How Don Byron Brought Klezmer Music And Mickey Katz Back To Life

Clarinetist Looks Back At His Triumph

Lord Byron: Twenty years ago, the album “Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz” helped to lead the Klezmer Revival.
Getty Images
Lord Byron: Twenty years ago, the album “Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz” helped to lead the Klezmer Revival.

By Jake Marmer

Published March 29, 2013, issue of April 05, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

How did you discover Katz in the first place?

My discovery of Katz, it came after I had been in the KCB [Klezmer Conservatory Band] for a bit and had performed most of the Tarras/Brandwein stuff that I was interested in. This is not to say that I didn’t like the music, but there was a finite group of recordings, and everyone in the music was playing the same pieces. I heard a tape of “The Dreidel Song” and immediately wanted to play it…. You had to know a bit of advanced harmony just to transcribe it accurately, and had to have near-concert technique to play it. Playing that music always made the band perk up, because Katz’s guys were serious, well-trained, working American musicians. You could hear that these guys could really play, and nobody was playing that music. As I recall, during the same period, I was living with [KCB’s famed bass player] Jim Guttmann, and he came home with a copy of the Musiker Brothers’ Tanz that he found in a used record store, asked me to listen to it and asked if it was any good. The rest is history.

Mickey Katz was very raw, unassimilated — un-American in his sound and sense of humor. How did you come to understand his world, klezmer and the whole Eastern European Jewish headspace so profoundly?

I firstly related to the format of Katz’s arrangements, which I described at the time as concerto for orchestra-esque. But overall, I saw Katz’s group as a forum for technically and harmonically well-trained American musicians like Nat Farber and Mannie Klein, and I staffed my group with great players like Uri Caine, Mark Feldman, Josh Roseman and Dave Douglas way before the jazz world was fully ready to give it up to any of us. There were klezmer groups around, but none that could match that group’s edginess and creativity. It was that edge that brought the Knitting Factory crowd and Katz’s music together, making the way for the radical Jewish movement of John Zorn.

The students I’ve taught in recent years are very unobjective. If they don’t know anybody who’s into something, they won’t take it seriously. If the musicians don’t look like them, don’t come from similar backgrounds, they can’t hear it. Maybe most folks are like that. I have studied and played all kinds of music. When I was still in school I played with downtown musicians, Latin musicians, free jazz musicians, straight-ahead jazz musicians, classical musicians, ethnic types. Anyone who knew me in my undergrad days knows, I played many musics successfully and with empathy.

Certain thinkers, like Amiri Baraka, have had strongly negative feelings about non-African-American musicians playing jazz — and in particular, Baraka has singled out Benny Goodman a lot. At times, Baraka’s issue is with socioeconomic disadvantage, in which African-American jazz musicians have all too often found themselves; but he tends to probe beyond that, into questions of cultural appropriation. What are your thoughts on this, and in general, how do you see a musician’s identity factoring into both the content and forms of his/her work?

Well, to start, we need to be able to look objectively at how American culture has worked. So much of so-called white American culture comes from black musical roots, along with the disturbing repeating scenario that once whites are involved, the music suddenly isn’t black anymore. In country music, separating the music from blackness was a big part of the music’s development and marketing, this despite the fact that the much of the music was blues based. When I was active in klezmer, I could feel people’s concerns about these issues, yet I never said that the music wasn’t Jewish just because I was in it. African Americans are the only group in the world this has happened to. Rock, country, jazz, all these musics have become formerly black. If that happened to you, it might make you a bit cranky. This is where identity comes into play. European-American assimilation and music originating in the black community seem to go hand in hand…. I used my objectivity to present it in a different way, opened up new audiences to the idea that it could have some relevance and hipness, but I never denied its fundamental Jewishness. Nor was it an act of musical self-hatred to play it. I have stood up for my musical and personal blackness, injecting more of that into jazz clarinet than anyone of my era. It was never one or the other.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Selma. Nearly 50 years ago it was violent Selma, impossibly racist Selma, site of Bloody Sunday, when peaceful civil rights marchers made their first attempt to cross the Pettus Street Bridge on the way to the state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama." http://jd.fo/r50mf With the 50th anniversary approaching next spring, a new coalition is bringing together blacks, Jews and others for progressive change.
  • Kosovo's centuries-old Jewish community is down to a few dozen. In a nation where the population is 90% Muslim, they are proud their past — and wonder why Israel won't recognize their state. http://jd.fo/h4wK0
  • Israelis are taking up the #IceBucketChallenge — with hummus.
  • In WWI, Jews fought for Britain. So why were they treated as outsiders?
  • According to a new poll, 75% of Israeli Jews oppose intermarriage.
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.