Dave Tarras in the 1930s.(Center for Traditional Music and Dance Archive)
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Roots Music

A Lower East Side concert in memory of Dave Tarras, who helped invent klezmer

Alexander Gelfand
April 15, 2010
Dave Tarras in the 1930s.(Center for Traditional Music and Dance Archive)

“Are they dancing up there?” asked the woman working the gift shop at the Museum at Eldridge Street. She had stepped out from behind her cash register, lured by the steady thump-thump-thump coming through the ceiling—a ceiling that is also the floor of the old Eldridge Street Synagogue’s main sanctuary above.

That sanctuary, with its lovingly restored, ornately painted walls and sunlit stained-glass windows, in turn doubles as an occasional concert hall. On this particular Sunday, the first official day of spring, 150 people had turned out for a tribute concert to honor the late klezmer clarinetist Dave Tarras. Tarras died in 1989, just three years after the Eldridge Street Project was formed to rescue the ruined synagogue building—and barely 10 years after Tarras himself was rescued from obscurity by the klezmer revival of the 1970s.

Some of those in attendance were, indeed, dancing. Not many—no more than five at a time, and occasionally just one, an older gentleman with a wild shock of gray, curly hair and very few inhibitions (it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to dance alone as a room full of people stares at you)—but some. And that was only fitting.

Klezmer music as we know it today is largely the invention of Tarras and contemporaries like Naftule Brandwein and Shloimke “Sam” Beckerman, all of whom were active during the period of intense American Jewish cultural ferment that occupied the space between the two world wars. Like his peers, Tarras had been a professional musician in the old country (he came to New York in 1921, driven from his home in central Ukraine by a wave of pogroms). His family members were wedding entertainers, and he likely grew up playing a repertoire that gelled sometime in the 19th century but whose roots stretch back to the 16th century.

At Eldridge Street, the clarinetist Joel Rubin and the tsimbl player Pete Rushefsky played a number of pieces from the same general pool—songs gathered by the Russian musicologist Moshe Beregovski (like “Tish Nign”) or performed by the early klezmer supergroup Belf’s Rumanian Orchestra (like “Dem Zaydn Tants”) that probably resembled the stuff that Tarras and his relatives played back in the Ukrainian region of Podolia. As interpreted by Rubin and Rushefsky, this material had the delicacy and slightly stiff-necked grace of chamber music, albeit with a persistent pulse. (If you want to hear the master himself play this repertoire, check out Tarras’s last studio recording, Dave Tarras: Music for the Traditional Jewish Wedding, re-released last year by the Center for Traditional Music and Dance.)

Once in America, Tarras soon began reimagining his musical heritage. Immersed in the wildly diverse melting pot that was New York City in the 1920s, he folded bits and pieces of other styles—Romani music, Greek music, American jazz—into his work. The results were transformative: Tarras compositions like “Edinitzer Bulgar” and “Happy Birthday Dinele,” which Rubin performed at Eldridge Street with the drummer Dave Licht and the accordionist Art Bailey in the trio format that Tarras often used, have an altogether different feel than their Old World ancestors—louder, more rhythmically propulsive, more kinetic and raucous. This is no longer 19th-century folk music for small-town, semi-rural settings; this is urban music for a 20th-century crowd, and it exerted a powerful influence over a subsequent generation of American-born klezmer musicians.

Unfortunately, it didn’t last very long. Just three years after Tarras arrived in New York, the Anti-Immigration Act of 1924 choked off the influx of fresh Eastern European blood that had sustained the Eldridge Street Synagogue and fueled demand for klezmer music. The Holocaust and the foundation of the state of Israel, both of which turned American Jewish attention away from Europe and toward less conflicted sources of inspiration, put the final nails in klezmer’s coffin, and Tarras, like the synagogue, settled into decades of neglect.

Happily, both enjoyed a second act. The synagogue received a $20 million renovation and was reborn as the museum, a focal point for Jewish culture on a Lower East Side where new neighborhood arrivals are more likely to come from Fujian than Odessa. And klezmer was rediscovered by a new generation of American musicians, among them Rubin, a founding member of the seminal revival group Brave Old World. Though Rubin never met Tarras, he wrote a doctoral dissertation on the subject of improvisation and ornamentation in the work of both Tarras and Brandwein; he also recorded an album of Tarras compositions and published a book of Tarras transcriptions. The two had plans to perform together, but after Tarras’s triumphant return to the stage in the late 1970s, his health declined precipitously, and the encounter never transpired.

It’s too bad; that concert would have been fascinating. Rubin, like many of his fellow revivalists, has an extremely broad and varied musical background, in which classical training rubs up against Greek, Turkish, and Balkan music, and much of the praise heaped upon Tarras—the liquid tone, the technical facility—applies just as well to Rubin’s playing. Listening to Rubin peel off one long, curlicued phrase after another, one can imagine what it must have been like to have heard Tarras in person, at his peak.

But Rubin is no clone. And when I asked him via email if he consciously used Tarras’s melodic ornaments during the Eldridge Street concert, his reply was instructive. “I suppose I used Dave’s ornaments as a starting point,” he wrote, “but I have a much freer relationship to the melody and the ornamenting of it at this point than he did (he pretty much did the same thing each time with minimal variations).”

That, in a nutshell, is why modern klezmer has avoided the stagnation that so often befalls repertory movements and instead has continued to develop and to expand, swallowing everything from avant-garde jazz to funk and hip-hop. (Clarinetist David Krakauer, another Tarras fan, recently released a nice album of klez-funk with James Brown’s old trombonist, Fred Wesley.) Just as Tarras responded to his new environment by creatively broadening the definition of Jewish music, so, too, have contemporary players like Rubin put their own stamp on a genre they helped bring back to life—honoring not only the music, but also the spirit, of Tarras and his colleagues.

It’s a fitting tribute indeed.

Alexander Gelfand is a recovering ethnomusicologist, a sometime jazz pianist, and a former West African drummer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Forward, and elsewhere.

Alexander Gelfand is a recovering ethnomusicologist, a sometime jazz pianist, and a former West African drummer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Forward, and elsewhere.