I am always fascinated by how things were for our past generations. Some things were easier and others more difficult. For people in the music business there were more opportunities a few generations ago. Of course long before synthesizers and dj’s, people had to rely on actual live musicians to fulfill their entertainment needs. My grandfather Jack was a prime example of the demand for high caliber musicianship years ago. Remember, before movies had sound they used to have live bands in the theaters. He played the silent film pits as well as the Yiddish Theater. This was in addition to the late night Jewish nightclubs on the lower east side and the wedding circuit. There were others who were just as busy. Another family of musicians were the Grupps. I had always heard about the violinist Louis Grupp. He held a post with the musician’s union for many years. Both he and my grandfather were members of the Progressive Musical Society. This society was founded in 1911 and you needed to be a member if you wanted to get your foot in the door of the Jewish music scene at the time. Louis Grupp also had brothers who were musicians as well. I have a song in my Klezmer repertoire that I was always told was from Louis Grupp. We don’t know for sure if he wrote it but apparently it was in his repertoire. Another reason why I know the name Grupp is because every time I’d visit the cemetery where my family is laid to rest, I’d see the name Grupp on a few of the monuments. Turns out Louis is 2 stones away from my grandfather!! I was recently contacted by Grupp’s granddaughter Marcy. She came upon a past post where I had mentioned her grandfather. For all I know the last time a Levitt spoke with a Grupp could have been 40-50 years ago!! It’s nice to have connected with Marcy and re-establish an old family friendship. I know our grandfathers are playing music together on the lower east side of heaven.
I was involved in a couple of nice events this week. My friend Corey Breier is president of the Yiddish Artists and friends Actors Club. He puts on four events a year here in NY. This past Tuesday was a dinner and a Molly Picon Tribute Concert. I worked with Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch, (bandleader), Dan Rosengard, and Matt Temkin. The vocalist was Daniella Rabbani who I hadn’t worked with previously. The concert went over nicely. Everybody in the group complimented each other and the night was a great success. I have to hand it to Corey, it’s like putting together 4 simchas a year. He greets all the guests as they arrive and wishes them well on the way out. A true mensch!!!………On Thursday I had an outdoor concert with my group at Abe Lebewohl Park in the E. Village. We were a quartet this time as trumpeter Jordan Hirsch joined us for the festivities. These kind of concerts have been a staple of our NY culture for a long time. I hope they continue to be forever. The energy of a walk-up crowd in NY is like no other. The E. Village may be a little cleaner these days but there are still a lot of enjoyable characters walking around. I put together a program of Bulgars, Theater songs, a Doina-etc. The crowd response was very encouraging. I offered my version of a kickstarter campaign: 3 CD’s for $20. Yes, they are three different cd’s!!!! The proceeds help produce the next project which is just about halfway done. I was happy to meet a few of the audience members before and after the show. Believe it or not a few of them came up during the show to purchase the cd’s!!! Who am I to turn down a dollar?!! It was great to see some friends in the audience. A big thank you to Paul Brandenburg, Bobby Shubowitz, and Bernhard Ullrich for dodging the few raindrops and coming to the show. A gentleman who lives right across from the park said we were “the best” group to ever play there!!! What a compliment as the caliber of talent on the schedule is quite deep. These kind of comments and audience reaction is what inspires us to keep working. I shall do so…..Next blog is coming soon. It will be about the re-connection with the Grupp family. The grandfathers worked together dating back to the 1920’s. Now the grandchildren are in touch filling in the blanks. Sometimes you don’t realize how close (literally) your family is to another
No matter what genre of music one plays usually there have been others playing that music already. Listening to these folks that came before you will help shape your own interpretation which leads you to find your own voice. This may not be all there is to inspire you. Sometimes there are stories you hear about certain artists or others who perform your “type” of music that help embellish your artistry. The late great jazz bassist Leonard Gaskin told me a JJ Johnson story from way back. JJ had an apartment in Washington Heights. He would practice trombone for hours at a time. The neighbors didn’t mind his practicing. They took exception to him practicing the same scales and scale patterns for days and weeks at a time. This led to Mr. Johnson’s eviction. They just couldn’t deal. Another friend of mine was rehearsing a latin band in an apt also in the Heights. A neighbor commented, “I like your music but tell the trumpet player not to go for the high notes, they’re out of tune”. I grew up hearing stories about the Catskills and the old days of Brownsville. One of my favorites was about the custard salesman with a runny nose. He didn’t have a tissue on hand but people still raved about his custard!! Who knows….. I was a witness when an old time accordionist named Charlie Bookman worked with my dad in Florida. He was about 75 years old in the early 80’s so do the math. He showed up to a gig with torn pants.” Don’t worry” he said, ” I have another pair in the car”. He goes to change and walks back in with a pair of pants with not one but two rips!!! Should’ve stuck with the first pair Charlie!!
I wanted to say a few words about a gentleman who just recently passed on. Art Raymond had a radio show on WEVD in NYC for many years. He was know as the “Simcha Man”. I remember him doing great live commercials for the House of Jacks. House of Jacks was a men’s clothing store with two locations. One of the stores was near where I lived in Brooklyn so that was cool to hear when it was mentioned on the air. Art always played my parent’s recordings on his show. My dad was very friendly with him over a long period of time. One day when I was about 6 years old, my dad was going to take me “uptown” to his lunch appointment with Mr. Raymond. I got into the back seat of dad’s favorite possession, his 1968 powder gray Buick Electra 225 with beautiful black interior. Nobody else was allowed to drive this car. Since this was before booster seats, I’m sure I was sliding all over the back seat on this ride into Manhattan. I remember driving down Flatbush Avenue through Prospect Park. Over the Manhattan Bridge we went and 770 Broadway was not too far away at this point. We met Art at the station and went to a local restaurant. As the two grown-ups talked music and business, I slurped on a Coke and chomped on a burger. They’d each check in every few minutes to see if I was okay. I remember Mr. Raymond being very nice to me. He was always asking how mom and the girls were. A true mensch he was. A few years later he would sometimes be the emcee and special guest at concerts with my parents. He knew his audience well and was always a hit. I actually have video of one of his monologues. Perhaps I’ll put it up on Youtube at some point. For me, Art’s voice will live forever on a recording he narrated with my folks called “Jewish Wedding”. I have a few boxes of this record at home but it’s on my list for remixing, mastering, and re-releasing. All in due time. Mr. Raymond will be missed. May he rest in peace and his memory be a blessing for all.
We had the good fortune to open up the spring season of the NY Klezmer Series last night at Stephen Wise Synagogue. My trio shared the evening with vocalist and songwriter Miryem Khaye Seigel. We played one long set and switched between instrumental and vocal selections to keep it interesting. Our repertoire for the evening included compositions by Beresh Katz, Louis Grupp, Eli Basse, Hymie Jacobson and others. We also performed several of Miryem Khaye’s originals. On another note I had an old record of my dad’s cleaned up and mastered and it should be out digitally sometime this spring. My grandfather is the trombonist on the album which was recorded in 1962. The repertoire on this album is not typical of what today’s Klezmer aficionado would be accustomed to. It’s safe to say that 99.9 percent of the people who enjoy this type of music have probably never heard most of this material before. I’ve been incorporating some of this repertoire into the set when we do a gig. I guess you could call this new old music. It’s new if you’ve never heard it before. Until the next one….
This past Saturday evening was a great experience. My good friend and colleague Dr. Hankus Netsky was an artist in residence at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, NJ. I was asked to be part of the concert with him and a few other performers. We had Mike Cohen on clarinet, Jim Guttman on bass, Amanda Miryem-Khaye Siegel on vocals, and we were joined by the cantor for a few tunes. The crowd was receptive and broke out in dance a few times during the show. We were able to shmooze with the people afterwards at a dessert reception in the temple………Now I am preparing for the opening night of the NY Klezmer Series at Stephen Wise Synagogue on January 28. My trio will be joining forces with Miryem-Khaye who will be singing selections in Yiddish as well as English. I’ve been digging deeper into the family repertoire and found a really cool “bulgar” written by Louis Grupp. Mr.Grupp was an old time Klezmer who was friendly with my grandfather back in Brownsville, Brooklyn. I see his tombstone every time I go visit my family’s graves’. Many of the old time Klezmers are laid to rest in Woodbridge, NJ. Anyhow, Grupp’s tune is very cool. He kind of wrote over the barline with somewhat uneven phrases that seem to work. Lennon and McCartney’s Yesterday is a seven bar phrase but feels so natural. That’s the most popular song I can relate this to but of course they sound nothing like each other!!!! We will have a few other surprises as well. Miryem-Khaye is a fine composer as well as a talented vocalist. We will be backing her up on some of her tunes as well as some covers….. I have a date to re-master an old Tikva album my dad recorded in 1962. My grand father is playing trombone on this recording and did the arrangements. My good buddy and great bass player Phil Palombi is going to help me clean it up and get it sounding great. I hope to get it out digitally (at least) this spring. In unrelated news I’d like to wish my wonderful sister Rhonda a very happy birthday today!!!!
I had previously written about Hannukah at Symphony Space. I now wish to cover the experience of being a part of the WQXR musical celebration of Hannukah. My trio was one of three groups to be showcased at this event. It was streamed live last Thursday the 5th of December at 7 PM. It will be post-produced and made into a special Hannukah program for 2014. When it gets aired it will be on stations all over the country. I wanted our “Ashkenazi” portion of the program to show diversity within our Klezmer music. We started with “Tumler’s Bulgar”. I don’t know who wrote this one but I do know it was a favorite of my dad’s. He recorded it two separate times treating it differently each time. The czardas is a standard Hungarian song form. We played our “Hungarian #2” as our second selection. Jacob Jacob’s Farges Mich Nit was third as we wanted to include a song from the Yiddish Theater, We closed with the “Beresh Katz Sher” which was written by Katz himself. Prior to the music I was fortunate enough to be interviewed by WQXR radio host Naomi Lewin. She did a great job as hostess for the evening. I was thrilled that they used some family pictures that I incorporate into my lectures. There’s something cool about a picture from 1898 in Kiev streaming live all over the webworld!!!! It was a pleasure to hear the two other groups: East of the River and Shashmaqam. We all got on stage at the end of the night for Mao Tzur and Hava Nagila. I must thank my band members Mike Cohen and Christina Crowder for their musicianship as well as a great performance. I will add the link below if you’d like to see the show. Our part starts at the 57:50 mark…..
There’s a lot to cover as of late. I will get to everything within the week and over a few blog entries. This past Monday evening I was involved in a very special event at Symphony Space. I was invited to be a part of the orchestra for the annual Hannukah concert put on by the Folksbiene. (National Yiddish Theater Co.) It also served as a 90th birthday tribute to the great Yiddish actor and singer Theodore Bikel. I remember when he played the butcher on All in the Family many years ago. Fyvush Finkel joined Bikel on stage and they acted out a scene from Fiddler On The Roof. They were right on and really put it over. Fyvush has a long alliance with my family. In the 1950’s my grandfather worked with him as a piano accompanist. In 1952 my great uncle Lou was roommates with Mr. Finkel at the Brookside hotel in the Catskills. My dad also knew Fyvush from working the mountains back in those days. Fyvush wrote a lot of comedic material for my parents to use in their “act” back then. Believe it or not I came across these papers with all the “shtick” written by Finkel from the late 1950’s. I immediately contacted Fyvush’s son Ian who happens to be a xylophone virtuoso as well as an author. He was excited to hear what I had found and I scanned and emailed him all the material……..Getting back to this past Monday…….Symphony Space was packed with 800 people to see the show. We had a great band backing up some top flight talent including: Joanne Borts, Magda Fishman, Elmore James, Avi Fox-Rosen and others. Many of these talented folks I had had the pleasure of working with before. I also enjoyed the opportunity to meet and work with some of these performers for the first time. The orchestra was led by Zalmen Mlotek who is the artistic director for the Folksbiene as well as a talented pianist. Bikel wowed the crowd as he threw down his cane and started to dance at one point. He and Finkel together were a pure delight. The night was filled with great music and nice words for the man of the hour, Theodore Bikel. I was glad to be a part of the evening and have a bird’s eye view of Bikel and Finkel as they both worked their magic!!!! Next entry will cover my trio’s involvement in the WQXR Hannukah extravaganza.
I need to do more of these posts. There’s always stuff going on that I like to update anyone interested about. My appearance at the Eldridge St. Synagogue in August was a success in many ways. The most exciting thing for me was doing the event as a trio. There are many ways to be innovative. Stylistically, originality,-etc. I started to use the term “Instrumentally Innovative” for this group. We consist of trombone, clarinet, and accordion. How many groups out there doing any kind of music can claim that as their instrumentation? What ??No drums? No bass? No DJ?…….The answer to all these questions is Yes. We started recording some tracks this month. The goal is to have a release at some point in 2014. I’ve also started working on a book. It will be about Klezmer revolving around my family’s involvement in the art form over the last 100+ years. I’m teaming up with a great person and friend who actually knows how to take this craziness from me and make a book out of it. I hope everyone had a nice Thankgivikkah. I’m involved in two very special Hannukah programs next week. I was fortunate to be asked to be in the orchestra for the annual Hannukah concert at Symphony Space on Dec 2. The night will also serve as a tribute to Theodore Bikel who is turning 90 years old!!! The orchestra is under the direction of Zalman Mlotek. On Thursday Dec 5th, my trio will be part of the WQXR Hannukah event at the Greene Space. We are one of 3 groups to be involved in the program. I’ve prepared a short program of 4 tunes for us to perform. It starts at 7 PM and will be streaming live at WQXR.org as well as thegreenespace.org. See the link below. It will be made into a special to be aired next year.
I must say this may have been the most fulfilling week as far as my Klezmer experiences have gone. On Monday night I had the pleasure of appearing at the Geneology Convention in Boston. I shared the stage with Hankus Netsky, Amanda Miryem-Khaye Seigel, and Zoe Christensen. We covered the great music and stories of Morris Hollender, Sonia Victor, and we ended the program with the Levitt portion of the program. I met some interesting people after the show. Turns out one gentlemen and I were neighbors a few years ago in Manhattan but we’d never met until this event!!! The following morning a few of us went to the Yiddish Book Center in S. Amherst, Mass. This is where my Levitt family exhibit is on display for all to see. It was my first time there since the exhibit went up last year. I must say the designers did an amazing job with the presentation of the stories and pictures. There are audio samples of music as well as taped interviews with my dad from a few years before his passing. I take great pride in where I come from and this exhibit is a great example of why I feel that way. I got back home on Tuesday night and put my program together for my trio performance on Wednesday night. I had the great fortune of returning to the Eldridge St. Museum and Synagogue for a live performance. The two other members of the trio are Mike Cohen on clarinet and Christina Crowder on accordion. It was truly a magical evening. The venue is second to none and has amazing acoustics. We had a close to capacity crowd that was very receptive and open to hearing our vast array of music. The selections we chose to perform were from the repertoire of my grandfather who started compiling these tunes about 90 years ago. We covered Yiddish, Roumanian, Hungarian, Polish, Russian and more!!! The feedback was positive and we plan to get this group recorded in the near future. Stay tuned…..