The message flashed at viewers during the introduction of The Last Klezmer--a 1994 documentary film made by Yale Strom, leader of the klezmer/jazz act known as KLAZZJ--underlines the important role the style has played in Jewish culture throughout Eastern Europe. "A wedding without a klezmer," the saying goes, "was worse than a funeral without tears."
As this statement suggests, klezmer provided the soundtrack for life in the thriving Jewish communities of Europe's recent past. For Strom, however, the music is very much a part of the present. In fact, klezmer changed the course of his life.
According to Strom, the event that started him on his current path was a klezmer dance that he attended sixteen years ago, just prior to his planned entry into law school. An accomplished violinist, he was so enthralled by the blend of Ukrainian folk, European gypsy songs and Yiddish favorites churned out by the band at the dance that he asked the musicians if he could sit in for a song or two. The group's leader dismissed him, but Strom didn't take this response as a sign that klezmer wasn't for him. Instead, he vowed on the spot to form his own klezmer band. Shortly thereafter, he headed to Eastern Europe on the first of a series of pilgrimages to the genre's heartland. Although he never earned the law degree he coveted, he claims to have no regrets about his decision.
"It was the right choice," he says. "My family--well, they weren't really upset about it. Not really. They were pretty supportive. My mom was happy because I already had a couple of degrees under my belt, so it wasn't like I was throwing it all away. I think that perhaps she felt like with the other degrees, I could always have a fall-back position."
He hasn't needed one. At 39, Strom is the foremost klezmer historian in America--and that's only one of his many pursuits. His photographic essays have been exhibited in Tel Aviv, New York, Chicago and several cities in Canada. He's also published six photo books, including works focusing on young immigrants in America, Jewish youth in Eastern Europe, European gypsies, the Hasidim in Brooklyn and a 500-year history of the Jewish exodus. As for his film work, he recently debuted a new feature documentary, Carpati: 50 Miles, 50 Years, at Lincoln Center in New York City. (Denver film buffs will have an opportunity to view Carpati at the Jewish Film Festival later this summer.) Additionally, Strom is co-authoring a play, assembling another film project and preparing to write a book for Simon & Schuster on various ethnic coming-of-age rites. Somehow, he managed to work a wedding into his schedule, too: He married writer/producer Elizabeth Schwartz earlier this month.
Still, it's klezmer that gets him most excited, and even though he respects the music, he's not shy about tinkering with it. KLAZZJ perfectly exemplifies his approach. Its lineup--guitarist Fred Benedetti, Afro-Cuban percussionist Gene Perry, flutist/saxophonist Tripp Sprague, bassist Geoff Pekarek and Strom on violin--blends jazz elements into the standard klezmer formula. Some might consider this a radical departure, but Strom says it was a natural progression.
"I started my original klezmer band, Zmiros, in San Diego in 1981," he notes. "Three of the original members of that band--myself, Fred and Geoff--played traditional klezmer, and we'd do my own music or whatever. But two years ago I decided to do more worldbeat music along with it and really stretch the traditional out a little. So I added Tripp on saxophone, instead of the clarinet you hear most often. I found that gives a bit more of a jazz or blues feel, sometimes, to the traditional Jewish music. But it's the percussion that really gives it a whole new shape. And that's not because there's just a drum beat--it's because Gene plays Afro-Cuban percussion.
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"We've been together two years now, and by the time we come to Denver, we will have finished our latest CD," he continues. "It won't be out yet, but we'll play some of the material. There's a Jewish flavor to some of the tunes, but a lot of rhumba, Latin, tango and Afro-Cuban kinds of things. And the new pieces really reflect my own kind of take on the music."
The accessibility of Strom's current vision dovetails nicely with the growing interest in klezmer music outside the Jewish community. He's pleased and amused by this unexpected turn of events--but he's not surprised.
"You hear the clarinetist in a klezmer band and you think, 'That cat's burning,'" he says. "The music swings. It's not jazz, but it swings. It moves. It allows you to add your philosophy in the bar lines. When you play klezmer, you put yourself in it. You're not just playing little black notes--and that's important."
The Sound of Summer: An Evening of Klezmer Jazz Under the Stars, with Yale Strom & KLAZZJ. 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 19, Robert E. Loup Jewish Community Center, 350 South Dahlia, $12/$10 students and seniors (plus an additional $8 for a dinner package), 399-2660, ext. 337.