Had that part of your heritage been part of your childhood? Or was your household more culturally assimilated?
My household was very, very assimilated. My late mother was a classical violinist, and she taught at the Mannes Prep and the Mannes Extension. My dad, who is still living, was studying singing, really an avid music lover. So I had music in the home, but it was more either classical music or musical theater – and there was a smattering of jazz, so as a kid I got curious. And then my first teacher was a guy named Joel Press, who is still living in Boston. He had grown up with a lot of the great jazz players… he would make statements like, “If you never heard Charlie Parker live, you never heard Charlie Parker.” He was incredible, and he got me into jazz initially. So my home was very assimilated; I felt very much like an American, but still had a strong sense of Jewish identity.
So you were introduced later in life to aspects of your culture that had not been present when you were growing up.
Yeah. I mean, I had a bar mitzvah, I learned some basic things about Judaism, but I really didn’t know that much. And then when I started playing klezmer music… before I started playing with the Klezmatics I was playing in this kind of smaller, more modest band, and we were going out and playing in Jewish community centers, old age homes, and stuff like that. And my thought was, I have this thriving chamber music career, a classical career, and I’ll just do this for fun, for my own edification, and to just get closer to my Jewishness.
And then suddenly, there were people just slightly older than me, in their mid-thirties or early forties, speaking Yiddish. I’d thought only very religious Hassidic Jews spoke Yiddish, and then suddenly it was these children of garment workers who kept that alive in their kids, who didn’t totally assimilate, who kept the Yiddishkeit alive. That was really an amazing revelation. And then a few months after I started playing klezmer music, the Klezmatics heard about me, and I started playing with them. We started being present at these klezmer camps – there was this KlezKamp up in the Catskills, and we were playing there and teaching a little bit. It was so new to me that I was also learning, meeting older Jewish people and learning stories.
So I think what happened is, I started embarking on this kind of great Jewish journey, and learning about being Jewish – not in a “book” way at all, but in a very organic way, just meeting people and hanging out, hearing things and having experiences. That became my second Jewish education, after my bar mitzvah: getting into playing this music.
There was this moment where in jazz I had had that kind of crisis of confidence; now, I had this moment where I said, now I actually have an opportunity to find something original, take everything I had done in jazz, all the things that I had learned, and bring that to the music of my cultural heritage. So through my work with the Klezmatics and, after I left the Klezmatics in the mid-’90s, though my work with my own bands, I started to find my own sound and my own style, mixing in all these other influences but retaining the core feeling of klezmer. So that was kind of my goal and my quest, and that’s what I’ve done, basically, since then.
In 1992 I went to Krakow. At that time, Krakow was really just emerging from the communist times, so there weren’t the Schindler’s List tours; there weren’t these little cafés where people played fake Jewish music for the tourists. It’s a crazy thing there in Krakow: On the one hand, the city has revitalized in this beautiful way – and there is this kind of kitschy, touristy side, which is sort of annoying, but it also comes with the whole sort of rebirth of that town, with all of these cool clubs and great places. It’s part of the package. But the great thing is the annual Jewish Culture Festival, which has always brought over great musicians primarily from the United States, but also top European bands who were doing interesting things – and doing living things in Jewish music of many different kinds.
Going there in 1992, there was a grim side to Krakow, which was really interesting to see. When I played for that audience, still a member of the Klezmatics, I was introduced to the public, and I said to the people, “My name is David Krakauer… welcome to my city.” It was an amazing moment, because I remembered reading articles in the Encyclopedia Britannica when I was a kid back in the mid-’60s and thinking, I’ll never go to the city of my name, because it’s behind the Iron Curtain. So that was incredible: to sort of almost reclaim that place.
In the early ’90s, John Zorn asked me to do his piece Kristallnacht, and after that Zorn asked me to do the first record in the Radical Jewish Culture series on his brand new label, Tzadik. So that was a great honor, to be able to help Zorn launch that concept and launch that label in that way. And then in 1996, I recorded The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind of Osvaldo Golijov with Kronos, so that was a very, very important moment in my career. All of these different things – and then leaving the Klezmatics, starting my own band, which was called Klezmer Madness and is now called Ancestral Groove.