Memories of the klez revival and
"The Klezmorim"

Over the last few months former members of "The Klezmorim," (the band I feel is responsible for the klezmer revival) Lev Liberman and David Julian Gray , have been sending me e-mail about the band. I was never a big fan of their recordings, but I never voluntarily missed one of their concerts once I first heard them on KPFA, from Berkeley, at a fundraiser in 1982. (They had just released their album, "Metropolis,"--"Once you've heard Metropolis," one bandmember proclaimed, "you'll never need to listen to music ... again!") Since I haven't yet made time to talk about their recordings, and since their performances brought me much pleasure over the years, and since they are good storytellers, I thought I'd compile a few paragraphs from the e-mail and let this suffice until Lev or someone writes the definitive article on the band. [ari]

Note: The Klezmorim finally have their own website,

Lev introduces himself

Ari, thanks for your admirable effort to organize the world of klezmer online. Wanna put me in the klezmer contact database? I co-founded (with David Skuse) The Klezmorim in Berkeley, California, in 1975 -- arranging, recording, & playing sax with the band across North America & Europe until 1988. I'm now a writer & multimedia developer in Portland, Oregon. The burgeoning of the klezmer scene is gratifying: it's particularly nice to see serious jazz musician/composers taking the genre in risky new directions. I have no idea how posterity views The Klezmorim, but I'd like to think that the current klezmer revival had its origins in our early experiments with tight ensemble playing, improvisation, klezmer/jazz fusions, neo-klezmer composition, street music, world beat, and New Vaudeville. (Not to mention our klezmer workshops and college arts residencies, and our carefully crafted public personae of arrogant popstardom & sophisticated sleaze.).... [lev, 11/30/95]

On the origins of the band's name

In response to my hope of going to work in Sarajevo next year, something that is now pretty much on hold: "Here's a bit a Klez revival trivia: The original name of the group which became the Klezmorim (L. Liberman, D. Skuse, D. Gray, L. Chastain, & G. Carageorge) was "the Sarejevo Folk Ensemble" -- this aggregation changed its name to "The Klezmorim" in late Jan. of '76 dedicated to old time Yiddish dance band music (which was not yet called "klezmer music" by anyone) and played its first gig as such at the North Berkeley branch of the Berkeley Public Library April 13, 1976. [djg, 2/11/96]

To amplify a bit:

The Berkeley Library gig was kind of special, marking the first time we took an all-klezmer/Yiddish repertoire out to a general audience. I seem to remember that we played the next day at the Downtown Berkeley branch, too. Supposedly there's a videotape, but I've never seen it & by now it's probably with Elvis in the Lost Ark.

The band had in fact been quite active (hyperactive) prior to that, in late '75, playing at parties & weddings & busking on streetcorners in the San Francisco Bay Area. David Gray (the short blond David) doesn't remember all those gigs 'cause he was convalescing from mononucleosis or leprosy or something at the time. David Skuse (the tall dark David) also missed some gigs 'cause he left for a month to play on a cruise ship. For many of those first gigs we were really two half-a-bands, with me as the connecting link.

Think "The Sarajevo Folk Ensemble" is a pretentious name for a five-piece string band? It's a wild name for a folk duo. In '74, Skuse & I were playing at parties & restaurants -- calling ourselves, duh, "Lev & Dave." (Before that, we were in a trio called "The Moscow Knights.") So one day I had an epiphany (a kind of French pastry they serve in Berkeley) & concocted for the pair of us a moniker loaded with epic grandeur & swashbuckling romance: The Sarajevo Folk Ensemble. What was I thinking? Hey, I make no claim to sanity.

But you shoulda seen the faces of the people who thought they were booking some 48-piece People's National State Folkloric outfit from Sol Hurok -- and in walks a flutist & a cat with a fiddle. I still crack up thinking about it... [lev, 5/14/96]


In response to linking to the interview with Kevin Linscott: "For the record: The musical ornament Kevin mentions should be spelled 'boidt'yaa.' This orthography is from the horse's mouth; I coined the word in 1976. When I go to that big klezmer jam in Hades, you can engrave on my tombstone: HE DISCOVERED THE BOIDT'YAA. Make sure you spell it right!

"(I have no idea what the old-time klezmers called it. Maybe they had no name for it, like a fish has no name for water.)" [lev, 2/27/96]

Quibbles about schtick and band history

Not that I wanna quibble, but I think that maybe the site kinda short-sheets The Klezmorim. If I may comment on your blurb:

The Klezmorim were the band that got the klez revival of the Seventies going. (It's not clear to me whether they preceded Kapelye or vice versa, but =I= was certainly aware of the Klezmorim long before I heard of other bands. ari).

The Klezmorim preceded Kapelye by about 3 years. We were already touring nationally (& dropping in on Sapoznik in NY) before Kapelye was formed. To my knowledge, the only other klezmer musicians performing publicly in 1975/76 (when we started) were Andy Statman & Zev Feldman, 3000 miles away. Whether we preceded them by a few months, or they preceded us, I don't know. But they were a duo, so we lay claim to being the first klezmer revival band.

In their later years, the band seemed more focused on shtick and on '20s jazz

Shtick & jazz, yes. Focus, no. By the time I left in 1988, we'd been developing as artists for a couple of years in two very different directions:

  1. Original tunes by me & Ben Goldberg -- with improvisations by the rest of the band -- showcasing a fusion of klezmer, bebop, New Orleans, minimalist, & cartoon soundtrack styles;
  2. a very authentic 1910 Russian klezmer village street-band sound. Both directions were important to us, and I think we benefited artistically from the dynamic tension between traditionalism & free expression. We performed a lot of this stuff at European jazz festivals & TV & radio, but unfortunately never got around to issuing it on an album.

When we played '20s jazz, we tried to choose tunes which displayed klezmer influences. Or else we played mainstream jazz tunes as they had been (or might have been) played by klezmer musicians in the 1920s. We hoped to demonstrate that klezmer musicians of old plied their craft not exclusively in a "Jewish" milieu, but as professionals in the context of the larger world & major musical influences of their day -- and that they had left their stylistic imprint on various urban or commercial musics, e.g., jazz & Hollywood. This notion, commonplace now, was treated as shocking heresy when we first advanced it in the late '70s.

As to the shtick: guilty as charged. Two members who joined in 1977 -- Rick Elmore and Brian Wishnefsky -- were veterans of the San Francisco street scene, performing as (respectively) Professor Gizmo the One-Man Band and Hairy James the Trumpet-Playing Gorilla. And in 1983/4 we joined forces with the Flying Karamazov Brothers for a theatrical run as a sort of juggling/brass supergroup. These guys' bizarre humor left its mark on us permanently. We loved performing in fezzes and tossing rubber chickens into the crowd. It's true that Ken Bergmann used plastic Halloween bones as drumsticks. Yes, I did solo on the HarpoMarxophone. Yes, we did conduct a mock Socialist rally, holy-roller revivalist meeting, and kabuki drama onstage. And it is indisputable that we stole our moves from Betty Boop. So sue me. Let it be noted that while we were indulging in all these cheap thrills, we were simultaneously playing the pants off any klezmer band that ever lived. [lev, 5/9/96]

I will say the stage "shtick" was totally organic and unselfconscious. When we were starting out, our "stage antics" (one couldn't call them shows) were 90% improvised; we were irrepressible, CERTAINLY no less so in rehearsal than on stage. When we got professional management, they suggested we crystalize and rehearse, but improv was never absent. The shows became more polished and the highest and craziest moments moved from stage more to writing and rehearsing. However, AT ALL TIMES, from the very beginning, the "show" was intended to illucidate and provide context, and I think we succeeded.

For a while, almost all klez revival bands tried to put on a "crazy" show, The Klezmorim certainly established that "tradition" (and acquitted ourselves quite well, IMHO!). Thank goodness with dominant bands like Brave Old World, The Klezmatics and the Flying Bulgars, musicianship has mostly taken over. [djg, 5/15/96]

The origins of THE SHOW and what it all meant

In my last e-mail to you, Ari, I responded kind of flippantly to the issue of shtick. Everything I told you is true, but of course the truth has many layers....

During my 12-&-a-half-year tenure (sentence?), we went 'round & 'round over the issue of whether the stage moves were useful, necessary, or distracting. Aside from being sheer devilish fun (for us, if for nobody else), they began as a method of focusing the excess energy we'd been pissing indiscriminately all over the stage. I mean, like every other folk musician we had to learn stuff like: don't mumble; don't look at your shoes; tune up backstage, not onstage; & look at the lead player, so that the audience will. Graduating to such radical innovations as set lists, intelligible speech, erect posture, fire, & the wheel seemed natural, & necessary.

The stage moves evolved partially out of sheer logistics. Most of us played several different instruments, & over the years we had to develop spatial radar & fluidity of motion onstage simply in order to keep from colliding with one another & destroying all our horns while getting on & off stage or switching axes or whatever. It's easier to run than to walk, easier to fly than to plod.

We moved constantly on stage because we were a 6-piece band playing 9- or 10-piece arrangements. Essentially, everybody played bass lines, rhythm, counter-rhythm, melody, harmony, & counter-melody. As alto sax player, in a single tune I might harmonize with the clarinet (instant reed section); play stings with the trumpet (high brasses); weave counter-rhythms with the trombone (low brasses); join forces with the drums & tuba (rhythm section); and then switch to soprano sax & play improvised lead. Each of these functions would require a different physical alignment onstage -- mostly so we could hear one another & maintain eye contact so we'd cue together, but also to help the audience see what they were hearing. (We discovered early on that most audience members couldn't correlate instruments by sound & appearance -- so if you wanted them to watch the lead player, you'd have to put the lead player front & center, doing headstands.) Complicating all this was mic & monitor placement, hall acoustics & lights, etc., etc., which differed every night on the road. We pulsed like Betty Boop cartoon characters for the exact same reason the Fleischer animators invented the pulse: to synchronize sight & sound.

And then, you know, as it dawned on us that the moves made us interesting -- i.e., correlated with vast improvements in our sex lives -- we got into this competitive macho thing & became absolutely shameless. So we'd run onstage & play in midair, & hold high notes 'til we turned blue, & use our horns as swords & oars & telescopes & whatnot. Let anybody who disdains such cheap thrills first learn to do them. This stuff is frickin' strenuous & requires split-second reflexes, not to mention the ineffable mental discipline of Yoda.

Working on the Show had other benefits for us. It was kind of a bonding experience, as we wrote it & staged it collectively. It reinforced on another plane what we experienced by collaborating on the musical arrangements. Klezmer music is ensemble music. The band is the instrument. We tried to run the band democratically -- without prima donnas. (Instead, we ended up with six prima donnas... but that's another story.)

The Show gave us a context in which to demonstrate the interrelatedness of klezmer with Eastern European folk music, early jazz, circus music, Gypsy music, & early movie soundtracks. If we had just played all that music in no particular order, it would have seemed arbitrary & random. Hopefully we presented some sense of the transformation from rural to urban, from folk to commercial, from Old World to New World. (And yes, I tell you, this required rubber chickens!!!)

The Show enabled us to break out of the moribund folk circuit and into musical theatre, concert halls & music festivals, arts residencies, national TV, rock & jazz audiences, Europe, etc. It made us visually appealing. It was a media hook. It made us not just a band, but an event.

At some level I remained a folk purist & amateur musicologist at heart, & would have liked the music to succeed strictly on its own merits. But it would not have happened without the Show. We woulda died on the vine & never had the chance to spread our klezmer-mushroom-spores across the topsoil of America & the world....

And let me reiterate: we never compromised the authenticity of the music. When we played klezmer music, we honestly tried like hell to penetrate the mindset of the old players, & do what they would have done (or at least, what they would have done if they'd been us). That was important to us, and the Show existed independent of that.

And now --let me present the debit side. Concocting & rehearsing the Show was an incredible drain on our time, energy, & money. (We could rehearse the music in a living room, but rehearsing the Show required renting a hall.) And while for several years it was fun & creative & meant that we always had new & surprising stuff to unleash onstage ... later in the band's history it became kind of an albatross, something we felt we had to do whether it was fresh or not.

In my last couple of years with the band -- 1986-'88 -- I began thinking that the band had enough of a reputation, & the music enough of a niche, for us to go back to being just players again. Not forgetting what we'd learned about holding an audience's attention & moving efficiently onstage, but tossing the shtick. I knew we could do it: we'd had a four-night run at a very hip club during the Berlin Jazz Festival, where the stage was too tiny to move & we had to play four hour-long sets per night to hardcore jazz audiences who came just to hear the improvisations. I mean, we had the chops. And I began to long for more simplicity; began to think that it would be more of a challenge to project the same intensity or charisma or whatever without moving a muscle. And the ensemble musically was the best it had ever been, with Ben Goldberg (more of a technician than a melodist, but still pretty damn good) on clarinet and the very loose & delightful Kenny Wolleson (now playing, I think, with Tom Waits and John Zorn) on percussion. So maybe we could have just played, and it would have been all right.

That was a time of great musical growth and much soul-searching. Was the band the band? Or was it the guys in the band? Was it the idea of the band? Was it the culture of the band? Like every human enterprise, we'd outgrown our exuberant adolescence and entered midlife crisis.

My ultimate choice was to change careers & become a writer (&, finally, multimedia developer). Others made other choices, & I think we all wish each other well.

None of it had been done before we did it. We had to re-invent everything. That's the legacy of The Klezmorim (capital T, please).

More later.... [lev, 5/11/96]

... on the origins of the term "klezmer"

[this in response to e-mail in summer 1999, from KlezKanada. ari]

>The question in hand is when the term "klezmer" began to be applied
>to the music that ya'll, and the subsequent revival, played.

I'm quite sure that the members of The Klezmorim were using the term "klezmer music" in 1976, and maybe even in 1975. Right from the start it came up in press and radio interviews all the time, because of our name:

Q: What does "Klezmorim" mean?
A: It means "People who play klezmer music."
Q: And what's klezmer music?

In the interest of completeness I should mention that through 1976 our repertoire was a hodgepodge of klezmer, Russian, Greek, Serbian, and Yiddish Theatre tunes, as well as Ladino and Hungarian Gypsy songs vocalized by Laurie Chastain. Promoting our early public gigs, I felt the need to present each as a thematically-named concert -- to forestall any perception that we might be a generic, ragtag folk band. So the flyers we posted around town would announce that we were performing "Music of the East European Jews" or "Songs of the Odessa Underworld" or "Songs of the Yiddish Theatre" and so on. It took us a year or two to achieve focus.

Essentially, the term "klezmer" was meaningless to everybody we encountered; in an interview, we could spread the meme -- but a flyer on a telephone pole had to do its work alone. And the theme thing gave us an incentive to keep working up new tunes so every show wasn't just like the previous one.

In 1976-77, David Skuse and David Gray and I were happy to expound on the music's history and terminology. All three of us were teaching music classes, and still very much under the influence (by proxy) of the UCLA Ethnomusicology Squad. And for quite a while afterward, Gray and I (particularly Gray) had a desire to expound and define and be credible with the folk music establishment. So it was klezmer-this and klezmer-that and here's the history and here's the etymology, blah-de-blah. I mean, it's funny now to look back on it: we were just these passionate goofballs onstage, but the minute some interviewer stuck a microphone in our face we got all professorial....

After we'd been touring nationally for a while and starting to take the press attention for granted, I wanted to talk more about us six cats in particular, and less about the entire history of Yiddish instrumental music. I wanted "klezmer" to be a kind of toss-off, oh-yeah-everybody-knows-what-that-is term like "jazz" or "punk." (Which I guess it is now, twenty years later.) But in the late '70s the word "klezmer" used to dominate every interview... we'd be going along speaking English like regular citizens, and then here comes THAT WORD, and it's like "Hey, don't you know it's illegal to play music that has a funny name?"

So we used the term "klezmer" proudly, and we loved the music, but we got almighty tired of having to define it all the time. We wanted to pull off the hat trick of penetrating mainstream pop culture without compromising our music, and by 1979 John Raskin and I were thinking that maybe the name "The Klezmorim" was an obstacle. We wondered if we shouldn't change our name to "The Yiddish-American Jazz Band" or something totally self-explanatory like that. Because frankly, half the time the media assumed we were Israeli -- the "im" was a dead giveaway, right -- and we'd hafta spend the first five minutes of every interview sorting that out.

But we figured that David Gray would never go for changing the name, so we dropped the idea.

And if I somehow convey the impression that we were obsessed with our image to an unseemly degree, it's because A) we were; and B) we had to be, 'cause we didn't fit into any pre-established category of the American music business. We were sui generis, which violated all the rules; we had to establish brand identity, if you will, or fold our tents and go home.

>I originally assumed that if there were "klezmorim,"
>then the music they played was "klezmer,"

Exactly. I've also heard Jews from Europe use the word "klezmer" to indicate plural musicians. So maybe there's really just the one word.

>but over and over when you listen to the oldsters talk about their music,
>it is clear that it was "wedding music" or "jewish music", but not "klezmer,"
>a word that had class implications that they would have done their best to avoid.

Well, there's oldsters and there's oldsters. At this point, even the oldest of the remaining oldsters would have played in the waning decades of the original klezmer era; few of them, I think, could have escaped internalizing the economic and social pressures that led to klezmer's demise in the first place. I've heard old-timers explain that a "musikant" was a real musician -- i.e., one who could read music -- but that a "klezmer" was no good because he could only play by ear. Illiterate, poor, downscale, a drinker, a ruffian -- God forbid, an improviser!

>It has been pointed out to me that Beregovski used the term "Jewish Klezmer-Music" in his Russian ....

Which is probably all the authentication anybody needs. Beregovskii was there, right?

>While I'm asking questions, given the insistence by purists
>on the idea that klezmorim never did vocal music, how and
>why did ya'll decide immediately to include vocals (or did you
>stumble in and out of that in the ignorance of the time)?

Um, yes. I think the "purists" you refer to includes my humble self -- as late as 1988, Henry Sapoznik and I were sharing a panel discussion at some Jewish music confab in Berkeley, and he took exception to my making a distinction between klezmer music and Yiddish vocal music: he asserted that the term "klezmer" could properly encompass both. I countered that this effectively would make "klezmer" a euphemism for "Yiddish," and that we'd still need a term for instrumental music.

The fact is, it's a complicated issue. Many klezmer instrumental stylings imitate the sounds of vocal music. Many tunes (or cognate tunes) are shared between the instrumental and folk-vocal or Yiddish Theatre traditions. Klezmer instrumentalists accompanied singers and badkhonim (wedding jesters) -- and I don't doubt that some klezmorim were wedding jesters. So I agree that there's a lot of overlap.

Nevertheless, to my ear, there's an important distinction. Instrumentalists play differently when they accompany vocalists -- they play with more restraint. The balance, the synergy is different.

And maybe for the old-timers this wasn't such a critical distinction. I mean, Tarras was going to sound like Tarras, even if he was backing a singer. But among klezmer revival bands, the inclusion of a vocalist has often relegated the instrumentalists to a perfunctory role -- they have lost the chance to explore the nuances of sound, the ensemble balance, the expressive subtleties that they might otherwise have developed, and which I believe are essential to a klezmer's musical vocabulary.

To give a couple of examples, I think that both the Klezmer Conservatory Band and The Klezmatics have always been at their best when they've done purely instrumental numbers. Whereas Kapelye's forte, I thought, was vocal -- Michael Alpert's singing was exquisite, and Henry Sapoznik's voice appealing in its own way.

I'm not dissing singers or songs or Yiddish singing. It's simply a different mindset from how your ear develops in an all-instrumental band; you develop different skills, you have different strengths. It's OK to like both. It's even OK to DO both. All I ask is that Yiddish instrumental music be allowed to have its own term, its own name -- klezmer -- and not be expediently lumped in with vastly dissimilar things.

And of course the guilt is mine for not figuring this out until 1978. We were the first klezmer revival band to come out with an album -- in 1977 -- and among our instrumental tunes were some Yiddish vocal numbers, and the waters have been muddy ever since. Sorry!

And again, in the interest of completeness, I should add that after 1978 my band used to do one vocal number per show. Usually a Depression-era novelty number like "Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime" or the Betty Boop theme song or "Minnie the Moocher." Purely for cheap thrills and because we liked the stuff and because it so effectively helped get audiences' heads into a 1930 groove, from whence we could pull them back even farther into the past. But there's no doubt about it, we played more wimpily behind a singer, and if we'd done it more than once per night, we'd have lost our chops altogether.

And also, the minute a singer opens his or her mouth, everybody stops looking at the band. No lie! Watch a music video on MTV some time and compare the on-screen time the lead singer gets, versus everybody else.

Lev, 28 Aug 1999

I wanted to add a couple of things to the Klezmorim history.... First, I will verify that Klezmorim already had at least 2 albums out by the time Kapelye (and us [Klezmer Conservatory Band]) got started. Kapelye & K.C.B. started almost simultaneously, with our 1st recordings coming out within weeks of each other. But I remember buying the Klezmorim album with the R. Crumb cover to check out the music, early on.

In fact, K.C.B.'s early traditional style was to some extent a response to the Klezmorim's fusion approach to the music. There was a conscious decision to play the music straight up (as opposed to what "THOSE GUYS" did), and use our size and focus on Yiddish theatrical music to differentiate us. With hindsight, I see that they were simply further down the learning curve than the rest of us. I mean, look at some of the current work by KCB alumni - the Klezmatics, Shirim, Don Byron, etc.

Secondly, do either Lev or David remember hanging with the KCB in Boston, around 1981 or 82? I remember we had a impromptu session at Die Arbeter Rung branch in Brookline, MA., where we rehearsed at the time. I definitely remember hanging with David Julian G., Lev. And sitting in on one of those "what axe do YOU use" thangs between Dave Harris & Kevin Linscott. It was kinda like an early klezmer summit! :-) [Charlie Berg, original drummer for KCB, 5/15/96]

I certainly DO remember that, in fact think of it time to time as an exciting time. This was really the first time we ever got together with others (at least of our generation, we'd previously jammed with a tired bemused Dave Tarras) who knew the repetoire and played it, pretty much, with the same aesthetic! [djg, to Charlie, 8/3/96]

What can I say. When they were good, they were incomparable, and they were mostly very, very good. We'll never hear the train whistling across the plains of Mother Russia again, spewing brass instruments to itinerant Jewish musicians. We'll never again see klezmer breakdancing. But, with any luck, we'll hear more about the band over time, and that will have to serve. ari

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