Joseph Vass, creator of the acclaimed revue, "Gershwin the Klezmer," didn't know what klezmer music was until he was well into his 40's. "I didn't even know that there was such a thing as Jewish music," admits the founder of the Minnesota Klezmer Band, which will perform "Gershwin" at Cal State Northridge Nov. 18-19.
After all, the jazz pianist hadn't had a whit of Jewish education while growing up the son of a refugee from the Nazis in Illinois. He couldn't tell you what a Torah was.
Then, while attending the New Orleans Jazz Festival in 1990, he chanced to wander into a coffee house where a klezmer band was playing. "I felt I was hearing a language I'd been meant to speak," recalls Vass, now 53, who began scouring record stores for elusive klezmer recordings and inserting Jewish themes into his jazz compositions. "Jewish music became my obsession."
Along the way, Vass joined a synagogue, began studying Hebrew and the Talmud, and listened with new ears to the music of the Jewish American composer George Gershwin. Though Gershwin is largely perceived as a popularizer of jazz, Vass heard something else in "Porgy and Bess" and the clarinet slide of "Rhapsody in Blue.""I recognized a certain kind of rhythm; a long, flowing melody that reminded me of Jewish music," says Vass, whose research underscored Gershwin's Jewish roots.
In "Gershwin the Klezmer," we learn that the composer recorded piano rolls of Yiddish songs, now lost; that he wrote a klezmer tune called "Vodka" and started work on an opera, based on "The Dybbuk," for the Metropolitan Opera. We learn that "It Ain't Necessarily So" draws on the rhythm of "Avinu Malkeinu" and "S'Wonderful" on the Yiddish tune, "Noach's Teiveh," by Abraham Goldfaden. We learn about the other Jewish American composers - Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Rodgers - who drew on cantorial and other Jewish music for inspiration.
The revue also includes Vass' tune, "Bulka's Song," that commemorates the day he learned he lost family in the Shoah. The 13-year-old pianist was practicing in the basement when his father showed him a photograph of the Holocaust memorial in his Hungarian hometown. Inscribed upon it were the names of his martyred relatives. "That was how I learned I was named for my grandfather, who died in Auschwitz," says Vass, who feels he's continuing the tradition of klezmorim interrupted by the Shoah.
"Gershwin the Klezmer" aims to show their continuing contribution to the musical zeitgeist: "It's really about the Jewish soul of American music," Vass says.
See "7 Days in the Arts," for ticket information.