Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

If Not Klezmer, Then What? Jewish Music and Modalities on New York City's Downtown Music Scene

Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

If Not Klezmer, Then What? Jewish Music and Modalities on New York City's Downtown Music Scene

Article excerpt

Jewish and klezmer, are they the same, are they different? . . . Nobody [in the early years of the Jewish-- downtown scene] had the subtlety in their brain to keep everything separate enough .... So quickly it became a cliche, and so quickly it became segmented, that klezmer was one thing, and this other stuff, which claimed to be Jewish music, was something else.

-pianist Anthony Coleman1


As the slogan of the music club the Knitting Factory goes, downtown is more than a zip code-it's also a state of mind.2 When applied to music in New York City, the term "downtown" connotes as well the bohemian mores, creative ferment, and artistic experimentation historically associated with the once artist-friendly low-rent districts below Fourteenth Street in Manhattan. Since the late 1970s, the phrase "downtown scene" has called to mind the saxophonist John Zorn, his circle of fellow composer/improvisers, and their unorthodox creative methods and boundary-pushing aesthetics. This scene, while notable and influential, is one among many that compete on the downtown circuit for club space, record contracts, recognition, and the small audience for untried ideas in jazz/improvisational music.3

The early 1990s saw a flowering of interest among many of New York City's jazz/improvisational musicians in exploring Jewish modalities. These musicians have tapped into the emerging market for klezmer and new Jewish music to create a typically idiosyncratic body of work.4 Such awareness of klezmer represents a remarkable sea-change in klezmer consciousness. However, klezmer's relative familiarity and its current near-synonymousness with "Jewish music" also serve to obscure important differences between klezmer and other contemporary Jewish musical idioms, and between the neoklezmer scene and what is often termed the Jewish-downtown scene. Indeed, the latter distinction is not always clear: there are some neo-klezmer bands that overlap with Jewish-downtown bands in personnel, creative approach, or musical material. Nevertheless, the klezmer renaissance and the Jewish-- downtown scene are different entities. As Anthony Coleman asserts, "There's a whole Tzadik thing [i.e., John Zorn's record label, home to the principal catalog of the music of the Jewish-downtown scene as well as other contemporary Jewish-oriented music], [and] there's a whole klezmer thing ... we all try to be friends.... We try to respect each others' work. I mean, it's worth trying, you know?"5 Below I assess not the notion of "Radical Jewish Culture"-conceived by Zorn on Tzadik, nor the concept of a "Jewish Alternative Movement"-- found on Knitting Factory Records, but the phenomenon of the Jewish-downtown scene as a local music scene, whose resonances as part of New York City's larger downtown scene are often overlooked in thematic overviews of new Jewish music.6

Interlude 1:

Two players, on acoustic bass and softly tapped ride cymbal, lay out an intricate, quietly driving 4/4 pattern, punctuated by faint sizzles from the hi-hat cymbal. Two others join in: a vibratoless alto saxophone and keening trumpet. They intertwine in short, freely timed snatches of minor-modal melody, the saxophone leaning hard on some of the more plaintive pitches. Suddenly they are swinging eighth notes in unison. The bass pattern breaks down and the snare drum drops in with fills and rolls to disarrange the rhythmic texture. Jagged phrases by the saxophone and trumpet-a brief deceleration of tempo and a pause-and then a joyfully punched rhythmic tag on percussion. The melody instruments answer succinctly, and at once we are dropped back into the original bass-and-cymbal texture. John Zorn's Masada is a jazz quartet descended from Ornette Coleman's small groups of the 1950s and '60s. Zorn's compositions are written in melodic modes adapted from klezmer and Ashkenazic cantorial singing. Percussionist Joey Baron:

"Gradually I realized, `Wait a second! …

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