A pre-eminent contemporary multi-instrumentalist and composer rooted in jazz, Don Byron has engaged with a wild variety of musical styles — from rap to neo-classical, funk to heavy metal — and is currently touring with the New Gospel Quintet, exploring the heritage of African-American spirituals It was his encounter with klezmer, however, and his tribute album to the Borscht Belt musician and comedian Mickey Katz (“Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz”), that brought him a great deal of attention earlier in his career, two decades ago.
Over the years, this encounter served as a source of both mirth and awe; in retrospect, Byron’s attempt to resuscitate Katz (1909-85), and his peculiar interpretation of the klezmer legacy has had a major impact on further development of klezmer and on the unfolding of what came to be known as the Klezmer Revival. The Forward’s Jake Marmer talked to Byron about klezmer, cultural appropriation, assimilation and hipness.
Jake Marmer: In his seminal “Visions of Jazz,” Gary Giddins has an essay about encountering your Mickey Katz tribute at the Knitting Factory for the first time. He mentions that one of his friends, who is Jewish, admitted he knew Katz’s music but was sort of embarrassed by this legacy. And so Giddins (very bravely, I think) admits that although you probably didn’t intend this at all, somehow your engagement with this music made it okay for a lot of assimilated Jewish musicians to engage with klezmer and reconsider it as legit. Have you seen the effects of this?
Don Byron: A lot of people had those kinds of feelings about the music. If you were trying to be hip, and hip meant being assimilated, it was going to be hard to face the thing you ran away from, especially at first. I know many of the downtown types had never seriously thought about doing that music, though many would deny my impact on them; however, you couldn’t really argue with the crowds we were getting. That probably broke the ice for many of them. The first anniversary of the premiere of “Mick at the Knit” suddenly became a downtown festival, including all the revival acts and the downtown folks.
There were club owners of Jewish descent who wanted nothing to do with the music at the time. I remember a guy, who will remain nameless, who said he didn’t want “those people” in his club. On the one hand, if someone programs their venue with a certain kind of thing, that’s okay, but this seemed very personal, had real venom in it. On the other hand, I don’t judge someone for not wanting to be into klezmer music. It’s not the mark of coolness or good person-hood.
Recently I saw “Django” (which I thought was too long and boring in spots). The main thing I came away with was that [Quentin] Tarantino could face the subject with a level of glee that no black director could possess. The subject would be too personal, too hot. In retrospect, the distance I had sociologically gave me the objectivity to make the thing work. Yet I feel like I learned a lot from the experience of doing it. I saw and heard a lot of things that most Jewish folks don’t even get to experience, saw the religion from many angles, from Orthodox to hippie Reform. And I watched people tackle their basic issues in front of me, and sometimes at my expense. It was an interesting ride.