Klezmer Drumming

Charlie Berg was the drummer for the Klezmer Conservatory Band, from its inception through 1984. Here is a personal recollection that he published in alt.music.jewish some time ago.

I'll take that as a request for personal stories and philsophy about how to play the music, so here goes.

In 1980, I was a professional drummer, with about 13 years of professional experience, up to that time predominately playing Jazz, Funk (a big thing in Philly, (aka The Sound of Philadelphia), the town that I grew up in), Salsa, and the ubiquitous Club Date. By this time, I had moved to Boston for professional reasons (my day gig was a software engineer). In the early spring of 1980, my high-school friend and bandmate Hankus Netsky came to me needing a favor -- he had a gig playing "jewish music" through New England Conservatory, where he was a junior staff member in 3rd Stream, and couldn't get any drummer there to do the gig. Could I help him out?

Being an old friend, I said, "Sure, I would do it, even tho' the music sounded pretty hokey." The rest is the obvious history ... this was the first concert played by the ensemble that became the Klezmer Conservatory Band. I went on to play with them for the next 5 years. When I started playing with them (and for about the first 2 years) I was only the second drummer of the "second generation" of players to be playing the music (the first being the original drummer with the Klezmorim). So I, like everyone else at that time, had to learn how to play the music by listening to the original 78s. However, unlike most other players, I did not have to learn parts note-for-note - drummers typically play "charts", telling them where the breaks are, where the fills are, and the rest is defining a style of keeping time.

A quick history of drumming -- both jazz and klezmer. Early jazz drummers (like early klezmer drummers) came out of a martial music background, i.e. they played marches on band instruments -- snare drum or field drum, concert bass drum, and plate cymbals. When the modern drum set was invented in the beginning of the century (about 1910) they quickly adopted that instrument, but kept the martial style. Early klezmer records from the '10s & early '20s are of this style, and if I had to venture a guess, were predominately still using the the band type drums instead of a drum kit (given what I hear being played), except for Cherniavsky's band, whose drummer was an amazing player and clearly ahead of his time (that whole rhythm section was amazing -- and in klezmer I include tuba & trombone in the rhythm section). Wish I knew his name.

By the early '30s, jazz drummers were adapting their style to accomodate the "swing" feel that jazz was adopting, by exaggerating the swing to the rhythm played on the snare drum, and keeping a steady 4-to-the-beat on the bass drum. The cymbal was used for accents only. However, by the late '30s, cymbals were being used more and more as the predominate keeper of time, with the snare used for accents. In jazz, as an example, listen to the way Sonny Greer played in the late '20s-early '30s recordings of Duke Ellington, vs. the late-'30s records, where he is keeping time on the high-hat instead of the snare.

Klezmer drummers were a little slower to move time-keeping to the cymbal. Rather what they did was to smooth out the "oy-veh" into a more 4-beat feel. For instance, early '30s klezmer drummers were playing

             /  \
Snare&  x  x x   x x  x
Bass    |  | |   | |  |
Drum    |  | |   | |  |
        |  |_|   |_|  |
        >    >        >

very heavily on the snare & bass drum. But by the late 30s, they had toned down the accents on the snare, and gone to keeping a straight 4-beat on the bass drum, with a feeling of movement towards the downbeat.

       sfp    --
             /  \        cresc. roll into downbeat
Snare   x  x x   x x  x x
        |  | |   | |  | |
        |  |_|   |_|  |_|

Bass    x  x     x    x

The best example of this is the recording I first heard this on -- Die Alter Ziguener, A. Ellstein -- late '30s. I had to learn it for our second recording, and it was an ear-opener. This recording is the starting point from which I developed my own style. (You can hear me starting the style change on the KCB recording of the same tune, on the "Touch of Klez" album, on Vanguard).

BTW, another variation on this theme was to play the accents lightly on the ride cymbal as well. I think (I don't have the recording handy) Art Neff's drummer was the first place I heard this (Philadelphia Sher - 1935?).

>From here, through the '40s & '50s klezmer drummers moved the "oy-veh" more and more onto the ride cymbal, much as their jazz counterparts were playing. All of the Mickey Katz stuff, and the other '50s oddities are in this style.

But that's where it stops. The 1st generation of klezmer players didn't go beyond the swing style, because they never got the chance -- klez was dying out. Jazz drumming, however, took 2 more important steps. First, bebop drummers moved time TOTALLY to the ride cymbal and the socks (hi-hat) and stopped playing a straight 4 on the bass drum, using it for accents (or "bombs" as they were called) instead. Kenny Clarke is credited with being the father of this style. Then again in the mid-late '60s, time was further moved "on-top" -- shared between the snare & ride & socks, predominately by Tony Williams & Jack DeJohnette.

So, when I started to develop my style, I had the benefit of these further refinements to styles of playing. What I tried to do in defining the new style was to move the "oy-veh" more and more to the ride cymbal and sock, keep a soft straight 4 on the bass drum with OCCASIONAL "bombs", and use the snare drum for hilites and accents. Also, I took more liberties of going way further outside the "oy-veh" for breaks than did the 1st generation. For an idea of where I was going, listen to my playing on Trad. Freylachs & Russishe Sher on the Klez! album on Vanguard.

In 1982 or 3, Frank London, the founder & leader of the Klezmatics, introduced me to a fellow pykler, named Dave Licht, who was trying to learn how to play klez by listening to the KCB recordings that I did, along with the original 78s. I sat down and talked thru what I heard, and what I was trying to do, & showed him a few things. Dave took it from there. He graciously credited me as being the "father" of the modern klezmer drumming style in an interview with Modern Drummer, and I may have had a small opportunity to take a first step from which others have built, but believe me, there are tens of guys out there who have taken it much further, and are playing it better than I do now.

Since the Klez! album by KCB, the only recording of klez that I have done two cuts on a Klezmatics album (on Piranha (?) Records), where Les Miserables Brass Band guest appeared. (Don't know the title). Dave & I are double drumming on that one, and I have never heard it, so can't give you any help as to which is which.

So, that's my story about how the originals (both American & European) affected my playing...

Charlie Berg

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Last revised 25 October, 2004.