Just Tell Her Klezmer Joe Was Here and Had to Go
A Minor Technical Note: I spent most of my teenage years as a fairly serious musician, if by "serious" you count rehearsing about an hour and a quarter, five days a week, learning to conservatory Gr. VIII theory, and learning how to write and arrange music. That said, I'm primarily a vocalist, not an instrumental musician, so some of the finer points of instrumental techniques (including modalities that incorporate chord change sequences) don't mean a whole lot to me, or at least not what they would mean to an instrumentalist, so I'm not going to get into a technical discussion of modalities and chord progressions -- for more information on that stuff, see the technical introduction to the Compleat Klezmer. This is also not meant to be a comprehensive musicological overview, more of an introductory-level glance at the topic.
Two Coincidences: In their history book-cum-sheet music collection The Compleat Klezmer, musicians and klezmer historians Henry Sapoznik and Pete Sokolow write about the confusion between some forms of jazz and klezmer
The circumstantial similarities which bind klezmer and jazz can be seen most clearly in the music and society of black New Orleans. In both cases, it was a brass band with a strong clarinet presence that characterized the style.
Sapoznik then goes on to mention similar socioeconomic factors which created an initial similarity between klezmer and jazz, while insisting that there was no structural overlap between early New Orleans jazz and klezmer. From a modern perspective, it's hard to distinguish between klezmer and jazz, because a certain blurring of the lines has occurred since the early 20th Century. The most common synonym for "klezmer" in the modern lexicon is "Yiddish swing," which is kind of a misnomer (most properly, "Yiddish swing" was a sub-genre of swing and not technically klezmer at all), an ironic turn of nomenclature, since the roots of the klezmer tradition go back in Europe to the middle 1600s. Compared to klezmer, jazz was a Johnny-Come-Lately, and the two genres didn't meet all that much.
By the 1930s and 1940s, though, that had changed. Many of the most notable swing composers (like Harold Arlen) and bandleaders like Benny Goodman) were themselves Jewish, and many of them had grown up in what Sapoznik calls the "second-generation klezmer" tradition in the United States. One of the most famous vocal swing pieces ever, "Bei Mir Bist Du Shayn" was recorded by the Andrews Sisters and became an overnight runaway hit. (No Yiddish-language song would ever chart so high again, although bandleader Ziggy Ellman took the klezmer piece "Der Shtiler Bulgar (The Quiet Bulgar)" and remade it into the swing standard "And The Angels Sing.") Besides the Andrews Sisters and Benny Goodman, another swing artist who (possibly coincidentally) promoted klezmer influences into the genre was Cab Calloway.
A Few Too Few Words on Cab Calloway: In all ways, Cab Calloway was an unusual performer for his time. He was a classically-trained musician (unfortunately born too early for the inauguration of the orchestral "blind audition"*) raised in Baltimore by two professional parents (his father was a lawyer and his mother a teacher). (Also unusually, his older sister Blanche, who allegedly got Calloway into show business, was the first black female bandleader of an all-male band. She later formed an all-female big band.) In his discography, you can see a staggering number of "sides" showing a range of musical styles and varieties. A number of the tunes he performed were composed by Jewish composers, including some (like "A Bee Gezint" that were in Yiddish), and an interesting novelty piece called "Who's Yehoodi?" (sometimes spelled "Who's Yehudi?" or misnomered as "Who's Your Hootie?"). A "soundie" version starring bandleader Kay Keyser is here. (The latter is an interesting sonic pun, being as the title translates two ways -- "Yehudi" is both a Yiddish man's name and the Hebrew word for "Jewish" in the masculine grammatical gender, so the song title could be interpreted as asking "Who's Jewish?" Answer: The composers of the piece.)
Beyond finding Jewish-themed pieces in Calloway's repertoire, it's important to remember that Calloway "broke the broadcast colour barrier" thanks to two Austrian Jewish immigrants, Max and Dave Fleischer, who highlighted Calloway's music (as well as music by other notable black artists of the time) in their animated cartoons, most prominently his versions of "Saint James Infirmary Blues" in "Snow White" and "Minnie the Moocher" in the cartoon of the same name.
Musically speaking, several commentators, including Calloway's grandson, C. Brooks Calloway, have remarked on Calloway using "cantorial wailing" in his pieces, which apparently got him into a bit of trouble with one record label. From Heptunes' writeup on a version of "Minnie the Moocher" recorded 12/18/33, the page compiler remarks, "This version remained unreleased for many years because Cab wailed in the style of a Jewish cantor, which offended some people at the recording studio. Cab almost certainly did it because he liked the sound, and not in an effort to mock people."
Outgrowth and Outcome This combination of influence and influences suffused klezmer styles into mainstream popular music of the late 1940s, which even the "whitening process" to which early R&B and rock songs couldn't really eradicate.** Interestingly, traditional klezmer underwent a revival in the 1970s and 1980s, only somewhat later than British artists discovered (and remade) R&B (which was then reimported into North America). R&B was the lineal descendant of swing, which resulted in the genres currently being further apart than they had been in a generation, with no signs of a reconvergence.
* Blind auditions were a technique developed to help combat the bias towards white males in classical orchestral music. Once classical musicians began having their professional auditions hidden from the judges by a curtain, so that they were judged on the merits of their playing alone, the numbers of women and minorities in professional classical orchestras went up significantly.
** I am referring, of course, to the common phenomenon of a black artist releasing a single and almost immediately, a headlining white artist (such as Pat Boone) would record and release a cover version, oftentimes nearly identical down to the instrumentation, for consumption on (re)segregated radio. A later pioneer in integrating rock and roll was the late Alan Freed.
See Sapoznik, Henry, and Sokolow, Pete. "The Compleat Klezmer." Cedarhurst, NY: Tara Publications, 1987.
Supplemental Listening List
Kickin' The Gong Around, Cab Calloway (composed by Harold Arlen)
The Reefer Man, Cab Calloway
A strange video with the Andrews Sisters' recording of "Bei Mir Bist Du Shayn" as the soundtrack (put it on in the background and don't bother watching the visual, and ignore the sample glitch in the middle).
A March of Time feature short with Benny Goodman, Art Tatum, and Duke Ellington (the other great black jazz/swing musician who broke colour boundaries around the same time as Calloway).