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This article was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on December 8,
1999. All rights reserved.
Klezmer! Pass the Seltzer
For a musical genre to flourish, scorn is a serious
hindrance. Oblivion may be even worse. Both scorn and oblivion have
fallen upon klezmer music in the United States during the last
Klezmer originated in medieval Europe, where bands of itinerant
went from town to town playing for festivals and special events. By
the 19th century klezmer music had become a well-developed musical
style, drawing on both Jewish and non-Jewish sources. In America,
the tradition gradually faded. Immigrant Jews sought to blend into
their new culture, and klezmer music, until its revival in the 1970s,
was first denigrated, and then forgotten, according to Hankus Netsky,
founder and director of the Klezmer Conservatory Band (KCB).
Netsky’s 11-member KCB appears at New Brunswick’s State Theater
December 15, in a program that includes medieval Jewish folk tunes,
Yiddish theater music, and American jazz. Since its renaissance about
30 years ago, the catchiness of the latest version of klezmer music
has endeared itself to audiences not only in America, but also in
Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.
On the brink of the klezmer renaissance in the early 1970s,
knew what klezmer was," Netsky says in a telephone interview from
his Massachusetts home. "It was a pejorative word for professional
dance music players. You wouldn’t call yourself klezmer. You would
call someone else klezmer." Although several of the older members
of Netsky’s family had played in klezmer groups, they didn’t bother
introducing klezmer to Netsky, who was born in 1955. "They didn’t
teach me about this stuff when I was growing up," he says. "I
grew up with jazz and gospel. They saw klezmer as something that had
Then, suddenly, in the early l970s, interest in klezmer surfaced.
"About half a dozen of us were getting interested in klezmer at
the same time, unbeknownst to each other," says Netsky. "We
all chanced on klezmer collections on 78s. It was in the air."
As a student at the New England Conservatory of Music in 1974, Netsky
started doing research on klezmer music. By 1978 he was on the
and starting to organize klezmer jam sessions. "It was sort of
backwards," he says. "I wanted to do a doctorate, and instead,
I founded a band."
"I was inspired by Mick Maloney, who was responsible for the
of Celtic music," says Netsky. A professor at the University of
Pennsylvania, Maloney invited a group, including Netsky, to his house
in 1978, and taught them Celtic songs.
Within two years, forces led by Netsky gave their first klezmer
"I was teaching contemporary improvisation," Netsky says.
"I’m still teaching it. Participants in the course were game for
anything. It was an informal group of students and professors with
a lot of talented people; some of them later founded their own groups.
We thought we were going to do one concert. We called the concert
the Klezmer Conservatory Band. It was a joke. Klezmorim didn’t go
"After the concert, the audience response was greater than I
it would be," says Netsky. "The crowd went wild. Suddenly
we had some gigs. It was all grass roots. It had nothing to do with
marketing. When we heard that Garrison Keillor’s `Prairie Home
was coming to Boston, we sent them a tape of our first concert, made
on a little hand-held tape recorder. The Klezmer Conservatory Band
appeared on Keillor’s show for the first time in October, 1981, and
has been on the show six or seven times since.
In 1990 KCB made its debut tour abroad, performing in
Germany and Poland. A PBS television special called "In the
House," with violinist Itzhak Perlman, was filmed in Krakow,
and New York. After the PBS show "In the Fiddler’s House"
went on the road, appearing in major concert venues including
Radio City Music Hall, and the Ravinia Festival. Netsky documents
the changing attitudes about klezmer over a period of 20 years.
the early days when I would call and ask about klezmer, people would
say, `Are you crazy?’ After we played with Itzhak Perlman for
of 10,000, strangers started to emerge and say `Boy, do I have a story
Netsky, now 44, was born in Philadelphia. On his maternal side, the
family was sprinkled with musicians, many of them in the klezmer
"My mother’s side of the family had the musicians," Netsky
says. His grandfather and an uncle played in klezmer orchestras in
the 1920s. An uncle, Harold Karr, composed for Broadway shows,
for those starring Ethel Merman. The song "We Belong to the Mutual
Admiration Society" is one of his creations. Other uncles played
in pickup wedding bands. One played trumpet; another, clarinet.
mother wasn’t trained in music," Netsky says. "If she was
a guy she would have been playing music."
Netsky describes his parents as unmusical. "They did nothing,"
he says. "The kids did the music." Netsky’s first instrument
was the piano. Saxophone and oboe followed. "My father sold
supplies. He still sells them. His business is in Philadelphia.
he was a rag dealer. When people discovered that you could stuff
with rags, they called them upholstery supplies. On my father’s side
of the family I saw these interesting characters. When I would sort
rags for him, I would see these eastern European characters who spoke
After attending Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon for a year, Netsky
to the New England Conservatory of Music, where he earned bachelor’s
and master’s degrees in composition. Asked why he switched, he
"I probably shouldn’t have."
Netsky is still at the New England Conservatory, where he is currently
chairman of the Jazz Studies department. His 18 contact hours of
a week put him among college faculty with the heaviest teaching
he taught from nine in the morning till seven in the evening the day
of our conversation. But academic commitments at the conservatory
occupy just one corner of his plate. He tours with the Klezmer
Band, directs music for an area synagogue, devotes himself to Ph.D.
studies in ethnomusicology at Connecticut Wesleyan, and is a hands-on
father of daughters Leah, 9, and Mira, 5. His wife works for the
League in Boston.
Netsky’s Ph.D. studies give academic beef to his leadership in
klezmer music. He describes his dissertation as "getting inside
the world of klezmer music in Philadelphia in the context of the
during the years 1900 to 1950." He adds, "Since my grandfather
was a klezmer in Philadelphia, I’m learning family history at the
For the thesis Netsky has done about 40 interviews and has drawn on
existing histories and oral records. "I’m looking into who the
musicians were, what they were like, and how deviant they were. At
that stage of immigration the wedding was an uninhibited celebration.
It was like the old world. It was a place where you didn’t try to
be American. It was O.K. to be what your grandparents were."
In the course of his thesis research Netsky put together a group
the "Philadelphia Klezmer Heritage Ensemble" to get some of
the musicians playing again. "People are used to seeing the name
`Philadelphia’ with the word `heritage,’" he comments. "A
woman in the Philadelphia Klezmer Society is almost 70. She was the
first woman to graduate from Curtis in percussion. She’s the best
klezmer percussionist around. Klezmer is really a man’s world. It’s
a fraternity. Any woman who wanted to be part of klezmer had to have
pretty thick skin."
Women members of KCB include featured vocalist Judy Bressler, a
member who also leads dancing for the band and acts as a mistress
of ceremonies; clarinetist Ilene Stahl; and violinist Deborah Strauss,
a Rutgers graduate. As director Netsky plays alto saxophone and
and is heavily involved in arranging music and programming concerts.
KCB’s current size of 11, says Netsky, is the lowest possible number
to supply all the instrumentalists needed. " I think of it as
a Yiddish and klezmer repertory ensemble. It can also break up into
groups as small as a duet. We have a lot of variety stylistically,
and also when it comes to the size of ensembles. Our instrumentation
is consistent with the Yiddish theater bands that recorded in the
1920s, or a very large wedding band."
"Klezmer bands were large because often half of the musicians
were under 15," Netsky says. "The guys hired would bring along
apprentices learning from them. It was a ragtag sound. We can sound
that way if we want, or we can sound like a Hollywood style klezmer
band, such as Mickey Katz, Joel Gray’s father. Or we can sound like
a slick New York wedding band."
Netsky and the KCB have brought their new version of klezmer back
to Europe, to considerable audience acclaim. "You could go to
a small town in Moldova or Bessarabia and still find a functioning
klezmer band," he says, "but it would be in an old context.
It would be like the bands of 100 years ago, not like the klezmer
renaissance. The klezmer revival in Europe has taken place mostly
in Germany and Holland, where people are hungry for something Jewish.
"Klezmer is a way for youth to vent their frustration to their
parents and grandparents about Jews not being there," Netsky
"It’s a protest by youth. You mostly read about skin heads in
Germany desecrating synagogues, but many people in Germany marry Jews
if they can find them. The better-educated Germans are very interested
in Jewish culture. It’s the same story in Poland."
Still, in concert halls Netsky says that he tries to present a flavor
of where the music comes from. Netsky sketches the original context
"The music was intertwined with dances breaking out into fights,
with dimly lit halls and with people sitting at long benches, eating
homemade food brought along by friends and neighbors. There would
be an emcee who knew everybody in room, and could make jokes about
everybody else who arrived. It was an intimate community pageant,
not one of these sterile spectacles you see today with a DJ and
and a light show and deafening music."
It’s a considerable challenge to convey all that in the contemporary
concert hall. "We try," he says "to get the spirit of
a Jewish wedding when people are just sitting in seats in a concert
hall and there’s not even any seltzer on the table."
— Elaine Strauss
Avenue, New Brunswick, 877-782-8311. $16 to $28. Wednesday,
15, 8 p.m.
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