THE KLEZMORIM > Krono > 1988 > Inside Story 

MY FAREWELL GIG WITH THE KLEZMORIM — a short run at Marin Community Playhouse — ended in February 1988. By the following day, I was at work in a new career as writer/editor. Although I had given notice five months earlier, we had agreed not to make public the news of my upcoming departure. (Arts presenters could be skittish about booking acts in transition, so The Klezmorim never made a big deal about personnel changes.)

Nevertheless, my final show was a rite of passage for me if for nobody else. Toward the end I dropped my demonic, screw-you stage persona and addressed the audience for the very first time as plain old Lev, thanking everyone for going the distance with me and the band. With characteristic sentimentality, the guys — realizing that after a thousand performances over twelve-and-a-half years I might appreciate a lavish sendoff — ordered pizza backstage after the show.

OK, the band in 1988 was dynamic, artistically challenging, famous on two continents — why get off the rollercoaster at the top of the hill? I tell ya, I'd been fed up with the lifestyle for years... but couldn't resist sticking around to experience European stardom. At 35, I was living the dream I'd had at 23 — to travel, seek fame, create collaborative music — when what I really wanted to do was to write, master new fields, live privately, and cultivate a deeper relationship with my wife.

Joan respected my musical career and had never demanded that I curtail it. But in truth, a general air of domesticity had begun to break up the old gang. David Gray had moved on shortly after getting married, leaving me the sole remaining founding member. Rick Foster had withdrawn from managing our career to devote more time to his family. And longtime trombonist Kevin Linscott was leaving to wed a woman he'd met when we toured Sweden. The old joke is true: You can't be a traveling musician when you grow up — you gotta choose one or the other.

So the band imploded amicably in '88, with three of us opting to have marriages and lives instead of spending another decade on the road. Shortly afterward, Ben Goldberg and Kenny Wollesen left to form The New Klezmer Trio with their old musical partner Dan Seaman. Tuba player Donald Thornton assumed leadership at this point and kept The Klezmorim going for another five years. Germany and the rest of Europe provided ample venues, but career momentum dwindled in the early 1990s as the band lost its sui generis status. By then, hundreds of neo-klezmer combos had hatched and were, like baby tortoises, racing The Klezmorim to the sea...

Some may quibble: With the last of the founding members gone, was the 1988 version of The Klezmorim really The Klezmorim? Absolutely. Thornton had been an integral member and influential arranger of repertoire since 1979, and trumpeter Christopher Leaf served in both incarnations of the band. Two excellent new members — saxophonist Sheldon Brown and clarinetist Paul Hanson — were already part of the band's extended family: Sheldon had nearly snagged the clarinet spot that ultimately went to Ben Goldberg, and Paul was the son of Lew Hanson, who played with The Klezmorim in the 1970s. As a klezmer reed section, Sheldon and Paul sounded exactly like me and David Gray, only better.

The Klezmorim's 1990 album Variety Stomp evolved in large part from material worked out three years earlier with me, Goldberg, Wollesen, and Linscott. Like a cat with nine lives — or a much-loved knife with three new blades and two new handles — the band carried on, augmented by Thornton's excellent crew of klezmer/jazz stars like Charles Seavey and Al Bent.

Historians, reviewers, fans: There's no single moment that defines The Klezmorim, no portrait big enough to capture our collective soul. The band was a skunkworks, a test-firing range, a hot, fizzy crucible for new (and newly rediscovered) musical ideas. As Seth Rogovoy says in The Essential Klezmer: "It is impossible to overestimate the influence that The Klezmorim would ultimately have on modern klezmer music."

As an autonomous music-producing module, The Klezmorim went on extended hiatus in 1993. The sleeping monster emerges from its cave in 2004 with concerts in Holland...

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