Interview with Pete Sokolow

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 They also played bulgars and freilachs, but since the bulgars and freilachs were no longer current, they went to Hasidim.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

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