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Perfoming Arts : Klezmer on the Cutting Edge : How did such low-rent Jewish party music turn into an avant-garde trend? We'd tell you, but we can't stop dancing.

November 20, 1994|Mark Swed | Mark Swed is a free-lance writer based in New York. and

One of the hippest records to have come out this year is a CD resurrection of goofy early Spike Jones recordings. Spike Jones was the drummer from Long Beach who played in radio bands in the 1930s and then, in the early '40s, set out on his own as a musical satirist, famous for making lots of nerdy noises to parody popular songs, with his band, Spike Jones & the City Slickers. By the '50s, when he went on television, his act had become tired and its spirit a little mean; his old LPs, for most of his old fans, have wound up in attic with the tattered Mad magazines and other nutty juvenalia.

What makes "Spiked! The Music of Spike Jones" hip is that it is released on Catalyst, a trendy and sophisticated new-music label; it contains liner notes by the reclusive cult novelist Thomas Pynchon, and it flaunts flashy cover art by cartoonist Art Spiegelman, of "Maus" fame.

Some extravagant claims are made for this record. Its executive producer, Tim Page, who is also chief classical music critic at Newsday, adds to the liner notes that all Jones' cowbells, gunshots, car horns and crashes helped pave the way for everything from John Cage to Public Enemy. Jones was not nearly that prescient, of course; American experimental music was honking car horns and smashing beer bottles years before Jones came on the scene.

But Spike Jones did reveal at least one particularly quirky and genuine sign of prescience buried in some of the cuts. For a couple of years in the mid-'40s, Jones' clarinetist--and what Pynchon calls "Slicker glug specialist"--was Mickey Katz. Katz went on, in the '50s, to create his own comedy routines of Yiddish musical parody. In the process, Katz bowdlerized an old Yiddish folk music style, klezmer, sometimes called Jewish jazz, the celebratory secular music of weddings and bar mitzvahs.

Katz's LPs went out of fashion with the '50s, and Katz ultimately became better known as the father of the entertainer Joel Grey than of any musical trend. But then, last year, Nonesuch put out a recording called "Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz," resulting in a startling cultural confusion. Don Byron is a Boston-based young black clarinetist who is also a regular in Manhattan's downtown avant-garde jazz scene. In addition, he heads an Afro-Cuban jazz band as well as a modern classical ensemble, and he is currently writing a string quartet for the Kronos Quartet. He is not Jewish.

Nor is Byron the only member of the hip art world lately drawn to klezmer. Anyone looking for a particularly off-the-wall Hanukkah party record might try the klezmer-tinged title track from "Transylvania Softwear," (John Marks Records), the latest effort from the avant-garde accordionist, Guy Klucevsek, who has practically single-handedly made his instrument newly fashionable in the downtown new-music dance clubs. But then even John Zorn, saxophonist and avatar of downtown postmodern improvisers, has begun playing his versions of klezmer.

Klezmer has, in fact, invaded the avant-garde in a number of unlikely ways. The postmodern choreographer David Gordon directed the klezmer musical "Shlemiel the First" last year for American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., which became a New York hit last summer when it visited Lincoln Center's showcase of avant-garde performance, "Serious Fun!" And now Richard Forman, the avant-garde director, is currently preparing a new work of music theater, "Yiddisher Teddy Bears," for his Ontological-Hysteric Theater, with music by Stewart Wallace, also composer of the forthcoming opera "Harvey Milk."

Why klezmer? And why now?

There are all kinds of issues that can be raised here, issues of postmodernism and multiculturalism. There are all the usual social and ethnic questions to be asked. But there is something else. It is what the Polish klezmer musician, Leopold Kozlowski, says while chopping garlic in a new documentary, "The Last Klezmer" (which plays weekends at the Sunset 5). Of the garlic, Kozlowski says simply, "It's a pleasure."

Klezmer is back, most likely, for the same simple reason. It's a pleasure, and it's all the more one because it is a pleasure that had been forgotten.

Klezmer is the ultimate low-rent party music. Its roots are murky, but it comes from the entertainment music that developed in Eastern Europe sometime in the latter part of the last century. There seems to have been little room in Jewish culture for secular music before that. Unlike the fabulous body of sacred music that arose out of Christianity, Jewish music of worship remained unadorned chant. Klezmer, which means in Yiddish vessel of music , was the entertainment at weddings and bar mitzvahs.

Originally klezmer was the musical equivalent of Yiddish, a folk-based music that adapted to whatever musical language was around it. But with the rise of Yiddish theater in the late 1800s, it traveled to the United States along with the huge wave of Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe.

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