Pete Sokolow is a jazz and klezmer pianist and reed player whose klezmer roots in the Catskills span older and newer generations of Jewish musicians. Pete Sokolow has played with many major figures in klezmer history, including Dave Tarras, the Epstein Brothers, and Ray Musiker, and been an important figure in the revival of klezmer music. Pete Sokolow has orchestrated numerous albums, musicals and films. His albums include Klezmer Plus, and he wrote the transcriptions and technical introductions to Henry Sapoznik’s book, The Compleat Klezmer. In December 1999 Phil Brown taught a class on the history of the Catskills at KlezKamp, the now-fifteen year-old conference of klezmer music and Yiddish culture held at the Paramount Hotel in Parksville. He had the pleasure to play in Pete’s dance band and then to interview Pete Sokolow about klezmer in the Catskills. An edited version of this interview appeared in In the Mountains Number 9.
- Phil Brown: How did Klezmer fit into the Catskills?
Pete Sokolow: In the early years going back to the 20s and things, klezmer was the Catskills. When they first started using musicians in the hotels, who were the people who were going to the hotels? Immigrants. Even though most of them were not religious, I mean when most of the got to this country they shaved off their beards, we know that. In that time, Jewish dance music was what today we call klezmer. In those years it wasn’t always called Klezmer. When I broke into the business in the 50s, we called it the freilachs and the bulgars. That means the old tunes from the Dave Tarras/Naftule Brandwein repertoire. Back in the 20s none of us existed; I wasn’t a gleam in my father’s eye. Essentially the bands played that stuff. I would say about toward 1930 the American music began to come in because the children of the first generation Americans changed their names from Schwartz to Shaw, from Greenberg to Green. They didn’t want to know. Everything that was grine was out, it was outré, unhip. In any case, the bands had to start playing foxtrots and American music.
Now, the altischke klezmer did not play [American music]. Now Naftule Brandwein–there is a famous picture of him holding an alto sax. He never played a sax in his life. He held it. Dave Tarras started playing the saxophone, take it from one who knows. I was in a section with him; he was unbelievable. He couldn’t phrase American, because he was European; he spoke with an accent. He couldn’t phrase it. So the younger guys started getting the work up in the Catskills, and they, takeh, since they were of the new generation, they could play. Sammy Musiker, Ray’s brother, who was Dave Tarras’ son-in-law, was a marvelous sax and clarinet player. Got his start in the catering halls in Brownsville, East New York, and up in the Catskills. He played clarinet like a wizard. He became Gene Krupa’s star clarinet soloist. He played section saxophone and clarinet solos with the Krupa band. After Krupa left Benny Goodman in ’38, Sammy was called in. He had solos on records that were instantly recognizable. They even made a movie called Ball of Fire in which Sammy was featured on camera with Krupa. He played the Goodman style. After the war, the bands closed down and he had to go back to club dates, meaning private parties, weddings and bar mitzvahs. He ended up a Klezmer again. It’s a shame because he was better than that. He became depressed about it. He was very angry about it.
- When you were up here playing, did you have a lot of leeway as to what you played?
No. I started in 1957. The first summer job I ever had was Shloimie Ehrenreich’s Hotel. I was there with a band consisting of piano, electrical (in Yiddish accent) guitar, drums, and myself on tenor sax. It was a frum (religious) hotel; they didn’t dance together. I had no knowledge of this. The salary was $25 a week. It was totally a Hasidic place. I had never seen Orthodox Jews. I didn’t know what the hell was going on. We slept in a room behind the casino, and every Shabbos you’d hear, [rap, rap, rap] Musicians, open the door. We gotta daven (pray). Shloimie was mean. When I was trying to make time with a girl, he said, No, musician, you wanna make time with a girl, you do it over there by the bungalows. You don’t talk to my girls. We were there for about a week. We barely played. We played a little bit in the lobby. We started to play a show; the guy came up with music. We destroyed this act mercilessly. Most of the guys in the band could hardly read. The piano was horrible. This poor man. What he went through with us. We destroyed him. Almost immediately, the guitar and the piano quit and went home. So it was me and the drummer, Hal Parker. He later became a show drummer. We used to play in the lobby–sax and drums, that’s all. About a week later, an agent, Eddy Luntz, sends up a piano player, a big gangly, tall kid who had graduated from Music and Art High School, about my age. What I remember about this guy was two things – he read Plato; he doubled on the bassoon. He was a good piano player. He could read and everything. The name: Charlie Fox. He wrote the music for Goodbye, Columbus. Today he is a multi-millionaire, having made all kinds of musical television shows.
About a week, two weeks later I quit. A bunch of friends of mine, all high-school guys who graduated high school with me in 1957 were working in a bungalow colony in Swan Lake. Small nice modern bungalow colony, non-frum–I couldn’t wait to get out. They treated us like dirt. I was totally unfamiliar with the Hasidim. I only got to know it later when I married one. She became one after I married her. I was so uncomfortable there. There was a cantor there who acted as MC. He was bullying us and butchering us. I couldn’t wait to get out.
So I went over to the other place. Here’s where my real Catskills experience actually starts, after the false start at Shloimie’s. In this bungalow colony, they gave us a nice large basement room. We ate in the concession. Cause they didn’t have a dining room. The food was reasonable. The money was about the same-twenty-five bucks a week. And the band consisted of two saxophones, because the trumpet player quit. So it was two saxophones, piano and drums. All guys that graduated high school with me. The drummer was a guy called Jerry Goldstein who later started writing rock-n-roll songs. He later called me up–can you write some chords down? I wrote these hip chords. He said, No, I want it to sound like a four year-old wrote it. Later on he had a song, My Boyfriend’s Back. This guy made a fortune with this one fakackta song. He was a lousy drummer. He’s a fun guy, I had a lot of fun with him. He was, eppes, the leader. The piano player was a guy I used to sit next to in German class. He played old-time piano, like my father. I said, Where the hell did you learn to play like that? I said, You’ll go out and become a member of Dixieland bands. And when he went out to Cornell, he became a pianist in Dixieland bands. I later became a better stride player than him, but that took some doing. The other sax player was a sweetheart who ended up working for the IBM company. I was doing a klezmer concert recently in Poughkeepsie. He walks up to me and says, Hi, I’m Jerry Steinberg. I said, Oh, my God. He was a fat little kid and now he’s a nice engineer. He’s the only one of us who became an engineer. He had an alto sax. We used to keep the alto between us in a little garbage can. So I went and got an alto mouthpiece. When I first tried this alto, it was like coming home. In those days, everybody played tenor. When you went on a club date, they wanted the deeper sound. In the earlier years you could play an alto, it was OK. But in those days everyone played tenor. You had two saxophones, it was two tenors. You had three saxophones, it was three tenors. And the sound was like a cow mooing Now I played with this band–and I actually learned something about playing shows. One of us played also; one of us played tenor. The alto sat in the garbage can in the middle and he would pick it up during a song, then I would pick it up. So I went out and bought an alto. I wrote a couple arrangements for it. It was very enjoyable. We played a couple of acts, some of which we didn’t do as well as others.
Now the next summer I got call from a guy. I didn’t realize how old he was. I was recommended by the kid who replaced me on fourth tenor in the dance band at Brooklyn Tech. He heard me play. He recommended me to Ralph Kahn. His real name was Cohen. Ralph was a trumpet player. His teeth went in every direction, which meant that he wasn’t a very good trumpet player, which he wasn’t. The top of his range was the middle of the horn. And he played the bass. He was up to book one, lesson one. He would come around and he would go, Zzz, zzz, zzz. The accordion player Berman, Harry Berman, would scream, Ralph will you stop that goddamn business and go back to Mary, his wife, down the road. So I auditioned for the job with this old guy who told me I played better than one of the worst saxophone players in the world. I went up to the New Prospect Hotel in Mountaindale. We start to play a little rehearsal. Berman is a big fat guy with a bald head. He starts to play and I’m listening to the chord changes. Here I am 18 years old, 120 pounds. And I say to this guy, Hey you’re playing a couple of wrong chords there. And he says to me, Hey punk, you mean to tell me I’m 30 years in the business and I’m playing wrong.? I said Suit yourself. The next day Berman takes me in the car from Mountaindale to Woodridge to the Glory hotel. The Glory Hotel was owned by a former musician named Alan Levine who played the trumpet. Now there driving a tractor was Isador Chissick Epstein. What was he doing driving the tractor? He was mowing the lawn. Obviously, Al Levine was giving him an extra five bucks to do this. Cause these Epsteins were real Depression mentality. Anything for a dime. So Chi Epstein stops the tractor with his belly hanging over and a farmer’s hat. Berman screams out, Hey, Chi come over, I want you to meet the new kid, a saxophone player. Emphasis on the kid. He comes over. He says, How do you do, how do you like his chords? I gave him a look to say Nisht dugedach which means you shouldn’t even know from it. He became my friend instantly. What Chi and Berman did for me was taught me the value of entertainment on a job. We played for those people. I would say the range of ages was starting in late 40s to the mid-50s’s age group, going up to 75 and 80. We played mostly American music. I, as a jazz-oriented kid, we used to play a slow ballad (sings a few bars of When I fall in Love) And a swing number was (hums a tune, faster). When I got with these guys, the ballad tempo was (sings May to December, faster than previous ballad). Now this was standard club date kind of a tempo, and I as an inexperienced kid did not know that. So that’s the first thing they taught me, the correct dance tempos. Number two they taught me the value of singing entertainment on a job. I had done some singing at the Evergreen bungalows in Swan Lake. I had actually gotten up and sang some Lionel Hampton type vocals (sings Pennies from Heaven’. So I got up there and Ralph Kahn was singing, and he would hold the bass and sing (sings, in a parody, I Don’t Know Why I Love You and segues into Arrivaderci Roma). The corniest rhythms. It was a real education for me because I never knew this existed. I came from a family of Communists. What does that mean? Musically, I never went to a Bar Mitzvah as a child, because these people didn’t have them.. I never went to a wedding as a child. I rarely ever went to shul if ever. I didn’t know what a chazan (cantor) sounded like. I didn’t know the sound of the Yiddish words. My grandmother was from the other side, but she had come from Siberia. So she spoke Russian. My grandma knew Yiddish. But the point here is that the Yiddish culture was not part of my upbringing. I never heard a club date band in my life. I never went to a wedding or a Bar Mitzvah. I never heard what they sounded like. So what it was, was kind of an old-fashioned ricky tick. And these guys sang and played, frankly, awful. And here they were much older than me. I always had a thing about older people. I had a lot of kivod av (respect for older people). I kind of used them as father figures. And even though they were terrible, and I knew they were terrible, they had a lot to teach me. What I learned from them most important was Yiddish theatre songs – Shayn Vi Di Livone, Abi Gezunt, Mama Bin Ich Farliebt. I don’t know where Ralph got his sense of rhythm. And Berman would play wherever his hands fell, that was the chord. And maybe he played with his elbow. Forget about the shows. We ruined more acts. Kahn could barely read and Berman was nervous about playing shows. And his eyesight was just about to go, and he hadn’t gotten a pair of glasses yet. . He would look at the music with an owlish look. And he would look at the music and then put his foot on the pedal. And it sounded like he hit the piano with both elbows at the same time. Boom. Every note on the piano would ring. And that was the introduction. And somehow the acts managed to get through. In those years, the acts used to come to the mountains expecting this. Sometimes they had a little luck, sometimes they didn’t. In the Butler Lodge in Hurleyville was a band that is legendary until this very day. It struck fear into the heart of every act around. It was called the Peratin Family Band. It was four of the same family. The drummer and leader of the band was Al Peratin. He was a refugee from the old days. At one point he led a band. He stood up in front of it. His wife was Marie Peratin. And she played the piano. Thump, thump, thump thump, thump, thump, thump, thump. Just this clunking four to a bar. She played four to a bar a waltz. Or at least it sounded that way. One daughter played the accordion with the left hand. And what’s called a solovox, which was an early synthesizer, monophonic, tube-generated, had a sound like chalk scratching on a blackboard. And he had one other daughter played the wibes. When I first went to work for Peratin years later he says (with accent) I’ve got a terrific band. I’ve got a wiolin and a wibes. Sure enough when I go there there was a woman who played the violin and the wibes. And she would put her foot on the pedal and the first note that she played that evening was still ringing at the end of the job. There was this stripper and Peratin was the drummer. Ralph Kahn had booked all these guys that were giving him jobs. This job had a big show. In the Hotel St. George in Brooklyn as it turned out. And he got Willy Epstein because he was afraid he wouldn’t get the job. He had a piano player who was a cripple called Benny Grief. It’s too bad Benny didn’t send his wife because she could play.Anna Greif was a wonderful pianist. But this manÖso this stripper comes on Sherry Bridner, well known stripper. She gives the music to the drummer, Now listen, drummer when I reach bar 35 you’re gonna give me a zetz. He says (with accent), I don’t read no music. She says, What? He says, I don’t read no music. She says, You better stay with me, you better follow me. This band murdered that. The acts used to come into this place with abject fear in their hearts. My God, what these bands did to them. And yet the Butler Lodge must have been filled with old refugees because Peratin was a big star up in the Bronx. He was a big band leader up there. And people loved him. They used to do parties, mainly for old refuges. They used to do lansmanshaften (mutual benefit societies based on Old Country town or shtetl). He had musicians. I don’t know where the hell he got them. He had two saxes on this one job. I was playing alto. At that time the style was skinny lapels and bow ties. This guy came in with a suit with airplane lapels. It must have been a wool suit with pinstripes and spats on his shoes and white hair. It looked like they had picked him up out of a coffin and put him in a chair and put a saxophone in his mouth. Then to get a vibrato, he shook the horn [parodies vibrato sound). Now Sid Beckerman’s brother, Benny used to do that. That was the vibrato. These were the kind of musicians who were active in the music business then. How they earned a living, I never know. Peratin booked a lot of jobs; so did Ralph.
- What about the singers who came in with charts?
Freg nisht (don’t ask). You should know that many singers came into the Catskill mountains with arrangements that had been written in World War I. They had a part for a first trumpet, and they has a part for a first saxophone e-flat alto, written for a 25-piece band. So the arrangement was like this (parodies band playing with many gaps). So there was nothing in between. The saxes and brass never played together, so there was no sound to it. We had an MC he first year at the Hotel New Prospect, who had arrangements written by a guy who knew something. They were written so they could be played from anything from a four-piece band up to 12, and it all was block figures. So his arrangements sounded like something. And his stuff we did reasonably well, because at least I could shlep Ralph through those things. We managed it somehow. But most of the arrangements had scribbling and crossing out, and go to letter c from letter j and go back to letter e. It was like Duke Ellington’s band. To play these acts you had to be really, really experienced. You go to a place like the Concord, they had 12 men. They had two trumpets, a trombone, three or four saxes, piano, bass, drums, maybe a guitar. These were guys playing shows day and night. We had a show at the New Prospect once a week. Now the week went as follows. Monday night was movie night, the band was off. Tuesday night was bingo. So we had to help them run bingo. We played a ltitle dance music before and after. Wednesday night may have been concert night. Freg nish, vus iz a concertt what is concert night Berman played a doina on the accordion. Ralph Kahn would sing, Yass, Mein Shtelt, Yass or something like that. I would play a little solo number. I probably played Benny Goodman. Thursday night I don’t remember what went on, we played a lot of dance music.. Friday night was the dance team. Dance team would show up, Jose and Conchita would teach cha-cha on the lawn and then they would come back and we’d have to play a rhumba and what they called a swing trot. We would play (signs I Could Have Danced All Night.) And they would go around the floor, and the man would take a woman, and the lady would take a man. Then we’d have a dance contest. OK, who wants to be in the rhumba contest, the cha-cha contest. We had the pasa doble. Pasa doble was also one of their show numbers. Jose and Conchita were probably Irving and Faigie, whatever it was. All the dancers had to be [like that]. At that time the Jewish national dance was the cha-cha. [parodies simple cha-cha] Watching the old people try to dance was hysterical. Because they were altishke (old fashioned).
I worked there for four summers. In the remaining years they had Yiddish theatre acts coming up. Jenny Goldstein came up there. She used to be this tragedian, like soap opera. She became more of a comedian [does routine: Drei hotelkeepers in di Catskills. Ayn from Loch Sheldrake. Ayn from South Fallsburg]. Then my most memorable of all Michela Rosenberg. A comic actor. Er hut gornisht kayn wert in English. Alles in Yiddish. (He didn’t have a word in English. All in Yiddish) Comes up on the stage with a stone face. [Starts doing routine.] People were laughing themselves silly, because he sang ridiculous stuff. Now at that time my Yiddish wasn’t anywhere near as good as it is now, but I still understood largely what he did. He did a routine, which was the baseball game. It was a classic he was well known for [does long routine of Yiddish announcement of baseball game]. It was hysterical. He also did a great bit about a bank president. A guy wanted to take out $10 and they gave him the third degree. This was the kind of act that the old people liked.
What killed the Catskills was the Boeing 707. All of a sudden, the second generation Americans of my age and younger- that’s what I was, my parents were born in this country — the second generation Americans of my age and younger could go to Aruba or Puerto Rico or Florida or California, or efsher Europe. Who wants to go to Mountaindale when you can go to Europe? So all of a sudden the age of the people in the hotel went from, you know the guys says, I got a lot of chicks in this hotel: zibenchiks, ochtchiks, and neinchicks (70s, 80s, and 90s). The last year I played, 1961 we had only about 20 people the whole summer. It was a disaster. The whole thing was just folding up. It was hard.
I’ll tell you something about the comedians. My favorite was the first one I played with Billy Hodes. He did several bits. One was the essen bit. Now Lee Tully was another comic in the Mountains. He used to say he invented it, because they both recorded. No, it was Billy’s. [does routine: You come up to the Mountains, You go to the hotel. The dining room is open. And the band would play, Essen, mir gayn essen. Essen, mir gayn fressen. Hey waiter, loverboy from the bushes, I want some orange juice, tomato juice, he went through the whole menu. He ordered everything on the menu. Then they go outside and sit on the porch on a rocking chair Mir rocken Ö. How long are you here for? I’m here for tzvay voks (three weeks). Oh, yeah. I’m here for the whole season. And then you hear an announcement, and the trumpet player had to go, Ba-da-bump-ba-da, bump-ba-da, bump-ba-da. And they said, The dining room is open for lunch. Essen, mir gayn essen. Essen, mir gayn fressen. The whole thing. OK, now we order the whole menu over here. Then they come out over here and talk about rhumba lessons on the lawn, and this and that and the other thing. And now they go in for dinner. And then have a show, and then they go back to their room and take bromo seltzer, alka and seltzer, this thing and that thing. And the final word was rachmones! (have pity), then came the big chord. He also did a song at the end of the show. [sings] Now night turns into day and day into night. It’s nature’s way of making things right. All of your couples go before the moon, da-da-da. You can hear them crooning, khaki moon, khaki moon, khaki moon, meaning the color [double entendre: shit on you]ÖNow they would do a thing about the hotel owner: If he ever refuses to give you a second main, khaki moon, khaki moon, khaki moon Öand something about the band leader: if he ever refuses to play a request, khaki moon, khaki moon, khaki moon. I turned this thing into a cha-cha. We called it the Khaki Moon Cha-Cha-Cha. Billy was wonderful. It was a riot. He didn’t talk that much, but he was a terrific guy. He’s about 90, he’s still alive, and he’s still doing shows in Florida. Probably still doing the Khaki Moon routine, still doing the Essen routine.
Then there was Phil Carr. He used to laugh at all his own jokes. He used to come in there with his son. His son would read the Lincoln Gettysburg Address. And Phil would do a translation into Yiddish. Four score and seven years ago, Efsher, ziben ochztik yohr tsurecht, undzer fier tates, our ‘four fathers’Ö And he would literally translate it.
I worked with Morty Storm and Freddy Roman. Mal Z. Lawrence before he called himself Mal Z. He was so nasty. He said some terrible things about us: well if this kid ever grows up maybe he’ll be a good saxophone player. These guys got their start in the coal mines, in places like the New Prospect. They used to do two, three shows a night. Once the New Prospect experience was finished — . I was there in ’58, ’59, and ’61 — . In ’62 I went back to the mountains only Saturday nights to a little bungalow colony. I played in a little band, we played a little show. The same sort of thing. I didn’t go back to the Catskills until the ’80s. And by that time it had really started to die. There was just a couple of hotels, religious hotels. By that time my wife and I were married many years. My kids were going to the Camp Monavue in Parksville. The first hotel we went to stay was Liebowitz’ Pine View. Who was there in Sy Kushner’s place but Lade Gilden. Terrible musician but a doll. Lade Gilden was up there. I played a couple times on a little keyboard I had with me. It was a different kind of thing. The show band harkened back to the old days. On saxophone Isador Chissick Epstein. On piano, Irving Blum, he just died. He was really an accordion player, played the piano terribly. On drums, Vic Ash. Vic Ash was a Greek. But these were guys I worked with years and years before. It sounded just like I remembered it. They had acts like Jeannie Reynolds. I played the Jeannie Reynolds show. On keyboard I played the bass line. Her husband played piano. Because Irving Blum, forget about it. My friend David Levine, alias David Curtis, the swinging cantor from Philly, he worked a lot of the smaller places. And he was working the Pine View.
To play in bands that I had to learn to play in when I was younger, you had to play with an old sound. Because the club date sound was an outmoded sort of thing. My idols were Lester Young, Stan Getz, Charlie Parker. I was supposed to be the next Bird. Instead I made the wrong turn and ended up in the Catskills.
- You think it contributed to a change in your career?
Oh, without a doubt. I became introduced to klezmer because I did that job at the New Prospect. Ralph Kahn introduced me to the Epstein brothers-Max, Willy. Dave Tarras – I first met Dave Tarras on one of Ralph Kahn’s jobs. . I got to know Dave Tarras on these things. I got to meet some of the old musicians like Irving Gratz the drummer, the best bass player in Jewish music Charlie Gallatin. I did a job with him and Berman. I met Rudy Tepel from them. I got into the Hasidic business through that, because Rudy Tepel was a kingpin of Hasidic music. I learned from his recordings . I then I worked for [Sy] Kushner. I was one of the first outside guys. Then I had to learn young Jewish repertoire. Most of what they did I didn’t know. This was the new repertoire. Tepel had a saxophone sound, which was full of heavy vibrato. He sounded like a dinosaur in heat or a wayward moose. I had to learn to assimilate some of that sound. So you had to play with a full tone. Not a Stan Getz or a Lester Young kind of approach, closer to Ben Webster but not in a jazz way. The ideal man for this was Freddy Martin who recorded the Tchaikowsky piano concerto (sings a few bars in parody vibrato). And the piano player went, binga-binga-binga These guys all played like Freddy Martin. Rudy Tepel got his name from Rudy Weirdoff in the 20’s, who was the idol of all the guys back in the ’20s. Rudy Valle got his name from Ruby Weirdoff. Tepel’s name was Harry, Harry Teplitsky. There was a guy called Lou Berman cause he played an old style. They all had this big sound. Some of these guys did it well. Today it does sound like a dinosaur in heat. But in those days it was more acceptable. It was called a Bar Mitzvah tone. And most of the tenor saxophone players who played the Catskills sounded like that at one time or another. And I had to learn to do a facsimile of it. My first saxophone teacher played like that, but he was more of a society tenor player. He played with Lester Lannon and people like that. The style quickly became outmoded. By the late ’60s the sound was totally gone, because then the club date bands had become young guys who played in a Stan Getz or a Zoot Sims kind of a style. See, Danny Rubinstein was a little but older than us, and Ray Musiker was also a little older, never quite played in the corny style. They played in a more of an in-between contemporary. Sammy Musiker played a gorgeous tenor. And he, even in the ’50s, sounded like a Zoot Sims or a Stan Getz than he would have sounded like those guys.
Standard band was trumpet, saxophone, piano, and drums. Some of the bands maybe had a bass player. A story is told about the agent, Aaron Toter. I went to his apartment on Ave F and East. Second Street. [in excellent reconstruction of Toter’s accent] Boys, have I got a job for you in the Mountains. Boys, the job plays ten dollars a week for a band. Ayn dollar a vok for each man [for Toter, the agent]. It’s experience, boys, experience. What a rat. A crook if ever there was one. A snake. There were some others [agents], there was Eddie Luntz, who sent me to Shloimie. There was Artie Summers who booked the acts into places like the New Prospect. He had a kept lady. Her name was Dorothy Gevaytensiker, alia Dorothy Gaye. She used to sing at the hotel. She sang Jewish songs. She was a doll. Pretty too. She knew what to expect. She never busted anyone’s chops. Her arrangements were easy. Then there was also Bliman and Bate. Or Einhorn. Arnie Graham was already fancy stuff. I’m talking about the kleinerlich (little ones), the best of the low price field.
- That was a wonderful imitation. I can hear his voice. I haven’t seen Toter since 1967 or 1968.
I haven’t seen him in longer than that, the 50s.
- He sold my father my first violin when I was a kid.
It must have had several cracks.
- Years later I was working as a waiter in the Karmel and he turns up as the resident agent who gets room and board in exchange for giving them one show a week. There he was in a little alcove off the dining room.
What I remember about the Carmel. The Carmel in Loch Sheldrake is today the Stage Door Manor, a theater camp. A saxophone player, Mike Gold, a young guy from Manhattan School of Music who today is in Florida. He was this brilliant clarinet player. Mike Gold was working the Karmel. All the guys used to go hear him at the Carmel. There was a place in Woodburne called the River Tavern right on the corner across the bridge towards Greenfield Park. A facockte goyishe bar. We used to go in there. That was where all the jazz guys got together to jam. You went to the River Tavern and Mike was playing – Charlie Parker, wild stuff. Berman used to say, What is this be-bop shit? I was a be-bop cat. We used to jam at the River Tavern.
I worked one Rosh Hashana in the Senate, formerly the Levitt. The owner of that hotel was Max Rosenblatt who was the original owner of the New Prospect He was a partner with Willy Forman in the New Prospect. Rosenblatt used to say, You don’t like it, take the bus.’ He was a shtikl chzzan (a bit of a cantor). He thought since his name was Rosenblatt he could be a cantor. He was a nasty man. I worked with a band there. I was still playing sax. I worked with Ralph Kahn’s brother, Sam. The only way he could play a freilachs was backwards. And they had an old piano player. He looked like Mister Magoo, he talked like him, except he had a slight southern accent. His name was Leo Dustin. He could play the piano, but his style was not accessible. Strange stuff. Hell of a lot better than Berman. He looked and sounded like Mr. Magoo. He didn’t like Blacks. He had weird opinions. And there was Sammy Cohen trying to play the bass. He was a barber. He didn’t know from this stuff. On one of Peratin’s jobs, Sammy was holding the bass. One time I tried to tune the bass, the bridge almost fell out, so I tuned it a tone flat. It didn’t make a difference. He put his hand over the bass and he did this [indicates plucking the bass]. Peratin said, Sam you are terrific. If you could sing , I would give you all the jobs.
- Did you ever have to play at the poolside?
Yes, I’ll tell you where. I believe at the Homowack. In the early 80s. There were a couple of band-a show band and a lounge band. Many of the bands had to play at the pool. I think at the New Prospect we must have played at the pool once or twice, but most people hardly every used the pool, they were too old. Basically you played a lot of Latin music at the pool so people could practice their cha-cha. The lounge band at the Homowack played in a little lounge downstairs. Just two of us. We would do the latest Hasidic dances. This was all after Davidman bought it. I understand that the Homowack was a real swinging place at one time. Rudy Veren, when we was there he had organs, one in the bar and one in the show. He was a good organ player, Hammond, not B-3, but C-3. The Raleigh, was a swinging place. I remember at the New Prospect the women across the street in the bungalows would come down and get Willy the concession man to drive them to the Raleigh. They wanted to go swing at the Raleigh.
Now we used to go Saturday nights after the regular show, we would go to the bungalows. We went across the street to the bungalows, the Nassau Bungalows, across the road from the New Prospect Hotel. We would go down to Rottenbergs. We would make an extra $8. We played regular dance music. We played very little Jewish music. We played Jewish theatre on the concerts. Ich Hub Dich Tsu Fil Lieb, Shayn Vi di Livone that kind of stuff, Yass, Mein Shtetl, Yass I also learned Rumania, Rumania. American music was foreign to some of these guys. These guys were older, born 1910.
Fiddler on the Roof came out in the 60’s. By the 60’s most of my Catskills career was over. Sure it stayed there. We normally did a Fiddler medley for listening. This was not for dancing. Yiddishe Mama, of course, was originally introduced by Sophie Tucker. Two sided record, Columbia Records, late ’20s-one English, one Yiddish. The Yiddishe Mama song was usually in a show. A tear jerker. Some people didn’t want it because it was too sad. Never as a dance tune. Once in a while I’d play it as a slow rhumba. I kindo f downplayed that, because it’s chicken soup with schmaltz.
- It’s Jewish music but without the soul.
Let’s talk about that. Sure it has. Of course it has. To the secular Jew, not necessarily spiritual, but connected to the altichker style, a song in Yiddish touches the heart, ‘Iz gib mir a kitzl in hart, it gives me a tickle in the heart. And these songs touched the souls of the people, the way that klezmer does to some of these other people [today] the soul and the heart. The dance music was supposed to bring out happiness. Even with a cry and a laugh in it. I find that the songs touch people more. Most people relate more to sung music than instrumental. That music is a touch of nostalgia. I think that those tunes touched the heart.
The klezmer style was the music of the immigrant who came during 1880-1924 when the act of Congress closed the door. Their children, the first generation Americans, pushed this stuff aside. They wanted to be Americans first, who happened to be Jewish. When the Churbn happened, the Holocaust happened, the whole idea of nostalgia for the old country was destroyed. The Polishe Yidn went back and the Poles had pogroms to finish off Hitler’s work. What became popular in ’45 was the music of hope. All of a sudden, a new national anthem. The two national anthems were previously Yah-ta-ta-ta-de-dum, It Wasn’t My Valise (a comic name for Tantz, Tantz, Yidelach. And Chosen, kale, mazel tov. This was played by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band – they have a little section in major [key] [hums part of Tantz, Tantz, Yidelach} These were the Jewish songs. Now the new Jewish song-Hava nagilah.
Now, you mentioned Vie a hin zehl ich gayn. Where should I go. There’s no place for me Every door is closed. It’s the same in every land. After WWII, the Jews went to the DP camps. Roosevelt wouldn’t let them in, Canada wouldn’t let them in, Australia wouldn’t let them in, any of the British Empire, because the British empire had promised the oil sheiks they wouldn’t let the Jews into Palestine. No one would let them in. One of the reasons they liberated the concentration camps so late was that the British were wishing that all the Jews would be eliminated so they wouldn’t have to deal with Palestine later. This was all done for ARAMCO, Arab-American Oil Company. Ralph Kahn, my old klezmer teacher was a guard in the American camp where he was watching over German prisoners. Lena Horn came into the camp and there were supposed to be black guys up front. There were German prisoners. She walked out, she wouldn’t sing. The Germans had the life of Reilly. Meanwhile the black soldiers were segregated. They brought German prisoners over here, but no Jews. That was the meaning of the song Vie a hin zehl ich gayn. Then the last part. The new state of Israel, finally in 1948: Now I know where to go, where my folks proudly stand. Let me go, let me go, to that precious promised land. No more left, no more right, lift your head and see the light. I am proud can’t you se, for at last I am free, no more wandering for me.’ They couldn’t go anywhere. That was the meaning of the song. We did a Catskills reminiscence night at the Circle Lodge for the Workmen’s Circle. My klezmer band did an 8 minute intro then Harvey came on as the featured singer. I had him do Vie a hin zehl ich gayn. And then the comic Mickey Freed. That was a real Catskills night. Then we did a champagne night. We did the dance team, the rhumba contest. It took me back to my student years in the New Prospect in Mountaindale. This Vie a hin zehl ich gayn became the biggest number because it was the song of hope.
What happened was klezmer was the old stuff from the old country. People didn’t want to hear it any more. . They had a new thingÖIsrael. Havah, Nagila, Artza Alinu, Havenu Shalom Aleichem. This wiped out klezmer. Wiped it out! When I came into the business, we hardly played any of it. We played an occasional bulgar [hums a few excerpts]. We only played theater-related tunes because they had word to them and people knew them. But we didn’t get to play[ hums klezme] , the kind of stuff that [Sid] Beckerman plays. Beckerman learned all this stuff from his father and he kept the memory. The only band leader in the 60s who still playing the old European repertoire was a man called Marty Levitt. Marty Levitt was the son of Jack Levinsky. He was a trombone player. His uncle was Louie Levinsky, who I worked with many, many times. Marty’s son Dave was a great trombone player. They were a klezmer family. Marty was a band leader for the oislander, refugees who had come over since the war. He played klezmer music. He was the last one. So I very rarely played a bulgar, Once in a while on a job, I played [hums music]. Most of the stuff was Israeli, and then Hasidic. Since Rudy Tepel and Berman were working together, I learned Hasidic [hums tunes]. We started to play Hasidic because the Hasidim were coming here. Thee was a need for music. The American guys couldn’t play for them. They got a guy from their own community.
Hasidim came to this country right after World War II when the DP camps opened up 1949, 1950. They went straight to Williamsburg. The Bobov and Lubavitch went to Crown Heights. These people had a need for their kind of music. Joe King was a piano player from the Young Israel community. He lived in Clifton Place in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Joe was the first to organize specific bands. Chi Epstein worked for him. Joe was followed by Rudy Tepel. When Rudy went south there was a band of two Hasidim, Lazar Plitnik. And there was a guy, his name was Yuntev Ehrlich. Yuntev Ehrlich was a badchen, a poet in Europe. After the war, he took up the violin and the accordion. He had an old accordion. Once in a while his beard got caught in the bellows of the accordion.
The Hasidic business became a place for klezmer musicians to make money, especially on the weeknights. So you got Howie Lees, Julie Epstein, Danny Rubinstein. They also played bulgars and freilachs, but since the bulgars and freilachs were no longer current, they went to Hasidim. For the Hasidim, they came from Hungary, so they liked the doina. I had to learn to play a doina for the Hasidim, not the old klezmer-type doina. . When these young guys got hold of klezmer. In the late 1970s, Henry Sapoznick was one of the very first. He was given my phone number by someone. He called me. Now I knew his father very well because his father was a chazan in one of the shuls I go to in my neighborhood, the Marine Park Jewish Center. I saw Henry come in once, I didn’t even know him. He came in with a big ponytail and white suit. He looked like a hippy from outer space. Henry called me. So I played him some records. He had an archivist Marty Schwartz. Before Henry, a girl came to me from Israel. Her music professor was a friend of my brother-in-law. This professor is an ethnomusicology professor. He played me some tapes. I said. Sure I know these songs.’ And I gave him some names of some people, so he sent this girl to me, and she says, Tell me about klezmer. I said, Klezmer was not a nice word to describe music then. I gave her a long lecture. My job was to introduce these yingele [young people] to the old voice. I’m a bridge between these generations. Henry brought back music which had been extinct since the 1920s.
Dave Tarras played in the Shady Hill Hotel. Dave played very many years. He played the Majestic. The whole music business moved to the Mountains. Naftule played at the New Edgewood. I missed him by a mile. One mile! I understand they used to give him a shot of whiskey; they’d give him his clarinet and he’d just play. I miss Naftule. I didn’ really hear a lot of Naftule.
These kids are enamored of Naftule. The klezmer style they play is very folky. Listen to these violinists kvitching away. Nobody played like that, not in this country. They played like that back in Europe, or that’s their idea of how they played. The problem is they don’t learn how to play a song. This music should be interpreted as singing. They don’t learn how to play a melody [sings]. These Giora Feidmans and [Don] Byrons take the caricature parts of the music and they make a charicature of the music. It’s just like Fiddler wasn’t like shetl life. The musicians I played with were working musicians in the Catskills, in Brooklyn, in the Bronx. This was the way we did it this way. I am the last generation of working musicians who played this music for a living. These others are just guys who discovered it. Very few of them are really authentic in style.
When you hear a Sid Beckerman, you hear the only living clarinet player who plays like Schloimke [Beckerman]. Scholmke was an aside. He didn’t make many records.
- Does that make you feel that the Catskills played an important role in this musical heritage?
Absolutely. No question about it. During the summer, the whole business moved up here. This is where it was. And if you wanted to work you had to go to the Catskills. There were very few parties in the summer in those years because it was so damn hot. A lot of those halls weren’t air conditioned yet. Naftule was walking the white line in the hotel. Willie Epstein goes to bed at two-thirty in the morning. He hears a clarinet and he gets up and goes outside. Sure enough it’s a clarinet. And right there in the highway, he’s walking there, cars going by, playing. He was drunk as a loony. These were legendary people. I was right next door. And I feel today, from the bottom of my heart, I never experienced it. I played with Dave [Tarras] many times. And Maxie Epstein. We went to Germany for the concert. My wife said This was the real thing. He was the only American who played strictly in a European style. He was an artist. He could phrase a melody. He said to me that in Jewish clarinet, the melody is the main thing and the dreidlach, ornaments enhance. Not the other way around. He sang me a phrase [signs]. This was off the Dukes of Frailechland album, which is a landmark album to this day. It’s real definitely Max Epstein. In five minutes he changed my entire style of playing. I would never have had this if it weren’t for the Catskills. Harry Berman, Herman Miller, Sammy Shrank, Benny Zugger bandleader at the Windsor. He had a concert night there. I first worked with him in ’59. He played a real dance beat from the 20s. Corny as hell, but he did it well. He played with a little kick, a lift. That was what they meant by swing. It didn’t swing in the jazz sense, but it bounced along in a dance sense. That was the secret of playing Jewish American music. When acts like Cab Calloway came along, Benny had to get another pianist. He was amazing. The guy’s hands were silky smooth. Old Irving Gratz. He taught drummers how to chop wood. Irving had a heart attack and died in August ’89. His last live performances with my band. David Licht of the Klezmatics was here. When he heard Irving play a roll on those drums, his mouth dropped. In those 81 year-old hands, Irving was something special. Those concerts we did. He loved it. It brought him back. What applause he got. Today’s audience considers Klezmer concert music. That wasn’t concert music. We went through the kitchen. Gratz used to take his drums on the subway. Amazing what these people did. I came in on the tail end. I always enjoyed playing with older musicians.
In the jazz world I have played with Doc Cheetham who died recently I played with Johnny Mintz of the Tommy Dorsey band. I played with Maxie Kaminsky the old trumpet player, who played in dixieland bands.. I played with Johnny Blauer he’s 85 now. Johnny Lippman. Hayward Henry. Toby Brown. All these guys I played with in Dixieland jazz line having nothing to do with klezmer. I have had the good luck to work with Max Epstein, Doc Cheetham, Sidney Beckerman, Herby Hall, Ray Musiker. I have had a rich and varied careers in two distinctly different genres. I find myself at this point with the Jewish music, I play stuff that I played as a kid. All the stuff I played between doesn’t account or much. The klezmer repertoire is pop. They don’t use me anymore. The Orthodox repertoire almost imitates European music, in disco beat. And loud! These Hasidic bands play so loud you can hear them in the next county. This became the way of life for the Hasidim. [does parody of heavy metal Hasidic sound]. Today that is the style. They don’t even use clarinets on Hasidic bands. It’s all alto and soprano sax.. The idol is Kenny G. They had a gorgeous Jewish music and threw the whole thing out. Today the kids don’t know how the play Jewish. Even Jewish is played with a polka. When I first played Hasidic it was klezmer. When the younger kids came in, they modified it. First they made it into mainstream music then rock and roll. Now it’s almost all rock. The hero drummer today is a gangly guy named Matt Hill who is the son of Steven Hill, the actor on Mission Impossible.’ It’s not the playing anymore.
Me, I was famous over there for a while. Now they don’t call me. I did one of those jobs in Kiryas Joel, in Monroe. It was just awful. They had a guitar player with diarrhea of the guitar. Never stopped playing.
All those places are gone. Chester’s was a commune. It was well-known for that. Some guys used to go to shack up with girls. Mindy Vim came in when Chester’s was going down. He couldn’t run a hotel. He took over and changed the name to Chalet Vim. The place was a hole. I did shows there. There was an old time social director. Nice man. He got me to do shows there. I did a klezmer Yiddish concert. I played for the older people. At this point I’m not for the kids. Those were some of the last shows I did in the Catskills. I also played Vacation Village, which used to be Evan’s Loch Sheldrake. I remember going to the Evans Loch Sheldrake when Barney Miller was the bandleader in 1957. They had a good Latin band. Those are vacation homes. We did a concert, Henry, myself, Sidney, and our drummer did a concert two years ago.
I played Grossinger’s in the 50s. I played the Concord in the early 80s. There was an entertainer Max Goldberg. He used to have Jewish bands. They’d give us room and board and we’d play only during the week by the pool. We played some klezmer music, some Israeli music, and we also played some swing. In that band we played regularly by the poolside. Goldberg would sit in a lounge chair and sleep. Then at the end he would wake up and do 15 minutes of Fiddler on the Roof or some other things. He was an old man. He was one of the ones who saw the coming of the Hasidic music. I also did some things at Schenk’s Paramount, no, Kutsher’s. I did a klezmer thing at Kutsher’s. Once when the Brown’s Hotel was taken over by an Orthodox management, Arnie Graham booked me as a show with my Original Klezmer Jazz Band. There was a lady named Cecelia Margulies. This was way after Jerry Lewis and Charles and Lillian Brown. They tried to take it over and make it into an orthodox place. I was in the Pines. You know who was playing in the Pines? His name was George Handy. He wrote arrangements for some of the most progressive bands in the 1950s. He literally went nuts. He went up to the Pines and just lived there. He was a brilliant musician. Some of the stuff he wrote sounded like Stravinsky. He cracked. He was a living legend. Some famous jazz musicians did those hotels in show bands. It was amazing the quality of the some of the players.
- You have such a good memory of all these people and places.
This stuff you don’t forget. I was dying to get away from my house. This music was an escape. This music to me was the way out. I became my own person. I went out to the Catskills, I went out to the club dates. I stopped taking an allowance, I was making so much money. I was able to buy instruments with my state scholarship money.