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Interview with Pete Sokolow

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Pete Sokolow is a jazz and klezmer pianist and reed player whose klezmer roots in the Catskills span older and newer generations of Jewish musicians. Pete Sokolow has played with many major figures in klezmer history, including Dave Tarras, the Epstein Brothers, and Ray Musiker, and been an important figure in the revival of klezmer music. Pete Sokolow has orchestrated numerous albums, musicals, and films. His albums include "Klezmer Plus," and he wrote the transcriptions and technical introductions to Henry Sapoznik's book, The Compleat Klezmer. In December 1999 Phil Brown taught a class on the history of the Catskills at KlezKamp, the now-fifteen year-old conference of klezmer music and Yiddish culture held at the Paramount Hotel in Parksville. He had the pleasure to play in Pete's dance band and then to interview Pete Sokolow about klezmer in the Catskills. An edited version of this interview appeared in In the Mountains Number 9.

How did Klezmer fit into the Catskills?

In the early years going back to the 20s and things, klezmer was the Catskills. When they first started using musicians in the hotels, who were the people who were going to the hotels? Immigrants. Even though most of them were not religious, I mean when most of the got to this country they shaved off their beards, we know that. In that time, Jewish dance music was what today we call klezmer. In those years it wasn't always called Klezmer. When I broke into the business in the 50s, we called it the freilachs and the bulgars. That means the old tunes from the Dave Tarras/Naftule Brandwein repertoire. Back in the 20s none of us existed; I wasn't a gleam in my father's eye. Essentially the bands played that stuff. I would say about toward 1930 the American music began to come in because the children of the first generation Americans changed their names from Schwartz to Shaw, from Greenberg to Green. They didn't want to know. Everything that was grine was out, it was outré, unhip. In any case, the bands had to start playing foxtrots and American music.

Now, the altischke klezmer did not play [American music]. Now Naftule Brandwein--there is a famous picture of him holding an alto sax. He never played a sax in his life. He held it. Dave Tarras started playing the saxophone, take it from one who knows. I was in a section with him; he was unbelievable. He couldn't phrase American, because he was European; he spoke with an accent. He couldn't phrase it. So the younger guys started getting the work up in the Catskills, and they, takeh, since they were of the new generation, they could play. Sammy Musiker, Ray's brother, who was Dave Tarras' son-in-law, was a marvelous sax and clarinet player. Got his start in the catering halls in Brownsville, East New York, and up in the Catskills. He played clarinet like a wizard. He became Gene Krupa's star clarinet soloist. He played section saxophone and clarinet solos with the Krupa band. After Krupa left Benny Goodman in '38, Sammy was called in. He had solos on records that were instantly recognizable. They even made a movie called "Ball of Fire" in which Sammy was featured on camera with Krupa. He played the Goodman style. After the war, the bands closed down and he had to go back to club dates, meaning private parties, weddings and bar mitzvahs. He ended up a Klezmer again. It's a shame because he was better than that. He became depressed about it. He was very angry about it.

When you were up here playing, did you have a lot of leeway as to what you played?

No. I started in 1957. The first summer job I ever had was Shloimie Ehrenreich's Hotel. I was there with a band consisting of piano, "electrical" (in Yiddish accent) guitar, drums, and myself on tenor sax. It was a frum (religious) hotel; they didn't dance together. I had no knowledge of this. The salary was $25 a week. It was totally a Hasidic place. I had never seen Orthodox Jews. I didn't know what the hell was going on. We slept in a room behind the casino, and every Shabbos you'd hear, "[rap, rap, rap] Musicians, open the door. We gotta daven (pray)." Shloimie was mean. When I was trying to make time with a girl, he said, "No, musician, you wanna make time with a girl, you do it over there by the bungalows. You don't talk to my girls." We were there for about a week. We barely played. We played a little bit in the lobby. We started to play a show; the guy came up with music. We destroyed this act mercilessly. Most of the guys in the band could hardly read. The piano was horrible. This poor man. What he went through with us. We destroyed him. Almost immediately, the guitar and the piano quit and went home. So it was me and the drummer, Hal Parker. He later became a show drummer. We used to play in the lobby--sax and drums, that's all. About a week later, an agent, Eddy Luntz, sends up a piano player, a big gangly, tall kid who had graduated from Music and Art High School, about my age. What I remember about this guy was two things - he read Plato; he doubled on the bassoon. He was a good piano player. He could read and everything. The name: Charlie Fox. He wrote the music for Goodbye, "Columbus." Today he is a multi-millionaire, having made all kinds of musical television shows.

About a week, two weeks later I quit. A bunch of friends of mine, all high-school guys who graduated high school with me in 1957 were working in a bungalow colony in Swan Lake. Small nice modern bungalow colony, non-frum--I couldn't wait to get out. They treated us like dirt. I was totally unfamiliar with the Hasidim. I only got to know it later when I married one. She became one after I married her. I was so uncomfortable there. There was a cantor there who acted as MC. He was bullying us and butchering us. I couldn't wait to get out.

So I went over to the other place. Here's where my real Catskills experience actually starts, after the false start at Shloimie's. In this bungalow colony, they gave us a nice large basement room. We ate in the concession. Cause they didn't have a dining room. The food was reasonable. The money was about the same-twenty-five bucks a week. And the band consisted of two saxophones, because the trumpet player quit. So it was two saxophones, piano and drums. All guys that graduated high school with me. The drummer was a guy called Jerry Goldstein who later started writing rock-n-roll songs. He later called me up--can you write some chords down? I wrote these hip chords. He said, "No, I want it to sound like a four year-old wrote it". Later on he had a song, "My Boyfriend's Back". This guy made a fortune with this one fakackta song. He was a lousy drummer. He's a fun guy, I had a lot of fun with him. He was, eppes, the leader. The piano player was a guy I used to sit next to in German class. He played old-time piano, like my father. I said, "Where the hell did you learn to play like that?" I said, "You'll go out and become a member of Dixieland bands." And when he went out to Cornell, he became a pianist in Dixieland bands. I later became a better stride player than him, but that took some doing. The other sax player was a sweetheart who ended up working for the IBM company. I was doing a klezmer concert recently in Poughkeepsie. He walks up to me and says, "Hi, I'm Jerry Steinberg." I said, "Oh, my God." He was a fat little kid and now he's a nice engineer. He's the only one of us who became an engineer. He had an alto sax. We used to keep the alto between us in a little garbage can. So I went and got an alto mouthpiece. When I first tried this alto, it was like coming home. In those days, everybody played tenor. When you went on a club date, they wanted the deeper sound. In the earlier years you could play an alto, it was OK. But in those days everyone played tenor. You had two saxophones, it was two tenors. You had three saxophones, it was three tenors. And the sound was like a cow mooing Now I played with this band--and I actually learned something about playing shows. One of us played also; one of us played tenor. The alto sat in the garbage can in the middle and he would pick it up during a song, then I would pick it up. So I went out and bought an alto. I wrote a couple arrangements for it. It was very enjoyable. We played a couple of acts, some of which we didn't do as well as others.

Now the next summer I got call from a guy. I didn't realize how old he was. I was recommended by the kid who replaced me on fourth tenor in the dance band at Brooklyn Tech. He heard me play. He recommended me to Ralph Kahn. His real name was Cohen. Ralph was a trumpet player. His teeth went in every direction, which meant that he wasn't a very good trumpet player, which he wasn't. The top of his range was the middle of the horn. And he played the bass. He was up to book one, lesson one. He would come around and he would go, "Zzz, zzz, zzz". The accordion player Berman, Harry Berman, would scream, Ralph will you stop that goddamn business and go back to Mary, his wife, down the road. So I auditioned for the job with this old guy who told me I played better than one of the worst saxophone players in the world. I went up to the New Prospect Hotel in Mountaindale. We start to play a little rehearsal. Berman is a big fat guy with a bald head. He starts to play and I'm listening to the chord changes. Here I am 18 years old, 120 pounds. And I say to this guy, "Hey you're playing a couple of wrong chords there." And he says to me, "Hey punk, you mean to tell me I'm 30 years in the business and I'm playing wrong.?" I said "Suit yourself." The next day Berman takes me in the car from Mountaindale to Woodridge to the Glory hotel. The Glory Hotel was owned by a former musician named Alan Levine who played the trumpet. Now there driving a tractor was Isador Chissick Epstein. What was he doing driving the tractor? He was mowing the lawn. Obviously, Al Levine was giving him an extra five bucks to do this. Cause these Epsteins were real Depression mentality. Anything for a dime. So Chi Epstein stops the tractor with his belly hanging over and a farmer's hat. Berman screams out, "Hey, Chi come over, I want you to meet the new kid, a saxophone player." Emphasis on the kid. He comes over. He says, "How do you do, how do you like his chords? I gave him a look to say "Nisht dugedach" which means you shouldn't even know from it. He became my friend instantly. What Chi and Berman did for me was taught me the value of entertainment on a job. We played for those people. I would say the range of ages was starting in late 40s to the mid-50s's age group, going up to 75 and 80. We played mostly American music. I, as a jazz-oriented kid, we used to play a slow ballad (sings a few bars of "When I fall in Love") And a swing number was (hums a tune, faster). When I got with these guys, the ballad tempo was (sings "May to December," faster than previous ballad). Now this was standard club date kind of a tempo, and I as an inexperienced kid did not know that. So that's the first thing they taught me, the correct dance tempos. Number two they taught me the value of singing entertainment on a job. I had done some singing at the Evergreen bungalows in Swan Lake. I had actually gotten up and sang some Lionel Hampton type vocals (sings "Pennies from Heaven". So I got up there and Ralph Kahn was singing, and he would hold the bass and sing (sings, in a parody, "I Don't Know Why I Love You" and segues into "Arrivaderci Roma"). The corniest rhythms. It was a real education for me because I never knew this existed. I came from a family of Communists. What does that mean? Musically, I never went to a Bar Mitzvah as a child, because these people didn't have them.. I never went to a wedding as a child. I rarely ever went to shul if ever. I didn't know what a chazan (cantor) sounded like. I didn't know the sound of the Yiddish words. My grandmother was from the other side, but she had come from Siberia. So she spoke Russian. My grandma knew Yiddish. But the point here is that the Yiddish culture was not part of my upbringing. I never heard a club date band in my life. I never went to a wedding or a Bar Mitzvah. I never heard what they sounded like. So what it was, was kind of an old-fashioned ricky tick. And these guys sang and played, frankly, awful. And here they were much older than me. I always had a thing about older people. I had a lot of kivod av (respect for older people). I kind of used them as father figures. And even though they were terrible, and I knew they were terrible, they had a lot to teach me. What I learned from them most important was Yiddish theatre songs - "Shayn Vi Di Livone," "Abi Gezunt," "Mama Bin Ich Farliebt." I don't know where Ralph got his sense of rhythm. And Berman would play wherever his hands fell, that was the chord. And maybe he played with his elbow. Forget about the shows. We ruined more acts. Kahn could barely read and Berman was nervous about playing shows. And his eyesight was just about to go, and he hadn't gotten a pair of glasses yet. . He would look at the music with an owlish look. And he would look at the music and then put his foot on the pedal. And it sounded like he hit the piano with both elbows at the same time. Boom. Every note on the piano would ring. And that was the introduction. And somehow the acts managed to get through. In those years, the acts used to come to the mountains expecting this. Sometimes they had a little luck, sometimes they didn't. In the Butler Lodge in Hurleyville was a band that is legendary until this very day. It struck fear into the heart of every act around. It was called the Peratin Family Band. It was four of the same family. The drummer and leader of the band was Al Peratin. He was a refugee from the old days. At one point he led a band. He stood up in front of it. His wife was Marie Peratin. And she played the piano. Thump, thump, thump thump, thump, thump, thump, thump. Just this clunking four to a bar. She played four to a bar a waltz. Or at least it sounded that way. One daughter played the accordion with the left hand. And what's called a solovox, which was an early synthesizer, monophonic, tube-generated, had a sound like chalk scratching on a blackboard. And he had one other daughter played the "wibes". When I first went to work for Peratin years later he says (with accent)" I've got a terrific band. I've got a wiolin and a wibes". Sure enough when I go there there was a woman who played the violin and the wibes. And she would put her foot on the pedal and the first note that she played that evening was still ringing at the end of the job. There was this stripper and Peratin was the drummer. Ralph Kahn had booked all these guys that were giving him jobs. This job had a big show. In the Hotel St. George in Brooklyn as it turned out. And he got Willy Epstein because he was afraid he wouldn't get the job. He had a piano player who was a cripple called Benny Grief. It's too bad Benny didn't send his wife because she could play.Anna Greif was a wonderful pianist. But this manŠso this stripper comes on Sherry Bridner, well known stripper. She gives the music to the drummer, "Now listen, drummer when I reach bar 35 you're gonna give me a zetz". He says (with accent), "I don't read no music." She says, "What?" He says, "I don't read no music." She says, "You better stay with me, you better follow me." This band murdered that. The acts used to come into this place with abject fear in their hearts. My God, what these bands did to them. And yet the Butler Lodge must have been filled with old refugees because Peratin was a big star up in the Bronx. He was a big band leader up there. And people loved him. They used to do parties, mainly for old refuges. They used to do lansmanshaften (mutual benefit societies based on Old Country town or shtetl). He had musicians. I don't know where the hell he got them. He had two saxes on this one job. I was playing alto. At that time the style was skinny lapels and bow ties. This guy came in with a suit with airplane lapels. It must have been a wool suit with pinstripes and spats on his shoes and white hair. It looked like they had picked him up out of a coffin and put him in a chair and put a saxophone in his mouth. Then to get a vibrato, he shook the horn [parodies vibrato sound). Now Sid Beckerman's brother, Benny used to do that. That was the vibrato. These were the kind of musicians who were active in the music business then. How they earned a living, I never know. Peratin booked a lot of jobs; so did Ralph.

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