Real Music & Real Estate . . .

Yiddishe Cup’s bandleader, Bert Stratton, is Klezmer Guy.

He knows about the band biz and – check this out – the real estate biz, too.

You may not care about the real estate biz. Hey, you may not care about the band biz. (See you.)

This is a blog with a gamy twist. It features tenants with snakes and skunks, and musicians with smoked fish in their pockets.

Stratton has written op-eds for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post.


Posts from — September 2009


My real estate job is pretty easy physically. I just boss custodians and repairmen around  and do paperwork: pay taxes, pay cockroach killers, and argue about security deposit refunds.  The only physical part is climbing the stairs and going on roofs.  None of my buildings has elevators.

Playing the clarinet . . . that can injure you.  You know where?  The right thumb.  The right thumb holds a disproportionate weight when you’re standing.

I had a pain in my right thumb that lasted 18 months.  The pain took a long leisurely trip through my body. Went from my thumb to my shoulders to my neck.

Physical therapists love musicians, particularly violinists, flutists, pianists and clarinetists.

I drove to Cincinnati to see a specialist for clarinet pain.  Then I did Alexander Technique, and every other technique short of amputation.

Some clarinet players use a neck strap. I do.  At KlezKamp, the music conference, I met a clarinetist who wore a neck strap.  He said, “The pain eventually goes away.”  That was my mantra for more than a year.

The clarinet is the agony stick.  Musicians call it that.  Not simply because the clarinet can be painful to play, but because it’s difficult.  The fingerings are harder than the sax, and a clarinet has the “break,” the awkward leap from A to B in the middle register.  The clarinet squeaks.  And the clarinet’s register key raises the note a twelfth, not an octave.  This is extremely odd physics.  The clarinet’s sound doesn’t typically come out the bell, like on a sax.

You mic a sax by clipping a mic on the bell, but on a clarinet you surround the clarinet with mics like on Wagon Train.  I had a mic rig for my clarinet that was so complex and heavy — and cost more than my axe — I  gave up on it.  Plus, it was hurting my thumb.

I asked a sax player in a big band if he played clarinet.  He said, “I have a clarinet.”
1 of 2 posts for 9/30/09.  Please see the post below too.
A version of this post will appear in the upcoming (Dec. 2009) issue of The Clarinet, the magazine of the International Clarinet Association,
Apparently some people don’t know there is a comments section to this blog.  Click on the “comments” link  below the “Tell A Friend” link. If there are few, or no, comments, go to the end of the “Sanctuary” post — two down from here. There are a lot of comments there.

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September 30, 2009   8 Comments


Arvids Jansons.  I got a desk when he left.

Argero Vassileros.   Nickname: Argie.

Michael Bielemuk.  The Professor.  He had three rooms with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

Maria Malfundido.  (Not her real name but close enough.)  A kleptomaniac.  She stole light bulbs from the hall so we glued the bulbs into the sockets.

Zenon Chaikovsky.  Building manager and Ukrainian musician.

Saram Carmichael.  A black transvestite who solicited customers from her second floor window.  The johns waited at the bus stop outside her window.  What is a Saram?

Stan Hershfield.  One of the few Jews on the West Side.  He was raised in an orphanage and loved the word bubkes (beans), as in: “Stratton, I have bubkes so don’t hondle me about the rent.”  [Hondle is haggle.]  When Hershfield painted the wood floor in his kitchen, he beamed, “Only the best, Stratton, Benjamin Moore!”

Malfalda Bedrossian.  She was never late with her rent.  Put that on her tombstone.

Chris Andrews.  He made up for his regular name by sleeping in a coffin.

Merjeme Haxhiraj.  An Albanian who talked me down $10 on her rent every year.

John “Chip” Stephens.  A Chet Baker-like figure — in looks, music and name.  He played jazz piano all day and was so good he landed a tenure track job at a university in Missouri.
2 of 2 posts for 9/30/09

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September 30, 2009   10 Comments


Some Jews don’t like choirs in temple. Some can’t stand guitars.  Some can’t stand temple.

I have a friend who is down on “temple Jews,” meaning people who actively participate in synagogue life.  They’re too conventional, possibly.

I’m a temple Jew — at least on occasion.

My family belonged to Silver’s Temple, named after Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver.  The temple’s official name was The Temple.

“Which temple do you belong to?”


“The Temple” morphed into  “The Temple – Tifereth Israel ” after the rabbi and his son — also a rabbi — died.   My family didn’t fit in there, in the 1960s, because many of the members were a lot richer, mostly from Shaker Heights.  One Shaker kid arrived in a  station wagon driven by a chauffeur in a shiny-visor cap.

My youngest son went through religious high school at The Temple.  The place had mellowed by then. Nobody cared anymore if you weren’t a descendant of the Deutsche Yehudim,  Cleveland’s original German Jewish settlers.

When my parents left Silver’s, they went to a more middle-class temple in the ‘burbs.  My mom taught macramé there.  Volunteered in the sisterhood gift shop.  Collected  “donor points,” to reduce her ticket price to the annual temple dance.

Yiddishe Cup has played some of these parties.  Not so many lately, because few people want to dance at temples.  They’d rather stay home and watch people dance.

My parents joined this heymish (homey) suburban synagogue after I was confirmed, so I didn’t much care what they did.

(Heymish, the word, should be banned, starting now. Too heymish.)

On the High Holidays, I sometimes went with my parents to the heymish temple, or I’d go to Hillel at Case Western Reserve. After Rosh Hashanah services, I’d eat at Tommy’s restaurant with my 20-something friends.

Years ago a woman told me, “I joined Fairmount Temple because I like the music there.”   She had another reason: Brith Emeth didn’t even have money to carpet, she said.   She liked Fairmount Temple’s bent toward classic Reform music.  That stuck with me: joining a temple for the music.

I go to my synagogue because, among other reasons, I like the music and the rabbi — who likes my band.  Yiddishe Cup is scheduled to play my shul’s (synagogue’s) holiday celebrations until roughly 5800.  (We’re at 5770 now.)

I played a different shul’s holiday gig, where the rabbi left early to attend a rock concert.  The rabbi told me the band’s name.  Famous.  I wasn’t impressed.  I was peeved.  The rabbi was walking out on Yiddishe Cup.

It’s impossible to be a rabbi.

My synagogue uses a choir once in a while. I like the choir.  Took me a while.  Some Jews think a choir is super-goyish.  Not true.  In Europe there were synagogue choirs as far back as the 1500s.

Some temples have rock bands.  I’ve subbed in one.  The congregants really enjoy that groove.

I can see picking a shul for the music.  Why not.

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September 23, 2009   10 Comments


I rent to musicians.  I used to give them a break. Like one musician didn’t leave his forwarding address for his security deposit, and I mailed it to him anyhow.  He specialized in electronic music.  I put “please forward” on the envelope.  I never got a thank you.  He should have sent an email thank-you at least.  He messed it up for the next guitar picker.

I had an older blues guy who screwed me out of a couple months’ rent.  A guy in his fifties ought to know that “12-month lease” means 12 months, not six months.

Youngsters — say, 22-to-30 year olds — can’t envision what 12 months means.  They think that’s forever.  I felt that way when I was in my twenties.  These young tenants try to weasel out of their leases.  They say they need to move home to help Grandpa, who broke his hip.  They need to help him drink beer and watch the Three Stooges!  These kids are moving out for one main reason: to shack up with their girl/boyfriend to save on rent.
2 of 2 posts for 9/16/09

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September 16, 2009   No Comments


Everybody needs a mentor. Trouble is I’ve only found semi-mentors.

For music, I’ve basically taught myself.  My clarinet teacher showed me the notes and fingerings but he couldn’t improvise.  And he never recommended music to listen to.   He thought clarinet was like typing.

That was OK with me. I liked typing.  I practiced a lot.  My mother had me sign a contract not to practice more than an hour a day.  And I could not throw my clarinet when I hit a wrong note, particularly at my sister.

Here’s the secret to superior musicianship: Lock yourself in a room for years and hope you were born with a good ear.

That’s why pop musicians sometimes disdain singers.  They just sing.  They don’t play anything.  Many of them never locked themselves in rooms to practice.


Vis-a-vis my band, we’ve had some mentors:

(1.) Greg Selker, who reacquainted Cleveland with klezmer in the early 1980s.  Greg learned about klezmer from Hankus Netsky at the New England Conservatory in Boston.  Greg gave me lessons in 1987.

(2.) Jack Saul (1923-2009), a Jewish record collector.  You couldn’t find a seat in his house unless he moved a ton of records for you.

Every time Jack played a record he’d clean it with Windex.  No scratches.  Smooth-h-h.

He didn’t throw anything out — since day one.  He even had a John McGraw baseball card.

A couple years ago I sold my baseball cards — for a few grand — and he said, “Why’d you do that?”  I wasn’t looking at them and my kids didn’t want them.  My kids didn’t know who Harmon Killebrew was. “Why’d you do that?” Jack repeated, semi-stunned.

The Cleveland Jewish music scene was synonymous with Jack Saul. The Kleveland Klezmorim musicians went to Jack’s house in the early 1980s to record 78s.  Those 78s were pristine.  When Boston public radio did a radio show in 2000 about clarinetist/parodist Mickey Katz, they came to Jack for clean recordings.

Jack never let a record out of his house.  You had to sit there for an hour or two, and have him dub the records onto tape.

The first time I went there, in 1988, I recorded cuts from Music For Happy Occasions, Paul Pincus; Jay Chernow and his Hi-Hat Ensemble; Dukes of Freilachland, Max Epstein; Jewish Wedding Dances, Sam Musiker; Twisting the Freilachs; and Casamiento Judio, Sam Lieberman — a freaking klezmer musician from Latin America!


Several months after Jack died, Nathan Tinanoff, the founder of the Judaica Sound Archives at Florida Atlantic University, went into Jack’s basement and came out with 4,000 Jewish LPs in one day.  And he didn’t even get to the 78s.  By comparison, the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., had 3,000 records, which the center eventually  turned over to Florida Atlantic University.

Jack Saul liked Yiddishe Cup a lot.  (He also liked Steven Greenman, Lori Cahan-Simon, Cantor Kathyrn Wolfe Sebo — all Cleveland Jewish musicians.)  At one community meeting, he said, “We’ve got talent in this town.  We don’t have to always run to New York for entertainers.”

That meant a lot to us locals.  Go Tribe.

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September 9, 2009   1 Comment


Klezmer bands are often run like dictatorships because klezmer music originated in Eastern Europe — a part of the world notorious for autocrats.  Or so hypothesized Walt Mahovlich, the leader of the renowned gypsy-style band Harmonia.  Walt is an expert on Eastern Europe. His full name is Waltipedia.  Maybe.

Walt used to be in Yiddishe Cup. Technically he still is.  He is on a leave of absence, which he requested 13 years ago.  Walt likes to keep his options open.

If you run a band as a democracy, you’ll be in total disarray on the bandstand, Walt said.  I had a musician who liked to call tunes for me.  Drove me nuts.  Luckily he moved out of town 19 years ago.

Yiddishe Cup’s keyboard player, Alan Douglass, occasionally requests songs.  More often, he requests not to play a certain song.  For instance, he does not like playing “balls out” (hard-driving) music during guests’ meals.  Sometimes I agree with him, sometimes not.  These folks — at bar mitzvah luncheons — are comatose from a three-hour shabbat service followed by a 30-minute kiddush (post-service schmooze).  Sometimes they need a bracing shot of high-proof klez.

Some musicians have trouble with bandleaders’ czar-like behavior. My guys — not so much.  Yiddishe Cup’s musicians are the best in Cleveland; they get paid the most; and they generally cooperate.  If I have a problem with a guy, I’ll talk to him alone, not in front of the others.

Craig Woodson, a veteran drummer, taught me not to air private grievances in public.  Craig, too, believed in the benevolent monarch thing.  He had worked with a king — Elvis.  (Check Craig out in the movie Clambake.)

Craig was Yiddishe Cup’s second drummer. He was good — and in California too often on his own gigs.  Yiddishe Cup went through a ton of drummers.  Our current drummer, Don Friedman — who has been with us 13 years — knows how to keep time and add tasteful fills.  So does our alternate drummer, a yingl (boy) named Diddle.

Diddle, 21, started “playing out” (gigging) when he was 13.  I hate that — that start-out-as-young as-Mozart-or-you’re-toast mentality.  Diddle’s father hangs around our gigs, kind of like Venus and Serena’s dad.

Cleveland’s jazz king Ernie Krivda played in his dad’s polka band at 13.  Clarinetist Ken Peplowski played in a polka band at 13.  Joe Lovano started the sax at 5.  “At 16 the young Joe Lovano got his driver’s license and no longer needed his father, Big T, to drive
him . . .” blah, blah.

My father was a “Big T” too.  Toby.  Why didn’t he have a band?  Or at least a decent record player.
1 of 2 posts for 9/2/09.  Please see post below too.
Yiddishe Cup concert 7:15 p.m. Sun., Sept. 6, Orange Village (Ohio) gazebo.

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September 2, 2009   3 Comments



My father said job one was getting the rent checks in the bank.

He didn’t even trust the night drop.  Had to wait in line.

The worst was when a money order got lost.  It might take up to three months to get a replacement.

One time the bank lost 16 rent checks.  I used the night drop, and the envelope wedged between the metal chute and the bank’s brick wall.  Just got buried in there like a time capsule.  I thought I was going nuts . . . Did I forget to make the deposit?  Was the deposit in my car somewhere?  At home I spent many hours looking through file cabinets and garbage cans for that deposit.

The bank found the deposit three months later, and I said to my tenants, “See, I’m not senile.  It was the bank’s fault.”  It’s rarely the bank’s fault, so I had to brag.

I wrote the bank manager about my  predicament — my embarrassment telling 16 people I had lost their checks.  I asked the bank to waive its service fees for a year.  I wrote: “My late father, who started the business, began talking to me! . . . ‘You did what?  You lost the money?'”

The bank didn’t waive the fees.  They did, however, give me $110 to cover tenants’ tracer fees.
2 of 2 posts for 9/2/09

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September 2, 2009   No Comments