Popular Klezmer: Pushing the Envelope

With klezmer's popularity on the rise, artists have taken it in new--and sometimes "controversial"--directions.


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With the rebirth in the late 1900s of klezmer–traditional Jewish music from Eastern Europe–Jews, and sometimes non-Jewish, musicians did what artists do: took the art of the past and ran with it, creating new sounds experimenting with the music in new ways. Excerpted with permission from Discovering Jewish Music (Jewish Publication Society).

The rebirth of klezmer and its obvious appeal to a wide range of audiences predictably inspired a similar fusion of Jewish and other musical forms. Among the first and most seemingly obvious “foreign” interpreters of this newborn klezmer music was Don Byron, an African American clarinetist who was among the original members of the Klezmer Conservatory Band.

popular klezmer musicEven after leaving the band, Byron kept klezmer in his act, achieving a measure of notoriety that helped launch his solo career. At the same time, he promoted Jewish music in a community unfamiliar with (but ultimately appreciative of) the improvisatory aspects of klezmer and its affinity to both blues and jazz styles.

Classical violinist Itzhak Perlman’s infatuation with klezmer and the subsequent PBS broadcasts and recordings of his appearances with a variety of ensembles brought another new audience to this Old World music. Just as artistic renderings by members of The Society for Jewish Music brought the European intelligentsia to a new appreciation of Jewish folk songs, so Perlman’s “endorsement” enabled music lovers accustomed to more classical concerts to embrace klezmer as a lively and legitimate art form.

Expanding Klezmer’s Borders

Others capitalized on klezmer’s historic ability to assimilate musical sounds of the surrounding culture and began to expand the parameters of “traditional” Jewish music. In America, groups like the Klezmatics have begun to push the envelope while clearly evidencing a love for the culture of klezmer. Their music combines the traditional, celebratory aspects of klezmer with original sounds and an almost confrontational style that demands attention from the non-Jewish community. Addressing anti-Semitic stereotypes in America and in Europe (where fans of klezmer from outside the Jewish communities there clamor for tickets to Klezmatics concerts), the clever title of one of their best selling albums was Jews with Horns.

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Marsha Bryan Edelman is professor of music and education at Gratz College. She also serves as director of the Tyson Music Department and coordinates the college's academic programs in Jewish music.

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