David Krakauer: Laughing and Crying

How Serious is Klezmer?

FJO: Many of your titles sound like there are jokes embedded in them. And of course, Mickey Katz, the public face of klezmer for a whole generation, was equal parts musician and comedian. Is this serious music? Is it music to have a good time with? Or is it a little bit of both?

DK: Serious music. I’m 2000 billion percent serious. I think it’s serious music with humor. I always want to tell a story with my music. I want it to have a point of view, to mean something, but I’m 100 percent serious. But I think people can have fun and dance. Talk about one of my great heroes, James Brown, or Duke Ellington. Yeah, you can lose yourself in delirium. You can be having a great time. But also the music makes you think.

FJO: So is the right place to hear this music something other than sitting in a concert hall? Or should you be on your toes?

DK: It’s always fun when people sit in a concert hall and then at a certain point something happens and they get up and groove. So it’s nice to have both. I once was playing in Krakow, Poland, in a big concert at a Jewish culture festival and we were sitting around drinking and eating. Then suddenly some of the musicians in the festival started playing. I got up. I started to play. I played from like one in the morning ’til five or six and I completely went into a trance. The whole room was dancing. I was leaning on people, dancing, swaying, I went out of my body…. Playing Jewish music has been one of the great journeys. I had no idea. If you told me back in 1987 that this would have happened, I wouldn’t have believed it.

FJO: You grew in New York City and were trained in music here. Where did you first hear klezmer? Where did it come from? At the time you were growing up, this music wasn’t around.

DK: In a certain sense, finding klezmer music was an amazing blessing for me. It’s such a long story. When I was at the High School of Music and Art, I was playing classical and jazz at the same time. I was studying with Leon Russianoff, but I was also hanging out with Anthony Coleman, who was my best friend. He had a band and we did jazz repertoire way before jazz repertoire was “in” with people like Wynton. We were doing Monk tunes, Earl Hines, Duke Ellington stuff, and Anthony’s originals. That was my dual training. And then I went to college. I started really centering on classical music. I had a crisis of confidence with jazz. I was afraid that I had nothing to say. What could I do after Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong? These were my great heroes. I stopped playing jazz but I was still improvising and experimenting. After I went through Sarah Lawrence College, Paris Conservatory, and Juilliard, I started freelancing in New York and was playing with a lot of new music groups like the Da Capo Chamber Players, Continuum. Speculum [Musicae] would give me a call now and then… I was doing all that stuff and I would also occasionally get a call to go down to CBGBs and honk my face off, so to speak.

The first time I really heard klezmer was in about 1979. I was listening to a lot of Greek music and Turkish music. I was looking to find different sounds on the clarinet. I was hearing five or six different clarinet styles and I’d never heard anything like this before. I heard a concert of one of the great old European masters, Dave Tarras. He was making a little bit of a comeback. It was a double bill. Andy Statman was playing with Zev Feldman on the cimbalom and Marty Confurius on the bass.

And then, I lived on 80th Street and Broadway overlooking Zabar‘s and used to hear this klezmer music waft up to my window. And ultimately, I started playing with some of those musicians. So suddenly my jazz background and listening to all these amazing Turkish and Greek and Albanian players came together. I felt like I had found a musical home. I could write my own music. I could be an interpreter, as I was with classical music. I could be an improviser… I thought it would be really fun to play something that was connected to a part of myself that I hardly knew about. I think it was more this tremendous curiosity about that. When my grandparents came to America, they shut that door and I opened it.

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