In the words of the New Yorker, "Andy Statman, clarinet and mandolin virtuoso, is an American visionary." The culmination of decades of creative development, his music expands the boundaries of traditional and improvisational forms.
Born in 1950 into a long line of cantors, composers, and both classical and vaudeville musicians, Statman grew up in Queens, New York. His early musical influences included klezmer records played at family gatherings, Tin Pan Alley and Broadway show tunes, his rabbi in Hebrew school singing Hasidic songs, rock and roll, big band jazz, and classical music. When Statman's older brother started bringing home bluegrass records, Statman took up the guitar and banjo, eventually switching to mandolin under the tutelage of David Grisman.
He was soon performing with local bands at multiple venues and on Sunday afternoons in Washington Square Park. At age 17 -- after hearing Albert Ayler -- Statman began to study saxophone, which he played in free jazz, funk, rock, and Chicago blues bands while expanding his mandolin playing in similar directions. In 1970 he joined the experimental bluegrass group, Country Cooking, followed by a stint with David Bromberg's band, and then another experimental group, Breakfast Special.
Still broadening his horizons, Statman took up the clarinet and studied Greek, Albanian, and Adzerbaijani music. In 1975, he sought out the legendary klezmer clarinetist and NEA National Heritage Fellow Dave Tarras. Statman became Tarras' protégé, for whom the master wrote a number of melodies. Tarras wanted Statman to carry on his legacy, and bequeathed four of his clarinets to the younger virtuoso.
In the late 1970s Statman recorded his first albums; Jewish Klezmer Music, a recording that became a touchstone for the 1970s klezmer revival; and Flatbush Waltz, a mandolin masterpiece of post-bebop jazz improvisations and ethnically inspired original compositions.
As a clarinetist, Statman began to zero in on the sublimely ecstatic, centuries-old Hasidic melodies that lie at the heart of klezmer music -- melodies that were embedded in the religious path he had come to follow. This led to his galvanizing klezmer music with the spiritually oriented jazz of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler and other musics he had explored.
Statman has appeared on more than 100 recordings, including 20 under his own name. He has recorded and/or toured with the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Ricky Skaggs, Béla Fleck, David Grisman, Itzhak Perlman, Vassar Clements, Stéphane Grappelli, Paul Shaffer, and Kenny Werner. A Grammy nominee, Statman has been the subject of dozens of feature articles, from the New York Times to Billboard to Rolling Stone. He gives master classes in colleges and music camps, and has authored several music books and instructional DVDs.
Excerpt of "Yedid Nefesh/My Soul's Beloved" from the album Awakening from Above composed and performed by Andy Statman, used courtesy of Shefa Records. Used by permission of Andy Statman / Oceana Music (ASCAP).
Excerpt of "Maggid" from the album Between Heaven and Earth composed and performed by Andy Statman, used courtesy of Shanachie Records. Used by permission of Andy Statman / Oceana Music (ASCAP).
NEA: Can you begin by describing what Klezmer music is?
Andy Statman: Klezmer music is the traditional instrumental music of the Jews of Eastern Europe, in what they call the Pale of Settlement -- Ukraine, Southern Poland and parts of Poland proper, Belarus, the areas around Romania. There were other Jewish musics in Hungary and other places, but they were a little bit different. But this was sort of a unified style of music that was played.
NEA: And what's distinctive about klezmer?
Statman: The emotional content is distinctive. In a nutshell, [klezmer is] Hasidic vocal music played instrumentally, and it could either be actual Hasidic melodies, or melodies that were composed by the musicians themselves that might show their creativity and virtuosity. But the feeling they would invoke is the feeling of a Hasidic melody. Hasidic music is very broad and very, very creative and very deep, and much, much broader than what we consider klezmer music. "Klezmer" is a term that was applied to the music after it was pretty much gone. That's not what the musicians themselves refer to the music as. It's just traditional Jewish instrumental music from East Europe. A lot of the best musicians came to America in the 1890s and up until the '20s it sort of flourished here, became a little bit different, and then sort of became dormant, sort of died in many ways.
NEA: You come from a long line of musicians on your mother's side, correct?
Statman: Yes. [There are] canters going back to the mid-1700s, early 1700s. And when they came to America, some of them went into vaudeville and became well-known vaudeville entertainers -- Willie and Eugene Howard, they were called. They had one or two musician cousins who were classical musicians. Probably the most famous was a cousin named Sammy Fain, usually [known as] Sammy Feinberg, who was a Tin Pan Alley songwriter back in the twenties. He wrote "April Love, Secret Love." He wrote the music to Alice in Wonderland. He wrote "I'll Be Seeing You," "Love is a Many Splendored Thing," "That Old Feeling." He was American-born. He sang in the choir in synagogue, and then in some Yiddish theater productions. He started writing songs, and I think his first hit was a song called "By a Waterfall" [sung] by Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. That was in one of the early movies, "speakies," and they brought him out to Hollywood to write for the films. But he used to tell me stories about Gershwin and Cole Porter and Fats Waller, and all these people he used to hang out with. I know at my parents' wedding during the Depression he was the entertainment there. So he was always a presence in the family, in some ways, when I was growing up.
When I started touring nationally, whenever I played out in Los Angeles I'd go visit him and he'd take me out to the Brown Derby. I'd go there and he'd have several Oscars on his piano. It was the old, classic Hollywood. He was very close with Jimmy Durante. They used to go to the horse races almost every day -- it was a whole scene.
NEA: What did you hear when you were growing up around the house?
Statman: I heard Guys and Dolls, Kiss Me, Kate, all that stuff, classical music. We had 78s, so I remember hearing "Three O'Clock in the Morning" by Paul Whiteman, it was a very popular waltz back in the twenties, or we had this Yiddish theater song, folk song, called "Yosel," I remember I loved that one. I remember that was one of the first songs that really got me very energized -- that and "Three O'Clock in the Morning." My aunt had a record of klezmer, if you want to call it klezmer -- traditional Jewish tunes that my father had growing up. The Jews from different areas used to have town organizations and they'd have meetings and balls and dinners. Each town had its own customs and things, and so they used to hear all this music. My father grew up with that, with what we call today klezmer music. So at family gatherings when he got together with his sister and his brother they would put on these records and we would dance around. But I also remember when "Rockin' Around the Clock"came out and when "Hound Dog" came out. I remember really liking that stuff, and so I heard all the really early rock-and-roll and big bands.
NEA: And I know first hearing bluegrass had a huge impact on you.
Statman: I'd been interested in shortwave radio, and also in getting out-of-town radio stations on the AM radio. There were 50,000-watt stations then that broadcast live country music. There was a station called WWVA, from Wheeling, West Virginia, which you could get right around dusk in New York and all night into the early morning. My brother, who's about seven and a half, eight years older than me, he was in a jug band. I loved the live music, but when he brought home some records of bluegrass, I really got excited about it. And he played guitar. There was this guy named Doc Williams. He had a nightly show on WWVA during the weekdays, and then he'd appear on the jamboree. He had what he called Big Note Guitar Method -- "Teach yourself guitar." So I sent away for this thing and I started learning to play guitar. And then there was a banjo player in my brother's band and I really wanted to learn to play the banjo. With my bar mitzvah money I went out and bought a banjo and I started taking lessons. Then I eventually decided I wanted to play mandolin. So this started when I was around 12, 13.
NEA: How did you meet Dave Grisman?
Statman: I saw David play at what they used to call ‘hoots' that my brother's band played at. When I wanted to learn mandolin, I was able to get his number and gave him a call, and that started a lifelong friendship.
Everything I did prior was really setting me up for playing the mandolin. I'd played guitar and then really got into banjo. There used to be, in Washington Square Park in New York on Sunday, groups of musicians [that] would get together and play. And so I began playing in bands, but I was banjo-oriented, so I was mainly listening to people like Earl Scruggs and Don Reno and Bill Keith, and all these great banjo players. But there were a lot of really great banjo players, and I was just another one of them and I was the youngest. All these guys were college-aged kids. I was maybe fourteen.
I started hearing these mandolin breaks on these records and I got the chills when I heard some of them. Earl Taylor played a song called "White House Blues" on a Folkways record called Mountain Music Bluegrass Style, and he basically played his own version of a Bill Monroe solo on that. And Everett Lilly, who just passed away, from a group called the Lilly Brothers, he played with Flatt and Scruggs. He took the very, very simple mandolin solo on there and I got the chills when I heard it, so I decided this is what I want to do. And I went out and bought a very inexpensive Czech mandolin and went to see David [Grisman]. My hands were already developed from playing guitar and banjo, and I had an understanding of the musical language. So what he did was he said, "You have to listen to Bill Monroe, and Jim and Jesse [McReynolds], and the Osborne Brothers," and he basically gave me, intentionally or unintentionally, a course in aesthetics of music.
NEA: While you were still a teenager, you moved in a different direction from bluegrass. You became very interested in jazz.
Statman: David [Grisman] exposed me to Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti and Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt. There were country music parks with transplanted Southerners in Pennsylvania, so I'd go down to see all the musicians. I started meeting musicians, thinking of moving down to Nashville to play there, but at the same time, Richard Greene, who played with Bill Monroe, was telling me about [how] all the musicians were listening to different types of jazz-- Sonny Osborne, the Osborne Brothers, they were all telling me different names. I started going down to jazz record shops and then listening to jazz on the radio, and I started really getting interested in Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and Monk and Mingus, and my brother had some Cannonball Adderley and Jackie McLean records. At around the same time, I remember I heard, I think it was "Strawberry Fields Forever," by the Beatles, and I said, "This is incredible."
So a little before I was 17, I'd realized that, as great as the instrumental tradition is in bluegrass, the deepest emotions in bluegrass are conveyed through the singing. That's the heaviest stuff. Not that the instrumentals aren't heavy; they're great. But the singing, that's the heart of everything, in many ways. And I'm not a singer.
I'd heard Albert Ayler on the radio. It was a record called Live in Greenwich Village. It was on Vanguard. And he did this song called "The Truth is Marching In," and it was him and his brother Donald, and bass and drums and a violinist. He was exploring, at that time, almost like Eastern European folk melodies, and then sort of playing them faster and faster until they became absorbed in a pulse, in the power of the drummer playing. For a 17-year-old in 1967, it was intense and expressive.
NEA: And you began studying the saxophone?
Statman: I could've easily gotten into guitar, but I didn't want to have any of the bluegrass ideas carry over, because I'd already done that, and if I played guitar I'd have "finger memory" coming in. I wanted something completely different, and I felt that that through breathing there could be an additional avenue of expression.
As it turns out, a banjo player named Mark Horowitz, who I worked with in a number of bands in New York, his brother is someone named David Horowitz, who is a genius jazz piano player who was making the scene. I said, "I want to study saxophone. Ask your brother." And so he gave me Richard Grando's phone number, and so Richard, was who was an amazing, amazing person, said, "Okay, listen. Why don't you come out and we'll talk, and I'll see if I'll take you on as a student." So I went out to see him, and I remember the first lesson, we discussed for about an hour whether God existed or not, and then he said, "Okay, I'll take you on as a student." And that was that. And Richard was a brilliant man, a renaissance man, and he had come through the bebop scene, and he was part of what they used to call the "new thing" in jazz back then. He was, of course, very into Coltrane, also very into Sonny Rollins, and I know he had worked a little bit with Art Blakey. I became sort of almost like a houseboy there; I just spent hours there, once, twice a week, and became very close with him. And he was into Carl Jung and also some different types of religious things and music from all over the world, so this all had a big influence on me. And so, practically around that time, I started playing saxophone in rock-and-roll bands, blues bands, free-jazz bands -- whatever I could do. And occasionally I'd bring along the mandolin and adopt it to those situations. But you know, I never thought I'd be playing any sort of bluegrass again or anything like that. I thought I'd be playing some sort of saxophone-oriented music.
NEA: How did you become involved with the group Breakfast Special?
Statman: That came about around 1971. I went to college for a very short time and dropped out, and I wanted to work as a musician. Out of nowhere I got a call to play with a one of the groups -- there was a precursor to Breakfast Special called Country Cooking led by Peter Wernick. In the group were Tony Trischka and Russ Barenberg, two well-known, very innovative musicians, and they were writing their own music, playing pretty much all originals, and playing music that was bluegrass-based, but really reflecting a whole other emotional type of thing -- a very innovative band. So they hired me to do this record with them, which I did. I played the saxophone in one piece and the mandolin on others. And by this time, my mandolin playing had completely changed. It developed into the beginnings of what it is now -- it was very free and a different harmonic language than bluegrass uses, and a different rhythmic language. From there, I started getting gigs and making the scene in the Village. I needed to work. I ran into David Brandberg. I hadn't seen David in a few years. So he invited me down to play with him. He was with Columbia Records at that point. I became his first regular sideman, other than the bass player. All of a sudden, I was on salary working for a Columbia recording artist. We were traveling all over the country and he got me involved in sessions we did with Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Dr. John -- lots of different people. I always felt there was an invisible wall between amateur and professional and going on the road with him, I felt I sort of walked through that door and got to the other end. He hired two other musicians, Kenny Kosek and Roger Mason, and at some point we decided to form Breakfast Special. That was around 1971. And there I was playing mandolin again. Tony Trischka was in the group and Stacy Phillips, Jim Tolles, and Richard Crooks, a great, great drummer.
NEA: What was it that just kept drawing you into different kinds of music? What was that curiosity that just kept you moving all the time?
Statman: First of all, there was a lot of great music that was not very accessible, but if you wanted, you could find it. And this is before the whole world music thing, so there were still lots of master musicians who were unaffected by rock-and-roll and all this other stuff. Not that that's bad, but I'm just saying, you have people who represented culminations of traditions living in the five boroughs. All this music really moved me and I had in the back of my mind an idea of somehow combining all this stuff in my own way. But my first idea was just to learn how to play all this music. At the same time I started taking lessons from Harold Cumberbatch, the baritone player. He was a bebop player from Brooklyn and I was studying with him. Up until around 30, I was just studying with all sorts of different people. I was studying with Adolph Sandole, one of the Sandole brothers. I was always doing different things, studying with different people, and trying to broaden my horizons, and trying to enhance what I was doing. So at one point, I remember after Breakfast Special sort of ended, I was just playing with lots of different bands. I decided that I was getting more interested in Judaism and my own personal family background. I had found 78s of Dave Tarras and Abe Schwartz, and all these great traditional Jewish instrumentalists. I said, "You know, this music is really my heritage, particularly where my father's family comes from. If I was born there, as a musician, this is probably what I'd be playing." So I said, "Just for myself, I want to learn to play it to keep it alive."
I looked up Dave Tarras in the union book and went out to see him, and I had transcribed some of his melodies on the saxophone and mandolin, and at that point I didn't have a clarinet. He was sort of amazed that not only a person much younger than him would be interested in this music, but that I actually did this. And we hit it off, and then I got a call to go down to Nashville and play with Vassar Clements, and so I went on the road and played with Vassar, and when I came back from Nashville, I moved into Brighton. As it turned out, Dave had moved there and he said, "Come on over." And I became like a houseboy there, as well. I wanted to play on the Albert system clarinet, which is what the old-timers played, and he gave me clarinets. He had no real way of teaching. Basically I just slowed down his recordings and of other people. I'd go there and his wife would make us some tea and cookies, and stuff like that, and we'd talk. Maybe he'd want me to take him out for a haircut or to get something for him, and then, we'd sit around and talk a little bit. And then he'd take out his clarinet and play for me for about an hour, and I'd ask him some questions. I'd say, "Dave, would you do this this way?" And he'd say, "No, never this way, only this way."
In what we call klezmer music, there's an oral law of how to interpret songs, when and how to use ornamentations, and it's very logical but it can only be really learned through osmosis. It's something that can't really be written down. And so he was really helpful, and he had very strict feelings about a lot of this stuff, and very strong opinions about a lot of it. And, we became very close. I know that he'd been a very tough character in the music business, but he was, too, sort of like another grandfather to me. And he sort of wanted me to carry on for him, but not to be him. He wanted me to carry on for him in my own way. He understood musicians are individuals and the way to carry on a legacy is not to be a carbon copy of someone, but to take what that person taught you and move on from it.
I'm simultaneously a purist, and also not. There are people who I've heard who would make records and do Django Reinhart solos note for note, or Bill Monroe solos, and you can say, "Why are they doing it? It's not as good as what was improvised." On the other hand, though, they are keeping a certain aesthetic alive. They're really true to a certain aesthetic, and they're trying to keep the beauty of that thing alive. It's an important thing, because you need people who are preservationists, so to speak. And in essence, if you want to be an innovator in a style, you need to be a preservationist also, because until you can speak the stylistic language fluently, you can't really understand how to innovate in the style.
NEA: What was your first recording of klezmer music?
Statman: The first recording I did was with Zev Feldman, and back then Zev was very traditionally oriented, and what we were looking to do was to try and recreate, in our own way, what this music might have sounded like 70 years earlier, particularly if it had been in Europe. I had to have some stylistic blinders put on, because I would hear things, I would see the similarities between Junior Walker whose playing I studied, and Dave Tarras. But I had to keep it within certain boundaries, both on the clarinet and on the mandolin. There really wasn't a mandolin style of this music, and based on my understanding of the ornamentation through the clarinet playing, I developed a mandolin style to go with it. We were doing this really for ourselves. We weren't looking to revive anything. We made a decision when I came back from Nashville. I said, "I really want to do this. This music is not being played, and we should just try and keep it alive for ourselves." I never expected that it would become the focal point for me for a number of years. Also partially it was the economics of the business; the gigs I got playing klezmer music paid better and were better conditions than playing in bars with rock and roll bands or bluegrass bands. With Zev also, we basically did the first klezmer concerts in New York, and the people from Shanachie Records came down and heard us and offered us a recording contract.
NEA: Moving from the saxophone to the clarinet, what's the difference, in terms of expression and what you can do with them?
Statman: Probably because I played mandolin, I loved the wooden sound of a clarinet, and I love the feeling of a clarinet. As great as the saxophone is, there are certain emotional areas it can't cover as well as the clarinet. They're just very soulful instruments, very, very beautiful instruments -- the tone and the music that's been played on them. They can take a lot of the beautiful things that a violin does, but then do whole other things with it. In terms of playing free music on it, they're great, also. It's like if you have a tenor saxophone, you have all these other overtones you can deal with, so you can get a broader type of palette, but there's something about wind instruments that I really like, although I love the saxophone. But probably back in the nineties, I just couldn't do everything, and I realized that I sort of have to limit. So I was mainly into the clarinet then, and that's sort of what I did, and keeping the mandolin going. I go through different phases where I'm more into one instrument than the other.
NEA: You have a trio -- you've been working with a bassist and a drummer for a long time, Larry Eagle and Jim Whitney. You play at a synagogue twice a week but when you arrive there, you really don't have a set planned.
Statman: No, no. We just play. A lot of what I do is improvised, and so we just sort of see what we feel like playing at that moment, and see where it goes. It is really just a matter of the moment and how we're feeling.
I'm just interested in playing music. I can play traditionally in a number of styles, but that's not what I usually choose to do. I usually just play music and just let the music go where it goes. I have my own aesthetic, and I've developed my own languages in the traditional styles I play. Basically, I'm looking to go on some sort of, for lack of a better word, "exploration" with the music -- an emotional exploration -- and get it to the point where the music just sort of happens, and I become, in some ways, almost an observer as well. It's just another form of talking when you're improvising. And even if you're playing a song where you're not improvising much -- it's just melody -- you're still improvising in terms of how you phrase and how you're going to ornament, so everything really is improvisation.
NEA: Where is your musical curiosity taking you now?
Statman: I just find that, for myself, when I start playing, all these ideas come out, and extensions of my own language, which I record. Then I want to go back and learn, so there's a backlog of that. I'm teaching at a mandolin camp, and I'm revisiting some mandolin players who I listen to occasionally during the year, who are big influences on me, and relearning some of their stuff to teach it, and reconnecting with a lot of those feelings and those ideas and those ways of approaching music.
And at the same time, I always listen to Charlie Parker, and I've been very interested in writing songs in the older, '50s rock-and-roll style. I've been revisiting a lot of the old rock-and-roll saxophone styles -- not just Junior Walker and King Curtis, but anonymous guys on Dell Vikings' records, and things like that. These guys, the good ones, could really play. They're really basically coming out of swing and the big bands and some bebop, but they put it in a certain type of way, and it's just an incredibly fun and uplifting and beautiful way to play blues. So I've been re-exploring that, particularly using it on the mandolin, and also listening to people like old Gene Vincent things and there's an energy in that early sort of rock-and-roll, rockabilly, that's absolutely incredible -- super intense and really great. So I've been starting to write some songs influenced by that, and doing them with my band. Also, I've gotten very interested in jazz from the twenties and thirties, the way some of those solos are constructed, and their use of arpeggios and things like that. I'd always been more bebop-oriented, but there's such great color and creativity in the way these guys play. It's really amazing, and so I've been fooling around with some of that language. I'm [interested in] using those ideas as part of the well for my own music.
NEA: You teach at mandolin camp. What do you try to impart to your students?
Statman: On mandolin and on clarinet, the first thing I try and do is to get these students to realize that we're all equals, and that some may have more talent, some may have less, but it's all sort of practice, and practice is all desire. In other words, if the music moves you, then you'll have the desire to practice. And someone who may be supposedly less talented, but really practices, will eventually be more successful than someone who's maybe very talented and doesn't practice. I also try and make them not worry about mistakes. We're not computers, you know? I tell them that when I play a gig, if I start a song and I know it's not happening, I'll just stop it. I'm not playing music to torture myself for the next five minutes. If it's not happening, forget it and move on to something else. If you make a mistake, you make a mistake. It doesn't matter. I try and give them a real basis for relaxing in their playing, I try and do that continually.
I try and get them into the spirit of the music and what the music is saying, and how to make it their own, and how to get behind their own ideas. In terms of, say, klezmer music specifically, at this point I've come to feel klezmer, since it's not part of a living community, so to speak, there's no such thing as "quality control." So it's a style that can be sort of hinted at but not really played, and people will think you're really playing it. So it's a style that's very easily sort of invoked but not really played. There's a way to do it and there's a way not to do it, and this is what I learned from Dave Tarras. I feel a responsibility to teach my students how to really play it and that's a time-consuming way of doing it. The way to teach it is time-consuming, but everyone gets inspired by it, and they really learn how to do it. But it's a slow process. With traditional Jewish instrumental music, I'm looking to convey a literacy in that music, a grammatical and emotional literacy, and overall, to try have the musician feel some sort of self-confidence in their own ability to be able to play what they want to play, and not to worry about all these stupid little things, not to feel pressured. Who cares if you make a mistake? It doesn't matter. I tell my students, "The reason we're all playing is because it makes us feel good."
Photo courtest of Andy Statman
In part 2 of our conversation with Andy Statman, we follow his musical path as he blends klezmer, jazz, blues, and bluegrass into a distinctive musical voice. [37:48]
Photo by Chris Giese
In the first of two-part interview, musical wonder Andy Statman talks about his early musical career, including the importance of bluegrass for a boy born in Brooklyn. [31:04]