Michael Winograd is a driving force in modern Klezmer music in New York and beyond. He spoke to Dan Bergsagel about the music, its traditions, and his band Honorable Mentschn’s new album, Kosher Style, which is launched in Brooklyn today:
LondonJazz News: Let’s start with some of your history. Which came first for you – Klezmer or the clarinet?
Michael Winograd: Klezmer came first. As a kid I was playing saxophone and I’d started getting into jazz a little bit, practising the Charlie Parker Omnibook at the time – although at that age I was really playing anything they put in front of me. So when I got into Klezmer music as a young teenager I started playing it on the saxophone.
The short story is that I took a workshop with David Krakauer as part of a Sunday afternoon Tonic Klezmer Brunch, which came with the occasional workshop. I went along, and he told me: “Go buy a clarinet.” So I did! My pal Matt lived around the corner – he had a clarinet in his garage which he’d quit playing – and he sold it to me for $35! A total bargain.
LJN: You currently live in Brooklyn – how has the borough impacted your musical development?
MW: Well, I was born in Queens, and grew up in Long Island – the Cultural Capital of the World, as they say – before studying at the New England Conservatory in Boston. After that I came down to Brooklyn, about 13 years ago.
What was nice about Long Island was that while I didn’t live in the city, I was close. I could hop on trains to get to shows in the Lower East Side, or to Brooklyn for lessons when I was studying with the clarinet player from the Klezmatics, Matt Darriau.
LJN: Did you retain a connection with jazz music after you swapped the sax for the clarinet?
MW: I still played saxophone alongside the clarinet for very many years, and it’s hard to be a NY musician without jazz finding its way into your vernacular. But the creative music scene is different now than it used to be in NY, and a lot of my friends who would have been jazz musicians then have moved into other things (styles?); the lines that separate genres are so blurry these days. I certainly interact with all sorts of creative NY musicians on a regular basis. And improvisation is a universal language, whether you have a different vocabulary or not.
LJN: Let’s talk about that other vocabulary. For the uninitiated, can you quickly define Klezmer?
MW: You can’t really define it nice and fast. Traditionally it was music that Eastern European Yiddish-speaking Jews played, predominantly the secular music for community events. And by secular I don’t mean that the people were necessarily secular, but it wasn’t music like cantillation, and prayer that you would hear in the sanctuary. Over the hundreds of years that it developed it certainly mixed with religious music, but there was a degree of separation, certainly. Although there’s certainly a lot in common between the two, with shared modes and forms, and prayers were occasionally set to more popular folk tunes.
Klezmer was the party music. But not just for parties, but music associated with weddings and huge events, which would go on for days (unlike today). There would be ceremonial parts, but also different very practical function bits with their own accompanying songs and styles. It’s interesting, because when you read the titles of some of these old Klezmer tunes this becomes quite clear: there’s a very famous tune whose title means “Escorting the in-laws home”, and it’s like “Oh, that’s not just a random title, it’s a description.”
Once the Jewish people moved and many came to the US their cultural lives changed to some extent, and that screwed with the old Klezmer dynamic. Instead it morphed into a version with American instruments and influences – like jazz and other dance music – and it lost some of its folk aspects and importance in the everyday culture. Nowadays it’s more a fringe music culture, although it’s broadened. It’s made its way back and it’s become more of a folk culture, as in ‘the music of the folks’. And that’s a cool thing.
LJN: Often when people listen to Klezmer, they hear Slavic, Balkan and middle-eastern influences in the music, presumably developed over a long time where the Jewish communities lived. How does that compare to the rapid changes of the music in the US?
MW: It’s funny, you can hear these influences, but it’s hard to say where that comes in. These days it would be really hard to disassociate the largest of Klezmer scenes from the largest of Balkan scenes, there is so much crossover between the musicians themselves and the partially shared style it has now become. But if I listen to old style Klezmer recordings and old-style Bulgarian music, I don’t hear a whole ton of similarity. The connection is really that these were always old poor folk musicians who would just play music with each other.
A couple of years ago I was touring in Moldova – a major place for Klezmer music development – and we hung out with some older gypsy musicians. Their parents, like them, were wedding musicians. I don’t speak any Romanian, and they didn’t speak any English, but they had a whole bunch of vocabulary of Yiddish slang, picked up from when their parents used to play with Jewish musicians, and that went back a few generations. So it was the musicians crossing over that gave the most organic fusion between the repertoires. We think of some songs as standard Klezmer songs, but many are just Moldovan folk tunes. And that was going on wherever the Jewish musicians worked. It’s interesting as it means Klezmer has a pretty wide reach, and with that a free musical appropriation pass, which you wouldn’t get away with today.
If you look at the development of the music in the US, it wasn’t through this folk music interchange. It was because people like Dave Tarras – the greatest Klezmer clarinetist – was hearing Benny Goodman, or guys like Abe Elstein had their ears wide open to everything that was going on in NY, and he’d just incorporate it. That absorption wasn’t folk, it was mainstream. In the Klezmer revival in the early 1980s it was a fringe thing, and so people who were playing it were coming from other places – whether jazz, or avant-garde, or wherever.
LJN: You talk about a change in the dominant Jewish identity in the 1950s, from Yiddish culture to Israeli culture. Why do you think Klezmer developed so strongly in NYC, and less so in Israel?
MW: Oh, Klezmer is stronger nearly everywhere than in Israel. It gets confusing, and it’s maybe a sign of looking for a clean break from the past, and creating their own new culture there. So compared to places like NY where the culture was retained, you have generations who know so little of their grandparents culture, language, music and poetry. And in that new cultural process the presence of Klezmer is tiny.
LJN: When I think a jazz in NYC, I think of a smokey 1920s bar. Where was Klezmer being played in the hey-day of its development?
MW: It wasn’t really concert music. It was still function music, however there’d been a lot of add-ons. Yiddish theatre and cinema, and Yiddish radio. Dave Tarras was employed by the theatre for decades, and these great orchestras were recording and performing vocal music from the theatre.
LJN: And soon we’ll hear how Klezmer is played now, with the NYC album launch of your new album Kosher Style, as part of a five show East Coast tour. How long have you been playing with your current band, the fantastically named Honorable Mentschn?
MW: I’ve been using that name now for a while, but this group definitely came together just for the record. I’ve played with them all separately pretty regularly, but all of them together, in this situation, is special. And the record is special in another sense that together we’ve based it on that late 1950s sound. I wrote everything on the record so it’s not historic per se but it’s a style that I’m enjoying at the moment. Compared to other projects I’m working on that are a little more modernistic, this one is more rooted in that sound.
LJN: As function music, Klezmer is usually a live thing. How do you find putting it on a record?
MW: I love making records, and I love the album as a format and the challenge of creating a narrative arc. Nowadays we have over a century of records to draw cues from, unlike the earliest Klezmer records from 1911, when they had this brand new medium and were trying to figure out how to use it. We want to make sure we’re moving things forward, but we have a lot or resources to look at to help.
LJN: Speaking of records as artifacts, what is the symbolism of Coney Island featured on the cover of Kosher Style?
MW: I love Coney Island! But really I love Brooklyn, and there are references all over the place in the record. I wrote the record in Brooklyn, and the borough has a strong connection with Klezmer musicians both now and historically. I feel it, walking down Brighton Beach and Coney Island.
LJN: Some of your longstanding other major projects are the Yiddish Art Trio and Yiddish New York & KlezKanada?
MW: Ah, Yiddish Art Trio was my main work for the last ten years, really. We’d need another hour to cover that properly. But in short, it was a great outlet for us – we grew up together, finding our feet together. These days I spend a lot of time working on festivals, and Yiddish New York is one I founded five or six years ago with some friends. It takes place each December and it’s in NY so we can involve a lot of people.
It came out of KlezKamp, where a lot of us cut our teeth in the scene. After 30 years KlezKamp closed shop, and we felt we needed to do something to carry the torch. But also, we needed something to over Christmas! I don’t know how to be a New Yorker over Christmas – I can’t just go to a Chinese restaurant. Organised by committee it’s a beautifully messy thing, and a really warm community event. I’m also the artistic director of KlezKanada, which is going into its 25th year. It draws around 350-400 people yearly, and takes place at a summer camp up in Quebec. It’s really one of the great worldwide Klezmer hubs. And its scholarship programme is a really important part of it’s value, getting people to meet and become collaborators, friends, and partners.
LJN: Before we finish, I want to touch on one of your more unusual projects, a sort of Klezmer-Pakistani fusion?
MW: Yes, we’re constantly struggling with the genre for that one. Sandaraa is a band I co-lead with Zeb Bangash, a great pop singer from Pakistan (although she’s living mostly in North Carolina these days). It started with a chance meeting between Zeb and I in 2012, which soon led to us playing a concert at the Pakistani embassy in DC. It was really really fun, and you could feel the audience’s visceral reactions to when her singing crossed over with my Klezmer.
Music in Pakistan is a wild multicultural melting pot. When Zeb was young she would spend time with many Afghani musicians, she grew up ingesting that stuff, and it’s now a big part of her musical foundation. It’s interesting to note that in the northern parts of the country there’s also an area called Hunza, with a people who originally came from the Balkans in the times of Alexander the Great. The dances are fundamentally Balkan dances, and they play similar instruments, but everything else looks so different.
The whole Sandaraa project is a really interesting thing, so we’ve attempted to take that feeling further with some new composition. It is a very rewarding collaboration, and we’re in the beginning phases of working on a new record. Watch this space!
Michael Winograd launches Kosher Style with the Honorable Mentschn at Littlefields in Brooklyn, today (22 September 2019).