The king of the klezmer collectors
Professor’s stellar collection of vintage 78s helped jumpstart a musical renaissance
| 12 March 2003
No one has ever called Martin Schwartz a trendy man.
An expert in ancient Central Asian languages (Avestan, Sogdian, Khwarezmian, and others) and the poetry of the ancient Iranian prophet Zoroaster, the Near Eastern Studies scholar has spent his free time, for more than a quarter century, searching seedy shops and cobwebbed attics for vintage recordings hailing from Eastern Europe to Central Asia. “I like old stuff,” he puts it simply.
Schwartz has long devoted himself to what others deemed obscure. In the process, he has revealed hidden stylistic dimensions of Zoroaster’s poetry; discovered the roots of words in many languages (including, in English, “door,” “fork,” and “xeno” as in xenophobia); identified the origins of Iranian Christian texts found in western China; traced musical connections between Greece and Eastern Europe; and helped spearhead an international revival of the Jewish folk music known as klezmer.
A serious collector
It was in the early 1960s — when Fabian, Fats Domino, and Elvis were all the rage — that Schwartz, then an undergraduate at City College of New York, first visited record shops in New York City in search of traditional music of the kind he’d heard at home as a child. His mother — a Russian immigrant who’d been orphaned as a child and took to singing as a psychological survival mechanism — “was a superb Yiddish singer in the folk style,” Schwartz recalls. “I wanted to hear some of that music again.”
His first finds led to more and more, and by the early ’70s he was a serious collector of the upbeat Eastern European instrumental music of Yiddish-speaking Jews — traditional klezmer music that after World War II had little following in America — as well as Greek, Turkish, Armenian, Arabic, Sephardic, and Ladino recordings dating from the early 20th century.
Forays in search of historically and musically interesting recordings took Schwartz — first as a Berkeley PhD student, then as a faculty member — to dozens of thrift stores and to shops like Jack’s Record Cellar in San Francisco.
Professor Martin Schwartz will present a free public lecture, “Klezmer Music: Roots and Shoots,” at 6 p.m., Wednesday, March 19, at San Francisco Public Library’s main branch, at Civic Center.
The talk is part of the 18th Annual Jewish Music Festival, March 22 to 29, presented by the Berkeley/Richmond Jewish Community Center. Also on the schedule is a concert, produced in association with the Berkeley campus’s Jewish Studies Program, featuring the Klezmatics, with a special guest appearance by singer Holly Near. That event is at 8 p.m., Saturday, March 29, in Wheeler Auditorium. For tickets or information, see www.brjcc.org or call (925) 866-9559.
Farther afield, he picked up recordings in Europe and in ethnic enclaves of U.S. cities. In Detroit’s Greek Town, he was granted access to the basement of an obscure specialty shop for several hours of “dirty and delicate work” combing through old recordings. (“A dangling light bulb,” a mynah bird stuck on the greeting “Hello, Johnny,” and an obstacle course of piled-up crockery “devilishly unbalanced; a breath would knock them over” figure into his account of that adventure.)
Schwartz typically paid dimes and quarters for a disc; there wasn’t a lot of competition. Familiarity with Yiddish, Greek, Turkish, and Hebrew made him “a wizard at deciphering 78-rpm disc labels,” writes Lev Liberman, co-founder of the Berkeley-based musical group The Klezmorim, in an online tribute to the man he says “changed my life.”
Inspiring a revival
That band was one of several pioneering groups in the early 1970s whose interest in exploring Jewish “roots” music coincided with Schwartz’ own. At the time “there were no published discographies of klezmer 78s, and no cassette or LP reissues of pre-1930 klezmer instrumental music,” writes Liberman. “For me and the band, Marty’s collection was El Dorado.”
As word circulated about Schwartz’ collection — hundreds of vintage recordings, including rare releases from pre-Holocaust Europe — musicians visited his home for all-night listening sessions, or learned tunes from compilations he made available on several CD reissues. Because he knew the Yiddish folk style and was familiar with so many old recordings, Schwartz, though not a musician himself, could coach players on subtleties of klezmer performance, suggesting how to phrase the music and where to put ornamentation.
With such assistance as inspiration, a handful of local musicians helped spawn an international revival of klezmer — which, to the surprise of Schwartz and his pioneering colleagues, is still going strong. “There are jillions of groups playing this stuff,” he says with amazement.
Many have brought elements from other musical styles into the traditional klezmer repertoire, with mixed success, Schwartz believes. “I like new things if done well, from a place of knowledge,” he says. Meanwhile, one can discern klezmer and other Yiddish influences in the work of many popular, jazz, and avant-garde artists, from Benny Goodman and Cab Calloway to Branford Marsalis and the Squirrel Nut Zippers.
Today Schwartz continues to lecture on klezmer music and on his theory, now widely accepted, that klezmer has various interrelationships with Greek musical genres, most notably the old, urban, working-class style known as rebetika. His legendary collection — believed to be the largest privately held cache of traditional klezmer, Greek, and Turkish recordings in the country — is now, for Schwartz, “a social thing,” something to share with friends, rather something he’s adding to. “I envy my earlier period, when it was all new,” he says wistfully. “It gets harder and harder to find interesting things.”
The economics of collecting have grown less favorable as well. A while back Schwartz spoke with one of his old sources, a storekeeper on 5th Avenue in New York City, about procuring klezmer recordings.
“The guy said ‘Forget it. As soon as it comes in, it goes out,’” he recalls. “They now have auction lists for the stuff.” A search on eBay turns up dozens of klezmer-related items for sale, from CDs and graphic-art prints to books of chord changes for musicians gigging at weddings and bar mitzvahs.
Klezmer, it turns out, has become popular again, in part thanks to Schwartz’s exploration of history’s dustbins and the junk stores of several continents.