That is the word "klezmer." And why it hocks my chanuck .
So my local JCAA has this annual event called the Tapestry of Jewish Learning centered around Jewish practice and culture which I was honored enough to come and speak at in it's innaugral year. Truthfully, the only thing I am remotely qualified to speak about, other than the best BBQ joints within a 120 mile range of Austin and the finer points of explaining why the Jews killed Jesus to your gym coach, is possibly Jewish-American party music. At least as far as the J is concerned anyway. My synagogue, or better put the synagogue that puts up with me showing up to daven without paying membership, has a similar little baby version of this concept called the Thinking Adult Persons seminars (get it, "Tap"...cool huh?) and this year I was asked to speak there as well.
I did my shtik to an enthusiastic crowd and as I was leaving to catch the bus I spied a catalog for this years Tapestry. The event actually didn't occur as it was iced out, but out of professional curiosity I took a peek anyway. I saw this interesting subject, presented by some one I had never heard of: "Klezmer: What makes it Jewish?"
Boy howdy, do I wish I could have made that one. (Refer to On "klezmer" music.) Again out of curiosity, I inquired who this gal was that was giving the talk. Best I can tell she was at one time the second chair of a civic orchestra in Reno Nevada, but none of my pals in Jew-Music-World had encountered her. But I guess the title kind of says it all. In the world of Martial Arts there is a term for dubious "masters" who open karate dojos. It's called "bullshido" and there are websites that actively "out" these ersatz cultural interperters. As I've come to find in my career, any two-bit bar mitzvah band with a Kammen song folio playing Israeli circle dances is concidered "klezmer" these days, which is just fine in some respects. Helps us quickly identify those who's hearts are in it and those who are simply looking to turn a coin for the unsuspecting hooples. This here could be the worse I've encountered however, a black-face minstral show version of Jewish culture ground out for a ready audience of like minded Yankee transplants and assorted self loathers. But I digress...
After my inquiriy I was asked innocently enough by J's cultural director why those of us who have dedicated some part of our musical life to exploring Yiddish musical traditions are not comfortable the term "klezmer." I reckon now is as good a time that I should go public with my response and my thinking on the subject. Thus:
"That's a deep question actually which speaks to my personal motivations for working in Jewish music rather than make a living wage playing something people actually pay for. You might look for the latest issue (Volume 50#4 – Winter `07) of Sing Out! magazine where I have a major article on Klez Kamp and the thorny path of cultural connectedness.
The fact is the textbook versus the vernactular definitions of the term "klezmer" couldn't be further apart, and no one who has even a glancing knowledge of our musical traditions would describe it with such a vulgar term. And I do mean vulgar, as unpleasant in it's use as the "N" word to black folks. If you're not hip to something so basic, then what else don't you know, dig? (I see no lectures scheduled on kosher recipes for pork for instance to use a possibly poor analogy)
Duke Ellington addressed a similar situation back in the 1920's when the term "jazz" was applied to his art. What most folks today don't know is that "Jazz" in the language of the day meant quite literally the smell associated of the after effect of sexual congress. A street walkers jargon. As vulgar and low a description as you could imagine, created by white people to describe black culture. Ellington was stumping for the more correct tern "Afro-American Classical Music," but by the 30's it was too late and the true meaning of the term was lost. He still knew though.
Same goes for us, but sadly we have only ourselves to blame. The "revivalist" bands of the early 70's started mixing instrumental music, folks songs and theater songs into a clumsy patchwork quilt of music and called it "klezmer" simply beacause, as they have since told me, they were too scared to call it "Jewish." A "klezmer" is a, and I'm quoting from Dave Tarras here, "a no talent bum who could scrape out a note or two on a fiddle and fool the unsophisticated clients that he was an actual musician." It's also recognized in Yiddish musician and gangster jargon as someone who underbids on jobs as well. If someone self identifies themselves as a "klezmer," then you can pretty well assume they they are either willfully unaware of the basics of the culture that creates our music. Or simply put, the depth of their experience is only as deep as the groove of the record they learned from. Post modernists and other post-hippie era musicians grew up essentially removed from the Yiddish speaking world, so they have no handle for the context of the word, much less the environment that spawned the music which ultimately is only one tiny facet of the diamond of Yiddish culture.
To not put too fine a point on it, in my opinion we didn't crawl out of the ovens and DP camps so that one day we could comfortable enough to either forget everything or worse still, to remember it all wrong. Who needs Nazi's when you have assimilation and willful forgetfulness? There is no hechtser for what's Jewish culture, and maybe ultimately that's a good thing. But all my teachers called themselves "muzikant" and they called their music "yiddish." They're all dead now too. That's why I don't like to use the "K" word.
Respectfully, your servant,