Chapter 6. Conclusion

This study is just a beginning of the exploration of the fusion properties of Yiddish instrumental music in America in the 1950s and 60s. Musically these albums share only the common source materials of popular Yiddish theatre tunes and Klezmer tunes common to a wide geographic area. Clearly there is no one way to create American-Yiddish instrumental fusion music. One can change the underlying rhythms and use strict melodic construction as Irving Fields does and have very danceable music. One can mix and match underlying rhythms and melodies and have a set of music for listening as Mickey Katz creates with “Mamaliege Dance”. Or one can stay fairly close to home and explore more with harmony as Sammy Musiker demonstrates on Tanz!. This study underscores that there are multiple ways to develop American Yiddish instrumental fusion music.

The five albums discussed in this study each come from different places and vary in their significance. Bagels and Bongos jump started a wave of Yiddish fusion music recordings, selling more copies of a Yiddish instrumental album than before. Tanz! brings jazz orchestration to Yiddish music and turns dance music into music for listening. Music for Weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and Brisses brings a deep theatrical sense to the music, and shows that Mickey Katz can make music that is not just about humor. My Son the Jazz Drummer has jazz musicians using Yiddish and Israeli music as tunes in the same fashion as they would play an album of ‘standards’. Terry Gibbs Plays Jewish Melodies in Jazztime is important not only for its Yiddish music, but also because it is a bridge between be-bop and modal jazz.

A major problems in defining Yiddish instrumental fusion music is first defining what Yiddish instrumental music is. Jews of Eartern Europe held many professions, traveling traders being most important for the development of music. These traders brought melodies and musical forms with them from the places they traveled to. Geographical location was a major determining factor in what tunes the musicians would play. Some tunes and forms were found over a very wide area, while others might never be played outside of a few block radius in one town.

In this context post-war Jewish fusion music in American can be seen as a logical musical development. In the previous 100 years the instrumentation of the rhythm section had adapted to the instruments around it. Accordions, pianos, and drum sets changed the music when they were introduced. Had history been just ever so slightly different who is to say that every Jewish band today would include a bongo player and an electric guitar player?

One of the reasons that Yiddish music adapts to the sounds of the surrounding musical culture is to blend in. Historically it has been a way of passing and assimilating with the surrounding culture. Yiddish instrumental music has a history of being poly-cultural in nature. In some contexts, when one first hears it, unless one knows what to look for one might think it is part of the larger culture. The late clarinetist German Goldenshteyn told stories of playing weddings in Bessarabia in the 1960s and 70s when it was under Soviet control help to illustrate this idea. At many weddings a local party member would be in attendance, and after a while, perhaps an hour or two, he would go up to the band and say it is OK, you can play your music now.[1] He was saying I have heard enough, you can play Jewish music now. What the party member did not know was that the band had been playing Jewish music almost the whole time. If one does not know what one is listening for, one might not know the difference.

Pioneer Ukrainian ethnomusicologist Moshe Beregovski's 1944 Jewish Instrumental Folk Music was one of the earliest studies of Klezmorim ever published. Beregovski starts the first section of the chapter on the repertoire of musicians by stating that he does not need to discuss the popular non-Jewish dances that were played at Jewish weddings.[2] Yet, when the discussion turns to music for listening, the non-Jewish and foreign origins of themes takes the front of the discussion.[3] Later in the discussion of Klezmorim in the nineteenth century the experiences of playing for non-Jews in Poland and the Russian Empire are compared. In Poland there was strict limits and competition from the local culture as to how, when, and where the Jewish musicians could play. In Russia this situation was very different, as Beregovski says: “Often, even the sorriest amateur musicians were called upon to play for non-Jewish dances and celebrations”.[4] When turning to how they learned their diverse repertoire the ability to read music was not always a given. They learned and assimilated new works including non-Jewish folk and ballroom dances from wide ranging sources including non-Jewish musicians and military orchestras.[5]

The Jewish musicians who immigrated to America starting in the 1880s opened their ears to new styles of music. Early jazz, Dixieland, and swing became major influences and were influenced by Yiddish music. Transmission technology and the fact that Jews from many different areas lived within such close proximity to each other in New York City dramatically shaped the music. 78 rpm records, Yiddish Radio, and to a lesser extent the Yiddish Theatre molded a diverse tradition into a polyglot where most people where listening to the same tunes. While landsmenshafts did keep the traditions of individual towns alive, they were not strong enough to overcome the forces of change. The repertoire of American Yiddish music became the repertoire of Dave Tarras because of his domination  of the recording and live radio broadcast scene.[6]

Their post-war Yiddish fusion albums are often seen precursor to the Klezmer Revival, and even more directly the later Renaissance. A major difference between the time periods is that Yiddish instrumental music was a language that many of the musicians in this study were fluent in from a young age. The level of self-consciousness felt by the musicians is surprisingly similar. Both groups are using music to connect with their ethnic roots

The output of Yiddish instrumental fusion music today is as high or higher than it has ever been. At the same time, the question of what is Yiddish instrumental fusion music is even harder to answer. Many of the projects today that actively identify as fusion reflect back to one of the albums looked at in this study. The Yiddish fusion albums of the 1950s and 1960s are receiving a new found respect fifty years after they recorded. The two most influential artists today  included in this study are Sammy Musiker with Tanz! and Mickey Katz with both his humorous albums and Music for Weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and Brisses.

A number of artists have played cover versions of tunes from Tanz! starting with the Klezmer Conservatory Band with “Der Nayer Doyne and Sam Shpilt” in 1984 on Klez.[7] One of the more interesting covers of “Sam Shpilt” is by Jason Rosenblatt and his band Shtreiml on their album Spicy Paprikash (2003) where Jason plays the clarinet part on harmonica.

Don Byron was an important revivalist in the music of Mickey Katz, first with the Klezmer Conservatory Band, and later with his second album as a band leader, Plays the Music Of Mickey Katz. Other bands that have covered the music of Mickey Katz include Yiddishe Cop and the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band.

The Klezmatics where one of the first Klezmer Revival/Renaissance bands to consciously superimpose their backgrounds as rock and jazz musicians on Yiddish music. This can be heard on their 1989 debut recording Shvagn=Toyt,[8] though did not truly come into its own until 1992s Rhythm & Jews. [9] The first track on Rhythm & Jews“Fun Tashlikh” announces something is different about how the music is going to be played. Studio techniques that never would have been though of before are used, drums and percussion are layered. Lorin Sklamberg’s vocalizations are put through a guitar effects pedal, while David Krakauer goes from one extreme to another on bass clarinet. This is not your father's Yiddish instrumental music let alone a sound your immigrant grandfather might have readily recognized. Yet the tunes are all ones that your grandfather might have known, and some his grandfather might have heard.

New fusion recordings come out of the music mentioned in this study, as well as introducing new styles. As a coda, Josh Dolgin optimizes the work of younger musicians. Josh Dolgin aka SoCalled, is one of the more prolific young Yiddish fusion musicians working today. Along with his solo career playing piano, accordion, sampler and vocals he also plays with the clarinetist David Krakauer. Josh Dolgin has also produced a reissue of Danny Rubenstein's The Happy People that was available starting in 2008 at KlezKanada. His solo work is best described as Yiddish Hip-Hop, some of the guests on his most recent solo album Ghetoblaster are Theodore Bikel, Irving Fields, Fred Wesley (from the James Brown band) and Frank London and Matt Darriau of the Klezmatics.[10] The music is current, yet it historically grounded  in all the genres that Josh Dolgin is drawing on.

Music fusion has a continuous history in Yiddish instrumental music. It is only starting in the 1960s and 1970s in America that it became a conscious musical choice as to how to play the music. To best appreciate what is happening in Yiddish music today it is essential to have a full understanding of the music and musicians that have played it in the previous one hundred years.


  1. German Goldenshteyn, personal communication with the author July, 2000.
  2. Beregovski, Moshe. Jewish Instrumental Folk Music; ed. and trans. Mark Slobin, Robert Rothstein, and Michael Alpert. Annotations by Michael Alpert (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press 2001). p. 10.
  3. The themes discussed where used in the course performing theme and variations and of the taksim.
  4. Beregovski, 2001. p. 27.
  5. ibid. p. 31.
  6. See the second half of 'The Bulgarish in America' in Walter Zev Feldman’s article “Bulgӑreascӑ/Bulgarish/Bulgar; The Transformation of a Klezmer Dance Genre” for a description of how Dave Tarras' Bulgar compositions single handily changed the types of one dance genre in America starting in the 1930's.
  7. The Klezmer Conservatory Band, Klez,1984 Vanguard VCD 79449.
  8. The Klezmatics, Shvaygn=Toyt, 1989 Piranha. LC7717.
  9. The Klezmatics, Rhythm & Jews, 1992 Piranha under license to Flying Fish. FF70591.
  10. Socalled, Ghettoblaster, 2007 Label Blue under license to JDub Records. JDub 105.
 © Matt Temkin 2012 - 2015