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Frank London: The Jew with the Horn

By Published: November 13, 2007
It was the time of Black Liberation. So they hired this saxophone guy, Brother Ah, better known as Robert Northern, who played on John Coltrane's Africa/Brass Sessions (Impulse!, 1961) and Charlie Haden's original Liberation Music Orchestra (Impulse!, 1969), and he taught a course on "Sound Awareness, Free Improvisation and African Roots of Free Improvisation. That got me headed into more open thinking. And from there I went to the New England Conservatory of Music, and there I began to discover all the other music of the world—Klezmer, Latin, African, brass music and two or three years later we started the Klezmer Conservatory Band in Boston, and that's how I began to study this music.

AAJ: Were you aware at that time that you want to do more than play just tradition-based music?

FL: If you look at the history of this music in America, it was very strong in the twenties and thirties of the twentieth century, and than it changed, it became more American, less important. It was commercialized, and we began to discover it in the late seventies and play it again. So we studied the original recordings of the twenties—Dave Tarras and Abe Schwartz—for The Klezmer Conservatory Band. We were young and very aggressive musicians, and but the leader was more concerned about the old way.

I moved to New York around 1985, and I was still learning, liked the music and I wanted to do it more. And than we put together the Klezmatics. We did not say that, "Now we are getting it more modern, or, "not our father's Klezmer, as we were published [as saying] at the time. We were doing the same things, but it was more a choice of repertoire. We stripped away many things that indulged Jewish music that we did not like. All the schmaltz, kitschy nostalgia, the corny elements, all the Fiddler on the Roof. These songs had a great strong tradition of socialist Yiddish, social activism and love, not only about remembering the Old World. We chose our songs based on the repertoire; interesting songs.


I learned a lesson from Charles Mingus and Sun Ra. There is a distinction between rhetoric around an art and the art itself. At best you can integrate it. You can create the myth, create your intentions and, of course, we sure had political artistic consciousness, even if the music was not literally connected to it .We called our first record Shvaygn=Toyt (Rounder/ Piranha, 1988), which in Yiddish is Silence=Death. A very political title, which reflected what we believed and it still does, an AIDS activism slogan, but also a statement about speaking out when people are trying to be quiet. All the things together. And even if the music was not yet radicalized, the intention and perception was.

We started as being very traditional, most of the lyrics were a hundred years old, but our choice of what tradition to present was different. This is the Jewish Yiddish tradition, beautiful songs that say a lot about our situation; protest music. You don't have to sound like Fiddler on the Roof or Giora Feidman. In a sense we were lying. It was our grandparents' Klezmer music. Our parents' Klezmer became more conservative and schmaltzy. There was a bit of radicalism our version of "Alle Brider [a traditional ad-lib Yiddish Socialist cry for unity and celebration that became the Klezmatics' signature anthem from their first concerts], where we added a verse about gays, a nice provocative line: "We all brothers, we all sisters, we all gay, like Jonathan and King David because it rhymes beautifully. We played on the double meaning of freylekh. In Yiddish it is literally gay and happy and freylekh is also the name of the dance and the rhythm.

Our producer, Christoph Borkowsky Akbar from Piranha, challenged us. "I want to hear you guys, he said. "I will put out an album, no problem, but put more of your lives, New York, an urban young sound in Klezmer. It was the first time that it came to us as a conscious choice that we could do what we really wanted to do. Our second album, even tougher in many ways, is not our best but maybe the most important, Rhythm + Jews (Rounder/ Piranha, 1990).

On Rhythm + Jews there were twenty ways that you could take this tradition and move it forward, and it became like kind of a guidebook for us and for many other people. You could add free improvisation, Arabic music, rock ballad, this rhythmic or harmonic device, sound, all based on this traditional music. It still stands up, because unfortunately it began the whole movement of really corny puns on Jewish music. This was our response to the Borkowsky question: where can you go with it? And you can say that we spent the next twenty years working out the possibilities.

AAJ: Did Rhythm + Jews mark the beginning of the revival of Jewish Music as we know it through Tzadik's Radical Jewish Culture series?

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