Over the next three weeks, several concerts in New York and New Jersey will feature offshoots of what is now called "klezmer music," a modern term based on klezmorim, the 19th-century Yiddish word for professional musicians.
Traveling with emigres, the music became an integral part of Jewish-American life in the early 20th century. But by the end of World War II, young American Jews were turning away from the music, which was seen as old-fashioned.
As part of the JCC Metrowest's New Jersey Jewish Music Festival (which runs through mid-December at the JCC's campuses in Whippany and West Orange, and at the Morris Museum), on Tuesday a group of musicians will recreate "Yiddish Melodies in Swing," a radio show that ran on New York's WHN from 1938 to 1955, melding American swing with Jewish music.
The festival's music director Greg Wall of Livingston, said he and six other musicians (assembled just for this show) will play tunes derived from recordings of the "Yiddish Melodies" show that were never commercially released, but were archived by the Manhattan-based YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Wall, who has been in several klezmer revival bands, said the radio show's bandleader, Sam Medoff, "was much hipper than we ever were."
The clarinet player of the original radio show's "swingtette" was Dave Tarras, a giant of Jewish instrumental music. By the 1970s, when a young musician named Andy Statman knocked on the retired Tarras's door in Brooklyn, "the music was really dead," Statman said. Tarras became a mentor to Statman, who was a successful bluegrass mandolin player at the time.
Statman -- who has played with Bob Dylan and Itzhak Perlman, Vassar Clements and Jerry Garcia -- began to explore Jewish music, combining it with modern elements. Now, he said, "I realize that as deep and powerful as the music is, it is also very fragile."
So where contemporary klezmer musicians have pulled the music into the present, Statman, who also plays clarinet, is exploring the Hasidic melodies at its roots. "All the melodies were for spiritual purposes," he said.
At Statman's Dec. 9 show at Congregation Ahawas Achim B'nai Jacob and David in West Orange, he will alternate frisky fretting on bluegrass mandolin and evocative Jewish music on clarinet. Statman said that when he improvises on his Jewish repertoire, he strives to "express what's there and go as deep as I can with it."
Another early leader in the klezmer revival was The Klezmatics. On the band's two recently released albums, the members have almost put klezmer aside, setting lyrics by Woody Guthrie to their own music. (Guthrie's own melodies for the lyrics were lost.) Though Guthrie is associated with the American West, he lived a good chunk of his life in Brooklyn after he married into a Jewish family. Only a handful of these tunes sound like klezmer music.
The lyrics on the first album, "Wonder Wheel," show that Guthrie relished the warmth of the Jewish family life he found in Coney Island, and was charmed by the happy cacophony of folks he found there. "This is where hot Mexican chili/meets chop suey and meatballs sweet," he writes in "Mermaid's Avenue." On the second, "Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanukkah," The Klezmatics created music for several songs Guthrie wrote about the simple joys of the winter holiday.
The Klezmatics' trumpet player Frank London said the group's upcoming show at New York's Henry Street Settlement on Dec. 4 will certainly draw upon the Chanukah tunes, but will also cull from the music of the group's 20-year career.
A former member of The Klezmatics, clarinetist David Krakauer, was raised on classical music, then took up jazz as a teen; his career successfully spanned both fields. But, he said, he found his true musical home when he began playing klezmer.
"I feel like I'm singing through the clarinet," he said.
His show at Carnegie Hall on Dec. 2 will be with his band Klezmer Madness, which now includes the turntablist Socalled, who adds hiphop scratching and samples to the tradition-based music.
These performances represent only a few aspects of the music of the Jewish diaspora. But they show that if the music is not the daily part of community life it once was, it is still in a creative and fertile period rivaling its golden age.
David Krakauer and Klezmer Madness, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 2 at Carnegie Hall, 881 Seventh Ave., New York. Tickets, $25-$35, at (212) 247-7800 or ww.carnegiehall.com
The Klezmatics, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 4, at the Henry Street Settlement Abrons Art Center, 466 Grand St., New York. Tickets
Andy Statman, 8 p.m. Dec. 9, at Congregation Ahawas Achim B'nai Jacob and David, 700 Pleasant Valley Way, West Orange. Tickets, $30 (or $50 per pair if purchased in advance), (973) 736-1407.
For other concerts in the New Jersey Jewish Music Festival, visit www.jccmetrowest.org/musicfestival.html