Interview with Don Byron
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, this gets back to this whole question, of, you know, how your chosen instrument has shaped your own career and your own stylistic inclinations, the fact that you keep breaking boundaries. Every single recording is tackling another genre. Now, you mentioned that Paul Shaffer knew about the klezmer thing. That’s a genre where the clarinet was a really important instrument, back in the teens and ’20′s. And then klezmer kind of disappeared, except for Mickey Katz in the ’50′s and there was really nothing for a long time and now there’s this big revival. Your work predated that, to some degree.
DON BYRON: Well, not exactly. The klezmer revival kind of started in the mid- to late- ’70′s. It was basically three bands. It was Andy Statman, Henry Sapoznik’s Kapelye, and the Klezmorim. And so the Klezmer Conservatory Band was like the second wave of that, and then I was in that. So it certainly predates… my involvement in Jewish music predates all of this Radical Jewish Culture stuff.
FRANK J. OTERI: Right, right.
Litvak Square Dance
from Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz
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DON BYRON: In fact, that radical Jewish culture stuff was probably a reaction to the popularity of the Mickey Katz album. But I give it up to some of those guys, whether they can play or not. I mean, Andy Statman is a very good musician, Henry Saopznik not so much, the Klezmorim are kind of not even together, and when they’re together they have a total different pool of people, I don’t think that David Julian Gray and those cats are all in it. But, they were really the people that revived the music, and, you know, I give them some credit.
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, what got you interested in the whole klezmer thing?
DON BYRON: Nothing. I mean, I was at New England, and Hank Snetsky, who was a teacher in the Third Stream at the time, was putting together a klezmer band for a concert of Jewish music, that was like a Hillel benefit that they were having at NEC, and, you know, among clarinet players who could understand chords, who improvise, who have some fluency on the instrument, there was, you know, just like now, there was nobody, so I was the only person to ask, and, you know, all of a sudden, we had gigs, and all of a sudden we had a band, and all of a sudden we had to get one set together, and two sets together. We really didn’t have time to think about whether the music was hip or cool or anything. We were just about getting the music together. And then, you know, certain qualitative differences in, you know, song structure, chord structure, the fluency of soloists, the quality of ornamentation became evident to us. But I think the first little blush of our work in that music was just kind of just breathless, you know, we’ve got to get something together. The only person I think you would know would be Frank London, who was in that group.
FRANK J. OTERI: He’s part of the Hasidic New Wave.
DON BYRON: Yeah, and he’s in the Klezmatics. So we all started playing klezmer music on the same day, I mean, you know, he’s in a whole trip now. I mean, you know, we almost literally started playing klezmer on the same day.
FRANK J. OTERI: And Andy Statman originally began as a bluegrass musician.
DON BYRON: Yeah, which really affected a lot of his output. I mean, my criticism of, like, the first bunches of those cats, and I think the Klezmer Conservatory Band’s angle on those cats was that they had some single line stuff, but no orchestration, no chordal understanding. He was a lot better than Sapoznik’s group, which if there was 4 chords in the spot, you’d get one, maybe. But Statman was the best musician of those three bands. But then things about his band were more bluegrass than klezmer. Like he never, for a long time he never really developed a drum, which, to me, if you’re doing klezmer music, there’s a lot to know about klezmer drums, as much as there is to know about Latin drums. And that was the first day that I did when I wanted to put together my thing, was put together a drummer and work on the theory of how to play Klezmer drums.
FRANK J. OTERI: There was a gig I heard with Statman at SummerStage in Central Park, I guess it was summer before last. This strikes to what we were talking about at the very beginning of our conversation. It was very interesting musically, it was this sort of free improv, it was really out there, Art Ensemble of Chicago-type improv.
DON BYRON: He’s into that…
FRANK J. OTERI: I loved it; I thought it was neat. But it was an hour-long gig and they did only 2 pieces. It was live in Central Park, and people were coming there thinking they were going to hear a klezmer band, and they were opening for the Del McCoury Bluegrass Band. And I think the audience totally didn’t get it. And as a result, I think it was a poor gig, even though the musical ideas were really interesting.
DON BYRON: Was it a poor played gig? Or a poor gig?
FRANK J. OTERI: It was a poor gig in the sense that there was no rapport between his group and the audience. There seemed to be a total disconnect. And it was a shame, because, I think the audience just was not prepared for what they were getting. And that harks back to what we were talking about before, this question of how does where you’re playing affect what you’re playing.
DON BYRON: Certainly if the audience doesn’t like the shit that you’re playing! [laughs] We don’t have to expound on that.