or hazan, in passionate dialogue with God on the human condition at an Orthodox synagogue during the High Holidays in 1932 when I was 7 set me on fire. A couple of years later at a Jewish wedding, I was nearly lifted into the dancing by a rollicking klezmer band, especially by its swinging, playful clarinetist.

Molly Picon, a musical star of the Yiddish stage and screen, is one of the performers in this collection.

During a break in the music, the clarinetist, noting my awe as I looked at him, leaned over, winked, and said: "Where do you think Benny Goodman came from?"

But it was Artie Shaw, not Benny, who hurled me into jazz when, at 11, I heard his "Nightmare." Years after, I learned that "Nightmare" was based on a cantorial nigun, or wordless melody, and I understand why Artie, in his retrospective "Self Portrait" (RCA Victor/Bluebird), said: "Certainly, I can't deny the influence of my Russian-Jewish ancestry."

In the early 1950s, because Artie had led me to Duke Ellington, the blues and Count Basie, I became New York editor of Down Beat. My first working visit was to Birdland ("the jazz center of the world," as it advertised itself). But my next was a pilgrimage to the Lower East Side to hear the legendary—at least to Jewish musicians—clarinetist Dave Tarras.

Still part of both worlds, I have many books on the musical and social history of jazz, including discographies. But until now I've owned nothing of substance on the nearly 6,000 Yiddish or Hebrew recordings released in the U.S. between 1898 and 1942, and especially the golden age of Yiddish 78s from 1905 to 1953.

At last, though, from Klezmer clarinetist Sherry Mayrent's collection of Yiddish 78s—as far as I know the largest in the world—there now comes a gloriously wide-ranging compilation from those golden years: "Cantors, Klezmorim and Crooners 1905-1953" (JASP Records, available on There are 67 tracks in this three-CD set, including 42 never before reissued. Because of the extraordinary skills of engineer Christopher King, all of them bring you into the very presence of these carriers of the Yiddish ethos. At home in the Boston ghetto, I had grown up with a few of these, but they didn't sound as if the performers were actually in the room with me. They do now.

As a Jewish kid growing up in then virulently anti-Semitic Boston—a place where Henry Brooks Adams, grandson of John Quincy Adams, could say without censure that "snarling a weird Yiddish . . . the Jew makes me creep"—I got a kick out of defiantly playing this music at a proud volume.

But as the years went on, these American Jewish recordings from that era became hard to find. Ms. Mayrent amassed her collection—now at 5,000 records and still growing—from collectors in America, Canada, Israel, South America, Russia and other countries with transplanted Jews. In her introduction to the CD set, she describes why they became so rare: "Archives did have rudimentary catalogs, but they restricted access to individuals demonstrating some serious academic purpose, and either did not permit copying the discs or charged extremely high per-side fees."

Until now, I had no idea of the range and the striking individuality of these Yiddish stage singers, actors, cantors, comics and instrumentalists. For one example, in my youth women had to sit in the balcony of Orthodox synagogues, and the notion of a woman cantor was inconceivable to me. Yet several powerful female cantors from back then are included here.

The producer of this set, copies of which I intend to give to my children and grandchildren, is Henry Sapoznik, whom I've known for years as a scholar of klezmer music. He will soon head the new Mayrent Institute of Yiddish Culture to be located on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He wrote the notes for each track from his fount of historical and anecdotal knowledge of Yiddish culture and history.

Among the vivid time-travelers of this cast is cantor Berle Chagy, born in Latvia in 1892, who came to America around 1909 to avoid army conscription, as my father had from the Old Country some years later. For Jews, the army was worse than the ghetto. As Mr. Sapoznik notes, "Chagy displays a powerful lyrical tenor and a breathtakingly ethereal falsetto rendered with spectacular and seamless abandon." Hearing him I was back in shul, next to my father.

And from 1915 there is the first klezmer ensemble to record in America, Elenkrig's Yiddishe Orchestra playing the spirited "The Rabbi's Melody" from the Hasidic vocal tradition. I hope Mr. Sapoznik will unearth a set of such joyously melodic Hasidic religious services. Elie Wiesel has called the Hasidic sages "souls of fire," like their music.

Soon after moving to New York in 1953, I went to Second Avenue, where Yiddish theater flourished, to see a musical star of that genre, Molly Picon. Here she is, "petite and pixieish" as Mr. Sapoznik describes her, singing "Katya, laughs at the world and goes her own way."

I'm also glad to be introduced to comic and actor Fyvush Finkel ("Picket Fences," "Boston Public") singing "Ich Bin a Boarder Ba Mein Weib" ("I Board at My Wife's"), which for years was a favorite Jewish song, particularly among some husbands for his recipe for a tranquil marriage. A typical lyric: "What an improvement in our lives. No more problems, never harried. We are happily unmarried. I am a boarder at my wife's."

For zestful Yiddish swing, there is Abe Schwartz. Born in Romania, he came here in 1899, and formed a band with "swooping trombones, staccato banjo," and a powerful front line of fiddler Schwartz and the magical clarinetist I yearned to be, Dave Tarras.

Dark Yiddish memories are memorialized by cantor David Roitman in "The Trumpet Has Sounded," based on a poem attributed to the 11th-century Rabbi Ammon of Mainz. Despite being under continued pressure to convert, this rabbi refused and "was arrested, his hands and feet severed," writes Mr. Sapoznick. Mortally wounded though he was, Rabbi Ammon "asked to be carried to the synagogue after extemporaneously reciting this prayer" that was later set to music.

That reminded me of my mother's story of being a child in the Old Country, which could have been put to music. One day her mother heard the Cossacks were coming and popped her daughter into the oven. Fortunately it was not lit.

In one of the rarest of all Yiddish recordings, Sholom Aleichem speaks a few lines from his "If I Were Rothschild" during a 1915 test recording at a Victor studio. When he stopped, the engineer called out "Is that all you got?" and the recording was never issued. When Aleichem died 10 months later, 500,000 people attended his funeral. On that day in the studio, he said that if he were a Rothschild, "First I'd give my wife a three-ruble note so that when it comes time to shop for Shabbos, she'll have the note in her pocket and won't have to bother me." But he'd also "Buy this house, and give her everything from the cellar to the attic." He wasn't just a boarder.

On "Tartar Dance," the first track of this recovery of Yiddish resilience in music and life, another clarinetist, Naftule Brandwein—"If he didn't exist, he would have had to be invented," says Mr. Sapoznik—exults in being descended from a line of Hasidic rabbis. "Even at the end of his life when he was playing in Catskill hotels," Mr. Sapoznik admiringly and candidly tells us, "a drunken Brandwein was reported to have been "'propped up in a chair and blowing like crazy.'"

In my neighborhood when I was a boy, I often heard: "Schwer being a Yid" ("Hard being a Jew"). Not always.
—Mr. Hentoff writes about jazz for the Journal.

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