Apr 22, 2008

Pete Sokolow Interveiw, a damn fine one too

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 They also played bulgars and freilachs, but since the bulgars and freilachs were no longer current, they went to Hasidim.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.

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 Š". "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"]... Now 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 Šand 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'..." 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 Œ80s. 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.

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