MISSISSIPPI BUBBE AND
I look for musical yikhes (lineage/pedigree) wherever I can find it. My grandmother played piano at a white Baptist church in Yazoo City, Mississippi. Not bad.
This Mississippi bubbe — Ida Kassoff Zalk — had a brother, Earl Kassoff, in Cleveland. Earl was a drummer, xylophonist and house painter. He went by the stage name Earl Castle, and led bands in the 1930s and 1940s.
In the 1990s — when I first began looking for musical yikhes — I couldn’t find much info on Earl. I talked to a couple relatives. Earl didn’t leave behind sheet music or tune books. He died in 1969.
At a Yiddishe Cup gig, an elderly musician schmoozed with me. I asked him if he knew Earl Kassoff. Yes, he remembered Earl. The schmoozer was Harold Finger, age 77. He had made a living playing clarinet and sax during the 1930s and 1940s.
I took my tape recorder to Harold’s apartment and interviewed him. He said there were “four or five bands that got the Jewish work.”
I asked, “What bands?” He didn’t remember the names. “What were the most popular Jewish tunes?” I said.
He said, “The songs from the Kammen Book. That was the big thing.”
The Kammen International Dance Folio, published in 1924, is still around. The Kammen book is to Jewish music what a sex manual is to sex. (Pianist Pete Sokolow makes this statement at most KlezKamp conventions.)
My Uncle Earl’s band did mostly “dance work” — American music, Harold said. Earl worked the downtown theaters, as well as the Golden Pheasant — a Chinese restaurant where Artie Shaw started.
Harold said he didn’t stick to the melody all the time. He did some “faking” (improvising). Now he played clarinet with a community orchestra. “I don’t do much jobbing anymore,” he said. (Jobbing is gigging.)
Harold died three years after the interview. I thought his kids might enjoy the interview tape, from 1992, so I called a Finger relative and left a message in the mid-1990s.
I didn’t hear back.
The relative should have called! Harold’s wife was on the tape, teasing Harold about how he loved his saxophone more than her. Harold said, “What? I quit playing music for you!”
Michiganders, come to the Klezmer Guy show at The Ark, Ann Arbor, Feb. 15. 8 p.m. $20. Bert Stratton on clarinet and prose, Alan Douglass on piano and vocals, Gerald Ross on ukulele and Hawaiian lap steel guitar. Prose pieces will contain words such as “Ann Arbor,” “Michigan” and “Rudy Tomjanovich.”
More on Mississippi Ida — my bubbe — later. Maybe not.
Yikhes update. Check out the latest from Jack Stratton’s band, Vulfpeck.