Friday, September 21, 2007

Klezmer Memories of Uncle Dave Tarras

This was posted to Richard Grayson's MySpace blog on Friday, September 21, 2007:

I have a post up at Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn:

Here's another terrific story from frequent OTBKB contributor, Richard Grayson. Read a great interview with him here.

Tonight (September 20) at Barbes, you can catch Andy Statman at the 10 p.m. show. The promo for his appearance says:

A truly extraordinary artist, Andy Statman began his career in the 70's as a virtuoso Mandolinist who studied and performed David Grisman, went on to study clarinet the legendary Dave Tarras and became one of the main architect of a Klezmer revival which started out 30 years ago and has since informed and influenced folk, Jazz and improvised music forms. Andy draws equally from hassidic melodies, folk tunes from new and old worlds alike and Albert Ayler-influenced free-improv. The result reads like a very personal search for the sacred based both on traditions and introspection.

The "legendary Dave Tarras" was my Uncle Dave, called by Wikipedia "possibly the most famous 20th century klezmer musician. . .known for his long career and his very skilled clarinet playing."

Uncle Dave and his klezmer band played at my bar mitzvah reception at the Deauville Beach Club in Sheepshead Bay back in 1964. Many years before that, he played the clarinet at the wedding of my great-grandparents back in Ukraine.

Although he was my great-great-uncle, he was only 53 when I was born (in my family, we marry young or not at all) and was around till I was almost 40. A couple of weeks after The Village Voice gave a nice notice to my first book in 1979, Uncle Dave trumped that with a Voice cover story that called him "King Klezmer."

Married to my grandmother's Aunt Shifra, Uncle Dave came to America with my grandmother and his in-laws, my great-great-grandparents, who'd later own a candy store on Stone Avenue in Brownsville.

At Ellis Island, they fumigated his clarinet and he was forced to work for his brother-in-law, my great-grandfather, a prominent furrier who'd been in America for years, until he could pay for a new one.

When I was a kid, Uncle Dave lived on Tilden Avenue in East Flatbush, just across the street from Tilden High School (closed last June and broken up into smaller schools). At one point my mother decided I should have clarinet lessons and Uncle Dave came over and gamely tried to instruct me.

But I have no musical ability whatsoever and I hated the taste of the reed in my mouth. Although I loved Uncle Dave and wanted to please him, whatever came out of my clarinet must have sounded like a catfight.

After just a few weeks, he said, "You don't like this, do you?"

I shook my head.

"What do you like to do?"

"I don't know. . . writing?"

"Then you should write." He went downstairs and told my mother the clarinet was not for me.

Uncle Dave had come from a musical family, and his son-in-law Sammy Musiker, married to my grandmother's cousin Brauny, was an ace on both the sax and clarinet. A friend of Gene Krupa who played in Krupa's band, Sammy brought jazz and swing influences into klezmer before his untimely death.

My friend Bert Stratton, a clarinetist with the Cleveland band Yiddishe Cup, once did research at the YIVO Institute and sent me a composition of Uncle Dave's entitled "Richard's Ba Mitzva," though I'm pretty sure it was done not for me but for his grandson Richard Tarras or his grandnephew Richard Shapiro. All of us were students at Meyer Levin JHS in the early 1960s, so the title could do triple-duty.

Although Uncle Dave was well-known in musical circles – he had a weekly show on a Brooklyn-based radio station when I was a kid – mainstream recognition came with the klezmer revival late in his life. In 1984, the National Endowment for the Arts gave him a Heritage Fellowship in recognition of his contribution to traditional music.

After Aunt Shifra's death, Uncle Dave lived with a widow whose family he'd known for many years. To avoid losing social security benefits, they had only a religious marriage ceremony, not a civil one. We celebrated their "wedding" at the Shang-Chai kosher Chinese restaurant on Flatbush Avenue.

The last time I saw Uncle Dave, he gave me a gift: a signed copy of an LP by Enrico Caruso. I still treasure it.

Uncle Dave died at 95 and is buried next to Aunt Shifra in the family plot at Old Montefiore Cemetery in Springfield Gardens. A musical staff adorns their headstone.

Andy Statman is carrying on and extending the traditions of klezmer music. Catch him if you can.

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