Joel Grey's Dad, Don Byron, and Jewish Jazz
9:16 am
Wed November 27, 2013

Borscht Capades: The Mickey Katz Project

According the Jewish calendar, we're in the year 5774, which means it’s about time somebody made a film about klezmer jazz bandleader and English/Yiddish comedian, Mickey Katz.

Fortunately, someone has. Once complete, we will owe The Mickey Katz Project: Celebrating the Life, Comedy and Music of Mickey Myron Victor Katz to an early discovery by director Eric Krasner: he laughed his juvenile tuchas off using Katz's songs as soundtracks to his own silent 8mm kiddie film projects.

Krasner wasn't alone; several generations of children and adults found this kind of thing irresistible:

If Katz’s schtick seems heavily influenced by the Spike Jones Orchestra, it’s because he spent a year as a Jones Boy, where he developed his signature vocalization, the glug.

When he left Jones's band, Katz waded straight into the novelty record business, where he seldom met a popular song he couldn't Yiddishize. Deploying his talent for musical parody and multilingual puns, Katz hit paydirt in 1948 with "Haim Afen Range" ("Home on the Range"), which sold 50,000 copies in its first two days. The blues weren't sacred, either:

Through the 1950s, the tight playing of clarinetist Katz, trumpeters Ziggy Elman and Manny Klein, trombonist Si Zentner, drummer Sam Weiss, and pianist/arranger Nat Farber - along with the songs' embrace of Yiddishkeit - made Katz a star for Capitol Records.  But those Yinglish double-entendres also won foes. One Jewish radio station director banned Katz's songs from the airwaves. Here's the offending number, "Duvid Crockett:"

Born in the wilds of Delancey Street
Home of gefilte fish and kosher meat
Handy with a knife, oh her zich tzi
He flicked him a chicken, when he was only three
Duvid, Duvid Crockett, he sat in the sun und gerocket (rocked) und gebaket (baked)
Duvid, Duvid Crockett, King of Delancey Street

In this clip from The Mickey Katz Project, Cleveland radio host Phil Fink gives a line-by-line translation of Katz's Yinglish. It reveals more than just the chutzpah of the lyrics. In 1955, the record got yanked because of a potty-mouthed Yiddish word, while a thoroughly offensive English name sailed beneath the radar of the times.

Masked by Borscht Belt humor delivered "as if from a machine gun," Mickey Katz and his orchestra's top-notch musicianship seldom received notice by jazz experts. By the time of his death in 1985, Katz's music was no longer so widely known. Which brings us to the virtuosic clarinet and saxophone player, composer and arranger, Don Byron.

Byron's remarkable career arises equally from talent, energy, and his zeal to avoid becoming artistically pigeon-holed; he collaborates and records with a gigantic list of ensembles. As arranger, composer, band leader, and player, Byron simultaneously plays tribute to and redefines classical lieder and chamber music, various sorts of Latin music, many shades of jazz, avant-garde, gospel, post-minimalism, rap, metal, soul, funk, swing, calypso...and klezmer. (MTPR music host Allen Secher adds: "The word "klezmer" comes from "kley zemer," Hebrew for "musical instruments." The word describes both the genre and the musicians who play it. However, Katz and his contemporaries preferred "Jewish jazz.") Byron discovered Katz's compositions in the 1980s while a member of Boston's Klezmer Conservatory Band. In 1990, he told New York Times reporter Peter Watrous:

''I was looking for stuff that didn't sound obvious, tunes that were well arranged,'' Mr. Byron remembered. ''I was listening to a tape of Yiddish music, and suddenly I hit a Mickey Katz tune. I immediately responded to it - it had really great musicians on it, Manny Klein and Ziggy Ellman. And there's all this beautiful voice-leading, four-part harmonies, melodies that go down to 16th notes, four-part fugues, really fancy writing. I really felt like this was like where klezmer left off in terms of progressing: this was where it had stopped.''

Byron transcribed Katz's tunes from old recordings and, in 1990, gathered an ensemble of jazz musicians to perform sixteen of the pieces in New York, with Katz's tummler shoes filled by his son, actor and comedian Joel Grey. They hit the road, performing at festivals, clubs, universities and Jewish community centers throughout North America and Europe. In 1993, Nonesuch released Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz, which Byron calls "a tribute to the sly and bitingly humorous works of the neglected 1950's klezmer band leader."

Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz revived interest in not just Katz's music, but klezmer music generally, which helped revv up the continuing Jewish music renaissance. In this 2013 article by Jake Marmer in the Jewish Daily Forward, Byron holds forth on "klezmer, cultural appropriation, assimilation and hipness."

Before Weird Al Yankovic, Allen Sherman or Mel Brooks were household names, before klezmer needed resuscitation, Mickey Katz was paving the way for purveyors of not-exactly-kosher songs and laughs. As long as it contains scenes like this one, The Mickey Katz Project will pay tribute to the clowning klezmer in the manner to which he was accustomed.