Can Blacks Play Klezmer?

Authenticity in American Ethnic Musical Expression


David Borgo


Sonneck Society for American Music Bulletin vol. XXIV no.2

(Summer 1998)


            What makes a musical performance authentic in a given style or tradition?  Are lived experience and musical and cultural immersion sufficient inroads to musical authenticity?  While a musical style may have definite origins in a particular ethnic community, can that community claim sole propriety of that music?  If we do allow for the acquisition of ethnic musical competence by individuals outside of the given ethnic community, by what means can we authenticate their musical expression?  What differentiates the process of musical “authenticization” by an out-group musician, the legitimate musical tribute and trade that makes genres vibrant and dynamic, from the more reprehensible act of musical appropriation and exploitation?  Can a black musician have a Jewish soul?

            Don Byron is a black clarinetist, born and raised in the Bronx. His father played bass in a calypso band, his mother was a pianist, and as a child he was taken regularly to jazz clubs and to the Philharmonic.  During his still young career, Byron has studied and performed classical music, ragtime, jazz, salsa, and klezmer, the Jewish secular instrumental music of Eastern Europe and the Jewish American immigrant community.  While still an undergraduate at the New England Conservatory, Byron began playing in the Klezmer Conservatory Band. It hooked him: "I immediately responded to the mischief in the music, where the clarinet would play the most out thing he could think of... as time went by, I developed my own voice in that language."1  He eventually formed his own band and recorded an album of the music of Mickey Katz, a popular Yiddish parodist of the 1950's.

            Don Byron is not shy about producing socially and politically conscientious music. He has composed and recorded songs commenting on many current events including the Rodney King beatings.  According to Byron, “Even the Mickey Katz music has a certain kind of politics to it; The Mickey Katz album is a pro-ethnicity record.”2  On the album, Byron features newly-arranged Katz parodies of music ranging from Khachaturian compositions, Latin music styles, big band hits,  and other traditional Americana.  Byron, as a jazz clarinetist, stirs in his own musical borrowings from Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane.  So why is this a “pro-ethnicity” record?

            The term klezmer (pl. klezmorim) is derived from a compound Hebrew word meaning “vessel of song.”  Previously refering only to the musicians and their instruments, the term is now often used to describe a distinct musical genre.  Klezmorim are professional instrumentalists who traditionally entertained at weddings, Bar mitzvahs, circumcision feasts, and other social events for both Jewish and gentile audiences.  Dating as far back as the sixteenth century, klezmorim were highly skilled performers of diverse and eclectic folk genres.  In addition to their Jewish repertoire, klezmorim played other regional music and dance styles ranging from polkas, mazurkas, quadrilles, and Viennese waltzes to classical overtures.4

            Klezmer music was transplanted to the United States with the influx of Ashkenazic Jews from Germany beginning in the 1840s and continuing through the post-Holocaust years.  The musical eclecticism and flexibility of European klezmorim proved to be an important factor in their integration into American musical life.  While European-born klezmorim transplanted to America often had limited contact with American popular musics, the second generation klezmorim, Jewish musicians born in the United States, began to internalize the nuances of American music, language, and culture.  The 1920s and 30s marked a period of attempted reconcilliation in the immigrant community between Jewish and American social and musical values.  An early example of this Jewish American musical fusion is the song "And the Angels Sing," made famous by the Benny Goodman orchestra.  Essentially a traditional freilach, trumpeter Ziggy Elman transformed the song into a Swing Era hit.  Clarinetist Dave Tarras and saxophonist Sam Musiker also recorded several innovative fusions during this period, but the subsequent decline of the big bands after World War II and the changing musical tastes of the Jewish American community stifled additional growth in this area until the 1970s.

            The post war years were an extremely heterogenous time in American popular music.  The transition from swing to rock-and-roll saw a decade of pop hits from literally all over the map.  In the 1950s, top sellers were “Vaya Con Dios,” “Oh Mein Papa,” “Tennessee Waltz,” “Volare,” “Day-O,” and “Que Sera Sera” to name only a few.  Byron points out in his liner notes to the Mickey Katz album, although this period might seem a time of “cheerful and harmonious pluralism,” European Americans were seemingly in a rush to erase any and all distinctive ethnic markers in a drive towards assimilation.  These were the quintessential melting pot years in American history and also the height of anti-Semitism.  According to Byron:

These tunes were like vaccines, weakened versions of Americans’ pre-Ellis Island identities injected into mass culture to build up resistance. After the first flush of pleasure at seeing one’s ethnic heritage represented, most people found the trivialization (and overexposure) repugnant. It was as if the goal of these pseudo-ethnic tunes was to make us all immune to whatever was not white and “American.”5


            Given this general trend towards assimilation, it is remarkable that Mickey Katz chose to incorporate Yiddish lyrics into his musical parodies at a time when the language was seen both as a reminder of the Holocaust and a barrier to advancement in American society.  Katz was a popular vocalist, virtuoso clarinetist, and staged and starred in several English-Yiddish variety shows.  His songs reflected contemporary Jewish American life with few sentimental references to a romanticized old country.  Byron writes that Katz “dived headlong into the chasm between America's immigrant population and a social order that held -- and still holds -- WASP-iness as its highest value...  His songs portrayed people who were in touch with both ethnic traditions and the consistently changing array of people, cultures and information that was, and is, America.”6  The “pro-ethnicity” message of Byron’s recent interpretations of Katz’ music also seems to emphasize these plural and dynamic aspects of ethnic identification. 

            Since the 1970s there has been a pronounced resurgence of interest in klezmer music and several well-known ensembles have been successful in transporting klezmer music from the home and wedding hall to the theater and concert stage.7  Critics of this klezmer revival often regard these groups as self-conscious, institutionalized, and re-interpretive.  However, ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin argues that they provide a good example of the tension between the openness of Jewish audiences to other ethnic influences -- in this case jazz, blues, and classical music -- and the strong communal consensus among Ashkenazics in America best exemplified by the ubiquitous synagogue and welfare institutions.8

            This dialectic between the socially nurtured and cherished aspects and ethnicity, and its dynamic and polysemic nature, continually informs current discussions.  Nathan Glazer and Daniel Moynihan, leading voices in the debate, have focused on the ability of ethnic identification to further a sense of solidarity among group members and to mobilize social, political, and economic concerns.9  Certainly there are historical injustices and current social and economic inequities which help to explain this sense of ethnic solidarity.  However, the dynamic and polysemic aspects of ethnic identification may allow room for a less protectionist stance towards ethnic traditions and permit the proper initiation of outsiders into ethnic expressive authenticity.

            Scholars of European classical music often evaluate musical authenticity by comparing a given performance with the notated composition and the agreed-upon model for its interpretation. Within ethnic musical traditions, musical authenticity is often conceived of as a birth right.  Hankus Netsky, the director of the New England Conservatory Klezmer Band, recounts that when he became interested in Klezmer music somewhat late in his career, he was told by his uncle Jerry, the last of the older-generation Jewish clarinetists on the Philadelphia scene, the only way to learn klezmer was to be born into it.  Although by bloodline Netsky is certainly related to the klezmer tradition, according to his uncle, even he could not achieve true authenticity in the idiom.10  It seems that lived experience, early exposure, and continual immersion are the most crucial requirements for aquiring ethnic musical authenticity.  Joel Rudinow states that “other things being equal, the more directly one’s knowledge claims are grounded in first hand experience, the more unassailable one’s authority.”11

            Can Don Byron be considered a new initiate into the Jewish American musical community and his music capable of furthering ethnic solidarity among American Jews?  Byron’s album Plays the Music of Mickey Katz has received both commercial and critical acclaim in the klezmer community, but his “pro-ethnicity” message may not be directed solely at Jewish audiences and Jewish concerns.  Perhaps Byron’s “pro-ethnicity” message reflects on the ability of music to speak both directly to ethnic sensibilities -- to resonate with a specific community and culture -- and to afford a sense of ethnic sympathy or understanding to outsiders.

            In the last few decades, scholars from within several disciplines have become increasingly dissatisfied with the extant discourses on race, genetics, nationality, and even culture.  Many are now investigating ethnicity as a flexible marker of social solidarity and in-group belonging.  In a 1994 article titled “Race, Ethnicity, Expressive Authenticity: Can White People Sing the Blues?” Joel Rudinow argues that:

Unlike race... which is supposed to be innate and in nature, ethnicity requires no genetic or biological foundation. Ethnicity is a matter of acknowledged common culture, based on shared items of cultural significance such as experience, language, religion, history, habitat, and the like. Ethnicity is essentially a socially conferred status -- a matter of communal acceptance, recognition, and respect.3

            Robert Walser writes that “music, because of its relative immateriality and discursive autonomy, may be particularly well-suited to participate in the fluid relationships of discourses and history that we associate with postmodernism."12  When discussing the polka mass, he finds that “it not only draws on the strength of specific ethnic identities but also reaches across them to make common cause in the face of shared threats."13

            Are there enough similarities in the African and Jewish experience in America to allow a black jazz musician some access to expressive authenticity in klezmer music?  While I could posit similarities based on a history of ethnic persecution (slavery and the Holocaust) and racist treatment (segregation and anti-Semitism), this would be subscribing to the “myth of ethnic memory” described by Rudinow.  As he points out, baby-boomer Jewish Americans have no more claim to an inviolable understanding of the Holocaust experience, than middle class, urban blacks have of the southern, rural origins of the blues.14  These observations aside, It must be admitted that American society, on the whole, is often slow to reflect changing attitudes towards ethnic diversity, and many remnants of these historical sentiments still exist today.

            I am tempted to follow Slobin and Walser and dismiss the issue of authenticity as an artificial "etic" categorization.  As Walser writes, "ethnic musicians typically create with little concern for ‘authenticity or purity’."15  If a performer is considered an ethnic insider and audiences are appreciative of the performance, then there would seem to be little need for anxiety over authenticity. While ethnic musicians and audiences may not be preoccupied with judging authenticity, I believe a sense of fluency, credibility, and integrity are essential to a valued, in-group ethnic performance.

            Charles Keil asserts that ethnicity is “the source of all powerful music styles."  He fears that in this postmodern world we are finally realizing the importance of ethnic expression only to lose it to the staleness of the museum and the overpowering blandness of the shopping mall and suburbia.16   Even if we accept Keil's fundamental position, we must be aware that a musical genre evolves beyond the confines of its ethnic birth just as surely as a human being outgrows both the nurturing and nest of its parents.  Hankus Netsky describes “postmodern” Klezmer as something which “can no longer be confined... Even its wailing sound, its essence, can be imitated and learned."  He asks us, “How can anyone put walls around an ethnic identity that has no home?.”17  Joel Rudinow quotes Amiri Baraka -- who is often read as one of the most protectionist and Afrocentric jazz writers -- on the "appropriation" of jazz music by white musicians: "The success of this 'appropriation' signaled the existence of an American music, where before there was a Negro music."18

            The boundary-stretching musical approach exemplified by Katz’ music and Byron’s interpretations do much to invigorate and expand American Jewish and jazz traditions.  The clarinet, once the leading force of Swing Era jazz, has been almost completely neglected for the last 50 years.  African Americans have been even rarer on the instrument; the perennial poll-winners of Downbeat and other jazz magazines have been Goodman, Artie Shaw, Jimmy Guiffre, Tony Scott, and Buddy DeFranco.  With this obvious void for contemporary black jazz clarinet players, Byron, with his considerable talent, could have easily chosen a straight-and-narrow path to mainstream jazz and gained recognition. However, he has been an ardent explorer of both avant-garde and ethnically diverse musical territories.

            Byron has pointed out in interviews that there is no standard jazz clarinet sound or approach.19  This may be one reason why his foray into klezmer and other distantly-related musical traditions does not seem incongruous.  It may also be that the inherent flexibility, playfulness, often mystical approach to essentially secular music, and the history of hardship and ethnic persecution that are embodied in both jazz and klezmer musics makes them brethren of sorts.

            American ethnic musics, whether newly created or transplanted, seem to share an openness to combining elements in the dynamic process of defining musical and ethnic identity.  It may be that these musical traditions necessarily take on some ethnic identity component of "American-ness."  Mark Slobin concludes that “each generation must define for itself, as Americans, how it wants to declare its ethnic allegiance.”20  While each new immigrant population often must struggle against the current hegemonic power to maintain and express its cultural and ethnic sensibilities, a new sense of American solidarity -- at the worst extreme a sense of patriotic nationalism, at the best extreme a sense of ethnic synergy -- may evolve from this open and dynamic ethnoscape.



1.  Don Byron, (1996).

2.  Ibid.

3.  Joel Rudinow,  “Race, Ethnicity, Expressive Authenticity: Can White People Sing the Blues?” in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 52, No. 1 (1994), 128.

4.  Henry Sapoznik, The Compleat Klezmer (Cedarhurst, NY: Tara Publications, 1978), 7.

5.  Don Byron, from the liner notes to his album Plays the Music of Mickey Katz, Electra-Nonesuch CD 79313-2 (1993).

6.  Ibid.

7.  for example The New England Klezmer Conservatory Band and The Klezmatics, etc.

8.  Mark Slobin, “Klezmer Music: An American Ethnic Genre,” in Yearbook for Traditional Music 16 (1984), 34-41.

9.  Nathan Glazer and Daniel Moynihan, eds., Ethnicity: Theory and Experience (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975).

10. Hankus Netsky, “Klezmer Music: Local Rumbles and Distant Echoes,” paper presented at the 1997 SEM national conference (Pittsburgh), 1.

11.  Joel Rudinow,  “Race, Ethnicity, Expressive Authenticity: Can White People Sing the Blues?” in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 52, No. 1 (1994), 132.

12.  Robert Walser, “The Polka Mass: Music of Postmodern Ethnicity.” American Music 10, No. 2 (1992), 198.

13.  Ibid., 196.

14.  Rudinow 1994, 132.

15.  Walser 1992, 194.

16.  Charles Keil, “’Ethnic’ Music Traditions in the USA (Black Music; Country Music; Others; All),” Popular Music 13, No. 2 (1994), p. 175.

17. Netsky 1997, 6.

18.  Rudinow 1994, 135.

19.  Don Byron, (1996).

20.  Slobin 1984, 35.