"I came to klezmer quite by accident," said virtuoso clarinetist David Krakauer.
He was a noted classical musician around 1987 when a chance encounter on a Manhattan bus changed the direction of his career.
Seated nearby was the accordionist from a klezmer band that played in front of Zabar's, across the street from Krakauer's 10th-floor apartment on the Upper West Side.
"The music used to waft up through my windows," he said. "Suddenly, I realized it had made an impression."
The son of a psychiatrist and a violinist, Krakauer had known little about Jewish music or culture growing up in an assimilated home in Manhattan. Yiddish was the language his grandparents had used when they did not want younger relatives to understand their conversation. At Juilliard, Krakauer assumed he would embark on a career of playing Brahms and Mahler with perhaps some jazz on the side. He did so while making a name for himself as a member of the Aspen Wind Quintet, by performing with new music groups such as Continuum and teaching at Vassar and the Manhattan School.
But Jewish music crept up on Krakauer, 42, who'll perform his unique brand of nouveau klezmer at the Skirball Cultural Center March 21. Around 1978, he said, he attended a concert by the then-elderly clarinetist, David Tarras, who had merged klezmer and swing in the 1920s.
"He didn't play so well anymore ... but there was just something about his sound that gave me the shivers," Krakauer said. "[It] was the rhythm, the cadence, the way the sounds went up and down. It reminded me of my Belorussian grandmother's voice, when she said things like 'David, so nu?'"
Krakauer's own gravely voice crackled with excitement as he recalled meeting that klezmer accordionist on the 104 bus headed uptown in the late 1980s.
"She asked me to recommend a clarinetist who could play with her band, and I think she assumed I'd name a student," he said. "Instead, the words spontaneously flew out of my mouth: 'I'll do it.' It was as if I instinctively realized, 'I know nothing about being Jewish, but I want to connect.' I felt like klezmer could be my connection, through sounds, notes and music."
So Krakauer began studying old recordings, learning the proper ornaments and the lilting or frenetic technique required to perform traditional dances such as the doina or freylach. He played weddings and bar mitzvahs, assuming the endeavor would become a musical hobby, not a career.
But then he was invited to play with The Klezmatics, an American band spurring the exuberant klezmer revival of the 1980s. When he traveled to Germany with that group around 1989, he performed in front of thousands of dancing, cheering non-Jews. The same thing happened throughout Eastern Europe and especially in Poland, where Krakauer returned more than seven times to teach and perform. While coaching a group of young musicians in a ramshackle barn off a dirt road in Sejny, he recalled, even a dour farmer paused to tap his feet in the adjacent field.
Of the continuing non-Jewish obsession with klezmer, Krakauer said, "I think enough time has passed, since the Holocaust, for Europeans to wonder, 'What Jewish culture have we been missing?' We klezmorim are viewed as representatives of that part of the Eastern European soul that was destroyed in the Shoah."
But Krakauer, like The Klezmatics, wasn't content just to perform traditional pieces in a straightforward style. In the mid-1990s, he formed his own band, Klezmer Madness!, which weds classic Jewish music with contemporary forms such as jazz, rock and hip-hop. Today, he is part of a wave of musicians who are continuing to push the klezmer envelope, according to Yale Strom, author of 2003's "The Book of Klezmer." Such bands include the world fusion-infused Flying Bulgars and Strom's Afro-Cuban Klazzj.
Krakauer's latest forward-thinking CD is "Live in Krakow," which he recorded last year in the city that bears his name. The energetic album features samples and beatbox by DJ Socalled; it also includes Krakauer's original composition, "Klezmer a la Bechet," based on an imaginary 1920s meeting between black New Orleans jazz clarinetist Sidney Bechet and the Ukrainian Jewish clarinetist Naftule Brandwein. Another track, "Love Song for Lemberg/Lvov," combines a waltzy melody with atonal sounds mimicking "screams of the Jewish dead," said Krakauer, who is still prominent in classical music circles.
But even as he stretches the genre, he still wants klezmer to sound like klezmer. It has to remind Krakauer of the music he heard wafting in through his windows back in 1987: "It has to suggest my grandmother's voice," he said.
For information about the Skirball concert, call (310) 440-4500. For tickets, call (323) 655-8587.