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.


 
 

Category — Klezmer

TURN IT DOWN!

The bride asked if Yiddishe Cup would play quietly. I said, “Great! I’m in two Facebook groups, ‘I Hate Cilantro’ and ‘I Hate Loud Music.’”

I attended another wedding — as a guest — where the band blasted like they were at Noriega’s palace. Then a DJ in an adjoining room (behind a party-center folding partition) blasted like he was shooting a cannon.

There were about 225 guests at that wedding. I was the only one bugged? Apparently. My wife thought the band was terrific. She said, “They are like a magnet, pulling me to the dance floor.” (My wife was a like magnet pulling me to the dance floor.)

The band had no keyboard player or bass player. The lead singer cued backing tracks on his laptop. The drummer faked playing a lot.

My late rabbi, Michael Hecht, could have been the president of the “I Hate Loud Music” society. Every time Yiddishe Cup played at his shul, Congregation Beth Am, he would ask us to turn it down. One time my sound guy/pianist said, “I can’t turn it down any more. The sound system is completely off.”

Rabbi Hecht’s understudy is me. Hey, turn it down!

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August 24, 2022   2 Comments

CLARINET FOMO

I turned down a gig. I rarely do that. Try new things, blah, blah. I was asked to play clarinet for the play “Di Yiddishe Vayb” (The Jewish Wife) at the BorderLight International Theatre + Fringe Festival, Cleveland.

The money stunk: $180 for six services (meaning two rehearsals and four shows). Plus, I wasn’t too keen on the play’s description — something about “anti-fascism,” Brecht and Chelm. But Bertolt (me) said yes, initially.

Then, a couple weeks later, the start times of the gig(s)  and the venue changed. We went from the Hermit Club — a cool place — to a hill on Public Square (not so unique). I emailed the play people, “Somebody changed the ground rules on me!” I couldn’t make the new times, which was true.

An actor emailed me, “Yeah, the scheduling for a fringe show is kind of wacky; thanks for bearing with us while you could. We’ll look into other options, and please do let us know if anything changes on your end!”

Then, the other day, I got a generic sort of email, requesting a klez-oriented clarinet player for the play, for $450. The price of poker had gone up! I texted the playwright and said I’d do the gigs for $450; I would rearrange my schedule, which wouldn’t be easy. But the play people had already found somebody else.

The first show is tomorrow. If you attend, please let me know how the hill it is, and who’s on clarinet?

I should have done it. Or maybe not. Some FOMO here.

Edit / update:

I went to the play last night and it stunk. Yippee! I would have died if I had had to sit through that show six times. The actor was great, but the script was not-too-funny Chelm stories spiced with references to Nazis. Experimental, and a failure. The clarinet player had a boring part, and she didn’t play loud enough. You’ve got to blast when you’re outdoors. When I was in New Orleans a few years ago, I sat in with local jazz heroes on the main square there; afterward, the bandleader said to me, “Play with some balls!” So I went home to Cleveland and got a louder clarinet barrel. I’m glad I went to “Di Yiddishe Vayb” last night. No mo’ FOMO.

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July 20, 2022   No Comments

A FAN’S NOTE

I got a fan letter yesterday.

Dear Bert,
My bucket list is to see you perform again. I’ve had serious medical challenges for 10 years & I want to see you perform & I want to replace my CDs, as they are worn out from overuse. Are you still writing? Are you still touring? Please let me know what your schedule is. I want to see you perform at least one more time. You have brought so much joy to so many & still do thru your CDs. God bless you.
Dianne

Dianne attached a photo of me and her together. “Me” was this guy:

b stratton cruise pianist pic

Bert Stratton — the guy above — is a pianist and singer on the Caribbean Princess cruise ship.

I wrote Diane back: “wrong bert stratton.”

Caribbean Princess Bert Stratton is my Googleganger.

A few years ago a man phoned me and said, “Bert, this is Joe. I’m upstairs.” I was in my basement. Joe was upstairs in my house? Creepy. Turned out, Joe was upstairs at the other Bert Stratton’s house.

The other Bert Stratton knows me. A Cleveland acquaintance ran into him on the ship and asked if he knew me. He did. He knew of me.

Bert has all my fan mail.

There’s a klezmer concert at Cain Park, Cleveland Hts., this Sunday (7 p.m. June 26), featuring  Jack Stratton, drums; Michael Winograd, clarinet; and Josh “Socalled” Dolgin, keyboard and vocals. Free. No tix necessary. Just show up.

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June 22, 2022   2 Comments

HORA EXPERT

I’m an expert on the Jewish hora. How it goes down or doesn’t go down. I’ve analyzed horas at simchas where I’m playing, and simchas where I’m not playing — like at family functions, where I’m just another regular Joe Jew guest. Usually I get out on the dance floor at these family celebrations and roll with the lame DJ.

One time I banged up my knee the afternoon before the relative’s bat mitzvah party. I tripped on steps while fetching earplugs for the party. I asked the bartender at the party, “Unusual request here, but can you get me a bag of ice for my knee?” No problem. I sat out the hora. It went on about 10 minutes. It was the standard DJ crap: “Now circle right, now left. Everybody into the center.”

I would have danced; I’m not a hora snob, but I was freaking out about my knee. I thought my knee might go south for months. You never know, particularly when you reach my age.

Yiddishe Cup occasionally does some simchas where we play the hora and then are replaced by a DJ. One thing  the DJ does that Yiddishe Cup can’t compete with: the DJ gets his “dance facilitators” to carry the bat mitzvah girl in on their shoulders. (At Yidd Cup gigs, we have the kids carry us in.)

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April 20, 2022   1 Comment

A TOO-JEWISH POST

Yiddishe Cup’s most religiously scrupulous gig was for the get (divorce decree) rabbi. We played a Purim tish (gathering) at his house in Cleveland Heights. All black hats and beards. The rabbi’s drosh (speech on a liturgical text) was in Yiddish. I thought I was in a Chagall painting.

My Conservative rabbi, when he heard about the get gig, couldn’t believe I’d been in the get rabbi’s house. My rabbi had never been in there.

I knew all the rabbis in town. In Cleveland, Jewish denominations typically don’t party and pray together, so the rabbis don’t all know each other. If you want a mishmash of Jews all in the same room, go to a smaller town, like Akron, Ohio. In Akron, the Orthodox and non-Orthodox will mix it up. It’s a matter of survival. Small numbers.

Musicians, take note of this: Don’t play “Hava Nagila” for the Orthodox. They usually don’t want it. Too goyish. Nevertheless, at one Orthodox wedding, the bride’s aunt repeatedly requested the band play “Hava Nagila.” I said no. Then some New York yeshiva buchers asked me for the song. I said, “Are you trying to embarrass the band?”

“No, we heard you’re a klezmer band and we’d like to hear it.” Yeah, right.

Still, the mom didn’t want it. Again, the mom’s sister said play it. And again, the buchers said play it. The mom finally relented. We played it. The world ended.

Coda: The buchers danced with ruach to the tune. “Hava Nagila” is originally a Hasidic nign from Hungary. Look these Jewish words up. Don’t have time to translate. Gotta find my funny hat for Purim.

I had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Monday. “We Are All Ukrainians Now.”

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March 16, 2022   3 Comments

NUDE MUSIC

I used to sell klezmer. I traveled to arts booking conferences in Chicago, Kansas City, and Pittsburgh. The conferences were trade shows. I hung up a Yiddishe Cup banner in a booth and smiled at people I didn’t want to smile at. The people I smiled at were bookers, also known as presenters. They represented Carnegie Hall, the Oshkosh (Wis.) Opera House and points in between. In show-biz lang, these places are called “soft-seat auditoriums.”

My booth was sandwiched between a puppeteer, a classical pianist, and a “mentalist” — a guy who bent spoons. I was with the self-represented artists. The booths that got the most traffic were manned by talent agencies. For instance, if  a presenter wanted to hire the Klezmatics or the Klezmer Conservatory Band, the presenter would find the talent-agency booth that repped, say, klez, Irish music, jazz and dance.

This, just in . . . there are too many artists. At one Midwest Arts Conference, a portion of the exhibit hall was devoted specifically to “New Music.” I saw bookers hanging out there. I was getting no action; nobody was hanging out at my booth. And I even gave out candy! I said to the convention administrator, “Yiddishe Cup does new music.”

She said, “Klezmer isn’t new music!”

“We do nude music,” I said. I was giddy, having done nothing for two days. Still, she wouldn’t let Yiddishe Cup in to the special section.

One time, in Pittsburgh, I got sick of the whole conference schtick and went home a day early. I left a bunch of flyers at my booth. A couple weeks later I got a call from the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts. We played NYC. Note that. We got that gig without me being at the booth. Lesson?

Kansas City: a Beloit College student ran up to my booth and declared his love of klezmer — klezmer in general, not necessarily Yiddishe Cup. We got that gig. Our first airplane outing. We flew to Midway, rented a van, and drove up to Beloit to play for student bodies in the college chapel.

By the way, right after we landed at Midway, we  ate at Pepe’s, a Mexican restaurant on Cicero Avenue. I still pass that place somewhat regularly, because my daughter, Lucy, lives in Chicago. The restaurant isn’t Pepe’s anymore. But it’s still Mexican. I digress.

Yiddishe Cup plays nude music.
nude music

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March 9, 2022   2 Comments

NORTH CAROLINA

The Greensboro Furniture Mart
convention
is happening

There are no beds for Yidd Cup
except at a hotel across from the Executive Club
which in Cleveland is a catering hall
but in NC is a strip joint

Continental breakfast
Corn Flakes in a Styrofoam bowl
needs milk
for weight
fast
too late
Where’s the broom?

Two bands
are at the Delta Airlines counter
“Our gig was colder than a motherfucker,”
the drummer says.
”You played outside?” our guy says
“Damn, right,” their drummer says.

“Who you with?”
“The Neville Brothers.”
Our singer flips. He’s a big Neville Brothers fan

UNC-Greensboro
featuring
the one and only Yiddishe Cup.

(We’re home now. Been home for 16 years.)

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February 2, 2022   2 Comments

ONE OF THE BEST MUSICIANS

The bridal couple requested Yiddishe Cup play “La Vie en Rose” for the first dance. I figured they wanted the Edith Piaf French version, but no, they wanted the Louis Armstrong English version.

Yiddishe Cup’s keyboard player and singer, Alan Douglass, does a terrific gravelly voiced Louis impersonation, and I played the trumpet part on clarinet. We didn’t have a trumpet player on the gig. I added embellishments, but I didn’t overdo it.

After the dance, Alan said to me, “You exceeded my expectations.”

Wow. Alan rarely compliments me. Alan is one of the best musicians in town, and he doesn’t dole out compliments lightly. Alan writes music parts from memory. He hears the music in his head and writes out all the horn parts, or whatever. He doesn’t need to be near an instrument to do it, either.

Alan plays keys, bass, guitar and drums. Cello, too. Plus he sings. He attended music school at Cleveland State. He was an original member of the Kleveland Klezmorim. He’s an original member of Yiddishe Cup, too. We started out in 1988.

Jack, my son the musician, says Alan is at L.A.-pro level. Jack should know. Alan “hears everything,” according to Joe Hunter, Cleveland’s preeminent jazz pianist.

Yiddishe Cup / Funk A Deli now has “La Vie en Rose” on its playlist. We’ll play the song at nursing home gigs and for a slow dance at our next wedding gig. I hope Alan will compliment me again.

“That exceeded my expectations.” Don’t parse that too closely.

alan douglass 2011

Alan Douglass, 2011

 

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September 8, 2021   2 Comments

SKUNKS ARE BAD PEOPLE

Skunks are bad people. I hired Critter Control to deal with some skunks at my house. The Critter Control tech liked my collection of Jewish-star necklaces (Purim bling) in my basement. He said he was Jewish.  He said, “I don’t know much about the ritual and all that, but my mother was Jewish.”

“If you say you’re Jewish, that’s good enough for me,” I said. And get rid of the skunks! He set a trap under the front stoop and sold me a can of Odor Assassin for $15. Three squirts of the spray masked the skunk smell in the basement.

When my bandmates came over for rehearsal, the basement smelled pretty good — lemon-lime fresh. But the skunks then decided to do a raid during rehearsal. I thought Yiddishe Cup would disband right then and there. I said to my bandmates, “Let me get out my Odor Assassin. It’ll only take five years off our lives.”

The band played on. The skunks are gone. I endorse Odor Assassin.

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August 19, 2021   No Comments

THE HEYMISH AND THE AMISH

I live near two large Amish settlements — Middlefield, Ohio, and Holmes County, Ohio. I know some of  the differences between the various Amish, like some use battery-powered lights on their buggies and some don’t. Some use the triangular orange “slow vehicle” sign.

Speaking of men-in-black, I also know some Orthodox Jews. I know the crocheted yarmulke means Modern Orthodox and the black hat is more old school. I’ve been around Amish and Jews — at the same time — only once. I walked into Green Road  Synagogue (an Orthodox shul) in Cleveland, and there was an Amish man  in the lobby. Maybe not. Maybe he was a Modern Orthodox hipster trying to look Amish. He had a wide-brim straw hat, beard, no mustache a la Solzhenitsyn.

Then I saw about 15 Amish women, carrying parfaits on trays, wearing blue dresses and white bonnets, coming out of the kitchen. Next I saw a horse and buggy at the side door of the synagogue. Orthodox Jews started arriving. Most were Modern Orthodox (like dentists and lawyers in knit yarmulkes), but a couple old-school rabbis looked Amish.

“Solzhenitsyn” stacked bales of hay in the temple lobby and brought in chickens. He was John, an Amish from Middlefield. He said he used to be a wheelwright and now worked for an Orthodox Jew in a mattress factory.  The mattress-factory owner was hosting this sheva brochas (post-wedding dinner). My band, Yiddishe Cup, was playing. The Orthodox host — the mattress man – was a musician, himself, who had some show-biz flair. He was doing a Blazing Saddles party theme. I asked the Amish buggy driver what he thought of our music. He said, “It sounds like Mozart.” Maybe because of the violin?

“Solzhenitsyn” said some Amish in Ohio play harmonica. “That’s all, for instruments,” he said. “Other instruments [like flute, guitar] might lead to forming a band.” A Jewish joke?

The rabbi, as a joke, asked if we knew any Amish songs. We played “Amazing Grace.” That’s borderline Amish. It was probably a first for Green Road Synagogue. The Amish liked the song, and the Jews ignored us.  Then we tried a Yiddish vocal, “Di Grine Kusine,” which didn’t go over. I thought the Amish would like it because Pennsylvania Dutch is Germanic, just like Yiddish. The Amish didn’t react to the  song. Now I know: no “Di Grine Kusine” at Amish-Jewish affairs.

I had a funny article in the Wall Street Journal last week about old guys playing tennis. Here’s the link. No paywall. And check out the comments, particularly if you’re an old guy.

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July 14, 2021   5 Comments

SHOUSE. HE RAISED MONEY

Ben Shouse was a volunteer fundraiser for the Workmen’s Circle. He had a booming voice and a shock of gray hair like H.L. Mencken, and he wore suits like Mencken, and he smoked a cigar like Mencken. Politically speaking, Shouse was un-Menckenable. He was a retired labor union boss and an autodidact (he liked words like inculcate), and he was an advocate for the arts, especially Shakespeare-for-workers stuff.

Shouse phoned me, suggesting Yiddishe Cup pony up for the Workmen’s Circle annual banquet. Yiddishe Cup would be the honoree. He said, “Stratton, you know how these things work.”

I didn’t know how these things worked. Not in 1994. I thought Yiddishe Cup would be honored because we were good. Sort of an arts prize.

Two Yiddishe Cup musicians told me they couldn’t afford the price of the dinner, let alone bring friends. Crazier still, Shouse said, “Buy a table.” I corralled three people, including my wife, into coming. I didn’t want to hock friends for a chicken dinner at a cheesy Alpha Drive party center. Also, my friends wouldn’t want to listen to speeches about Workmen’s Circle, an organization most of my friends had never heard of.

Shouse phoned Yiddishe Cup’s singer and said: “Stratton gave $55. Greenman gave $25. How about you, and who are you bringing?” The singer was speechless.

One Yiddishe Cup musician didn’t even show up for the tribute.

Another Yiddishe Cup musician replayed a phone message from Shouse: “This dinner is in your fucking honor! You’re sophisticated. You know the rules. Do your part!”

Shouse raised a lot of money for the arts.

Ben Shouse

Ben Shouse (Photo by Herb Ascherman) [Shouse died in 2003.]

FREE CONCERT THIS SUNDAY.
Funk A Deli, a k a Yiddishe Cup, is playing on a front lawn near you this Sunday (June 13, 5-7 pm.).

23500 Laureldale Road, Shaker Heights, Ohio. Near Laurel School.

Bring a lawn chair or blanket. Bring dinner. Plop yourself and your possessions on the grassy median strip on Laureldale Road.

The band will play a mix of klezmer and soul music. 

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June 9, 2021   4 Comments

THE RECORD COLLECTOR

Jack Saul was a major-league record collector. You couldn’t find a seat in his house unless he moved a ton of records. Every time he 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. (McGraw played 1891-1906.) When I sold my baseball cards in 2007, Jack said, “Why’d you do that?” (I wasn’t looking at ’em, Jack, and my kids didn’t want ’em. They didn’t know who Harmon Killebrew was.) “Why’d you do that?” he repeated.

The Cleveland Jewish music scene was all about Jack Saul. Musicians from the Kleveland Klezmorim went to Jack’s house in the early 1980s to record 78s. Those 78s were pristine. When Boston public radio (WGBH) did a show in 2000 about 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.

He always had time for musicians. The first time I went to his house, in 1988, I recorded cuts from Music For Happy Occasions, Paul Pincus; Jay Chernow and his Hi-Hat Ensemble; Dukes of Frelaichland, Max Epstein; Jewish Wedding Dances, Sam Musiker; Twisting the Frelaichs; and Casamiento Judio, Sam Lieberman. That last one was an Argentinian klezmer record! Jack had almost every Jewish record. And he had it in both monaural and stereo.

Jack’s favorite popular musicians were Guy Lombardo and pianist Irving Fields. Jack liked musicians who, when they improvised, stayed close to the melody. He phoned Fields when I was over. “What’s new, Irving? I’d like to get you to Cleveland.” Never happened. Everybody talked to Jack, because for one thing, he could supply them with recordings of their own works that they, the musicians, couldn’t even remember making.

Jack had a thing for Guy Lombardo. Jack’s thesis was Guy Lombardo was behind “Bay mir bistu sheyn”s popularity. Jack gave me an article from The New Yorker, Feb. 19, 1938, titled “Everybody’s Singing It — Bie Mir Bist Du Schoen. Played on the air for the first time by Guy Lombardo, Radio Made it the Nation’s No. 1 Hit.”

Jack liked my band, Yiddishe Cup. (He also liked Steven Greenman, Lori Cahan-Simon and Kathy Sebo — Cleveland Jewish musicians.) At a meeting of the Workmen’s Circle Yiddish concert committee, Jack said, “We’ve got talent in this town. We don’t always have to run to New York [for entertainers].” That meant a lot to us locals.

When Jack talked, the rest of the committee listened. He had a stellar rep — Cleveland Orchestra and Sir Thomas Beecham Society credibility. Jack had every Beecham recording. That classical-music imprimatur really cut it with the older klezmer crowd.

Flip side: the rough-edged 78 recording of Abe Elenkrig’s Orchestra playing “Di Zilberne Chasene” (“The Silver Wedding”). Jack had thousands of records like that. Gritty. But not a scratch.

Jack Saul made Jewish music in Cleveland.

 

Jack died in 2009 at age 86, and his records went to Florida Atlantic University.

P.S. A lot of this post was first published in the Cleveland Jewish News in May 2009, but it never got online at the CJN. So by local, contemporary standards, the story doesn’t exist. Does now!

P.P.S. Here’s a comment by Hankus Netsky, leader of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, posted on the Klezmershack website in May 2009:

“What a great guy Jack was. By the way, I’m the one who sent WGBH to Jack’s house for the Mickey Katz records. Before our tour with Joel Grey’s Katz review, ‘Borscht Capades,’ in 1994, I had visited Jack, who had made me the ultimate Katz compilation. We couldn’t have done the show without those recordings — Joel himself had never heard a lot of them!

“Besides the records in every corner (but not in the kitchen, the one concession to his loving and remarkably tolerant wife), the other amazing thing were the front walls of the house that had been hollowed out and replaced with speakers of every shape, size, and frequency.

“A great loss. I sure hope they have a good hi-fi up there . . .”

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May 26, 2021   4 Comments

THE ESTHER ISENSTADT ORCHESTRAS

Esther Isenstadt, a bassist, ran classified ads in the Cleveland Jewish News in the 1970s-80s: “Sophisticated music for discriminating people” . . . “Leave your records at home and bring LIFE to your party” . . . “From ‘The Hora’ to ‘Beat It.'”

I didn’t see her much around town. She worked the senior-adult circuit while Yiddishe Cup played the glam jobs: bar mitzvahs and weddings. Seriously, that’s where the money was. Esther played classical and pop, and some Jewish.

Many years later (2003), I ran into Esther at The Weils, an assisted living facility. She was 86. I told her I had one of her recycled Tara Publications Israeli songbooks. I had bought it used at the Cleveland Music School Settlement. She smiled. Then she didn’t smile, and said, “I never thought I’d end up here!”

Esther had played in four suburban orchestras, raised a family, taught elementary school, led party bands and taught ESL in “retirement.” I had learned “Shir Lashalom” (“A Song of Peace”) from Esther’s book. That tune was a must-play in 1995 — the year Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.

Esther had rubber-stamped Esther Isenstadt Orchestras in her songbooks. A Jewish bandleader with a rubber stamp. I got a rubber stamp.

Maybe I’ll follow her into The Weils. But I doubt it. I’m more a Menorah Park guy. Closer to town. (Esther died in 2010.)

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April 14, 2021   4 Comments

THE JEWISH MUSIC RANKINGS

The Irish rank musicians with fiddle contests. So do bluegrass associations. There is a $50,000 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. I rank Jewish musicians . . .

#1. Alan Douglass. Keyboards. Yiddishe Cup. His big hit is “Gentile on My Mind.”

#2. Ari Davidow, who operates the KlezmerShack website in the basement of the Brandeis student union by the foosball tables. Entrepreneur.

#3. Steven Greenman. Violinist. Born Steven Chemlawn.

#4. Gary Gould, the Cali King of Klez. He’s the bandleader to Hollywood stars, and sometimes he goes to Santa Monica.

#5. Hankus Netsky, a k a The Great One. The Klezmer Hall of Fame waived the waiting period for The Great One.

#6. Bert Stratton. The Ohio/Michigan/Indiana distributor of  Yiddishe Cup coffee mugs.

#7. Margot Leverett. An award-winning mixologist of klez and bluegrass.

#8. Lori Cahan-Simon. She produced the Yiddisher Soul Train, KYW-TV, Philadelphia, 1970.

#9. Marc Adler. He invented the clarinet suck vac, available only at Adler’s Hardware, Providence, R.I.

#10. Cookie Lavagetto. Third base.

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November 4, 2020   4 Comments

THE HEYMISH AND THE AMISH

I walked into an Orthodox shul and saw an Amish man putting bales of hay and live chickens in the lobby. I said to myself, “No way.” Then I turned the corner and saw 15 Amish women in blue dresses with white aprons, and white bonnets. “No way” again. Then an Amish horse and buggy clopped by the front door.

Orthodox Jews arrived. Most were Modern Orthodox — dentists and lawyers with kippahs. A couple rabbis donned the full-black The Frisco Kid. This was for a sheva brocha (a post-wedding reception). John, from Middlefield, told me he used to be a wheelwright and now worked for a Jew who made mattresses. This mattress manufacturer was sponsoring the sheva brocha in celebration of his son’s wedding.

Yiddishe Cup’s violinist played klezmer outside by the buggy. The Amish driver said to me, “It sounds like Mozart!” The driver said Amish in northeast Ohio sometimes play harmonica but no other instruments. Instruments like “flute and guitar” might lead to forming a band, which is not sanctioned.

The bartender doled out Jack Daniels-and-Coke to the young Jews and young Amish, but nothing crazy happened other than the optics. My band played “Amazing Grace” — maybe a first for Green Road Synagogue. John said he sings “Amazing Grace” at home but not in church. He said his fellowship sings only Pennsylvania Dutch tunes in church.

I think the Amish enjoyed Yiddishe Cup, but who knows. They weren’t big talkers, at least around me. We played “Di Grine Kusine.” I wanted to see how the Yiddish lyrics would go over. Nothing. I guess I wasn’t going to figure out the Amish in one day. I’ve been working on the Jews, too — also with limited success.

(Yes, this happened.)

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October 28, 2020   2 Comments

THIS IS HOLY GRAIL LEVEL

Holy grail level? Yes. You are about to see vintage footage of Mickey Katz playing klezmer clarinet on TV in 1973. (Details below.)

For newbies: Katz — besides playing terrific clarinet — wrote and sang comedic songs like “Duvid Crockett,” “How Much is that Herring in the Window?” and “16 Tons (of Hard Salami).” He was a huge success. OK, make that “a moderate success,” but big with yids in the 1950s and 1960s. Katz played on the Goodtime boat in Cleveland. He played at the gambling casinos in suburban Cleveland in the 1930s and at the Alpine Village — Herman Pirchner’s downtown club — during the World War II. Katz moved from Cleveland to Los Angeles after the war. Joel Grey is Mickey Katz’s son.

Katz melded klezmer music with Jewish comedy. He almost single-handedly popularized that shlub-genre. My band, Yiddishe Cup, is, in a way, a Mickey Katz tribute band. Mickey Katz is my Mickey Mantle.

The 3:27-minute video, below, is the totality of all Katz klezmer footage on the internet. There ain’t none else. It’s as if somebody suddenly came up with film of Naftule Brandwein. (Ah, forget it — unless you’re a klezmer musician.) Ladies and gentlemen, this is the missing link. This clip is a musical and cultural lodestone. It’s the visual link between pre-war klez and the klez revival of the late 20th century.

This vid was sequestered in my closet for 17 years. It escaped today!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrlkMxNKNJQ

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April 29, 2020   10 Comments

CAN YOU TOP MY MUSICAL LINEAGE?

I look for my musical roots wherever I can. My grandmother played piano at a Baptist church in Yazoo City, Mississippi. Not bad. Not good, either: 1) it was a white church and 2) she was reading sheet music. My Mississippi bubbe, Ida Kassoff Zalk, had a brother, Earl Kassoff, in Cleveland. Earl was a drummer, xylophonist and house painter. He led bands in Cleveland under the name Earl Castle.

Because I’m a musician, people sometimes ask me, “Did your parents play? Is your family musical?” Not particularly. That’s why I looked so hard for lineage. 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 gig, an elderly musician/guest and I schmoozed, and I asked him if he remembered Earl Kassoff. The schmoozer was Harold Finger, age 77. He, himself, had played clarinet and sax professionally during the 1930s and 1940s.

I went to Harold’s apartment in Lyndhurst and interviewed him in 1992. He said there had been “four or five bands that got the Jewish work back then.” I asked him what bands. He didn’t remember any names. “What were the most popular Jewish tunes?” I asked. He said, “The Kammen book. That was the big thing.” The Kammen book was the Kammen International Dance Folio, published in 1924, and it is still around. The book is for musicians who don’t know many Jewish songs and have been asked by clients, “Can’t you play something besides ‘Hava Nagila’?”

Uncle Earl’s band did mostly “dance work” — American music, Harold said. Earl had worked the downtown theaters, as well as the Golden Pheasant — a Chinese restaurant where Artie Shaw started out. Harold said he, himself, didn’t stick to the melody all the time. He did some “faking” (improvising). Now he played clarinet in a community orchestra. “I don’t do much jobbing anymore,” he said. Jobbing was gigging.

Harold died three years after the interview. Harold’s wife was on the interview tape, teasing Harold about how he loved his saxophone and clarinet more than her. Harold said, “I quit playing music for you!”

Recap: I come from a piano-playing grandma in Mississippi and a house-painting xylophonist great uncle in South Euclid, Ohio.


Here’s something I wrote for City Journal: Latke Blues.

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January 8, 2020   2 Comments

NEAR MISSES

Here are some gigs Yiddishe Cup, back in the day, almost played:

The Shrine to American Music, Vermillion, North Dakota
New York Mills (Minn.) Regional Cultural Center
Southern Cross International Music Festival, Brisbane, Australia
Austin (Tex.) JCC Israel Independence Day celebration
Klezmer Festival, Fuerth, Germany
Jewish Music Festival, Jackson Hole, Wyoming

All of them were close calls. Maybe we came in second. Second is a bear. For example, 30 clarinetists audition for the Kansas City Symphony and 29 clarinetists add “finalist” to their resumes.

Yidd Cup played Texas three times, Florida four times, and Missouri nine times. We’ve played abroad twice: New York City and Windsor, Ontario. The NYC gig was at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts, and the Canada gig was the Windsor JCC.

Chanukah in Jackson Hole, WY. That was the subject line of an email I got. A Chabad rabbi in Wyoming asked Yiddishe Cup about doing a three-day Chanukah bash at three ski hotels. I immediately called the rabbi, gave him a price, and he seemed OK with it. I told the Yiddishe Cup musicians the Wyoming gig was 49 percent likely.

Yidd Cup’s singer said, “Forty-nine percent? That means you think it’s not going to happen.” (49% is where optimism meets realism.)

We didn’t get the gig. We didn’t get any of the gigs, but it was fun thinking about them. That Australia gig, in particular, was a cool gig.

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December 4, 2019   6 Comments

UNREST AT THE NURSING HOME

When I arrived at my nursing-home gig, I noticed a 15-piece big band setting up next to me. I said to the nursing-home coordinator, “I don’t appreciate a 15-piece band playing 15 feet from me.” (The band was TOPS — Tough Old Pros.) These guys were stealing my turf!

The big boss — a programming director — came up to me and said, “I hear you have a problem.”

“I don’t appreciate a 15-piece band playing 15 feet from me,” I said. [The TOPS band was about 100 feet away.]

She said, “I hear you’re getting into it with my co-worker.”

“I didn’t swear at her. I didn’t say anything disrespectful. I did have an edge to my voice — like I do now. What did she say I said?”

“She said you said you don’t appreciate playing fifteen feet from a 15-piece band.”

“That’s right! What’s wrong with saying that? Are you doubling down on this?”

“We have six buildings on this campus and many musical acts and there can be conflicts.”

“A 15-piece band!” This was an ego thing for me, in case you haven’t guessed. “Maybe I’ll leave,” I said.

I didn’t. I like playing for senior citizens. I’m one myself.

 

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October 23, 2019   2 Comments

STAR TURN

I backed up a star. A minor star. A minor, minor star: David “Dudu” Fisher. You’ve probably never heard of him, but he’s big in the Jewish music world, and he came to Cleveland and needed a backup band.

The usual Cleveland jazz dudes were called in to back up Dudu. These Cleveland guys play for touring Broadway shows at Playhouse Square and have music-school degrees. These musicians have bio notes that read “shared the stage with blah blah and blah blah.”

I’ve shared the stage, too. Yiddishe Cup played at a Dayton, Ohio, folk festival gig right before Jon Hendricks. War, too,  (Detroit) and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band (Akron). I haven’t actually played with anybody. Correction: a tune with Vulfpeck in Ann Arbor.

The reed player in the David “Dudu” Fisher backup band wasn’t comfortable with the clarinet charts. He was a jazz-sax guy and the klez clarinet parts were a bit too intricate. So I got a call. I practiced a lot and did OK. We read and improvised on jazz, klez and classical charts. I can read music! The pro jazz dudes said I did a good job. That meant something to me.

*”Dudu” is a Hebrew/Israeli diminutive for David.

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September 18, 2019   2 Comments