Frank London Part One

Frank London talks hyphenated Jewish-American identities, klezmer as the bridge between East and West, and the synergistic parallels between Hasidic nigunim and the music of Albert Ayler

You can’t discuss the last half century of Jewish music without mentioning trumpeter, bandleader, and composer, Frank London, who’s had a hand in, seemingly, everything

London was a founding member of the Klezmer Conservatory Band—a group that grew from a single student concert at the New England Conservatory in 1980—and which became a major force during the early days of the klezmer revival. He was a founding member—again—a few years later, of the boundary-pushing, Grammy Award-winning ensemble, the Klezmatics, just as the revival was hitting its more experimental second wave. In the 1990s, he cofounded Hasidic New Wave with saxophonist, Greg Wall, which is a band that reimagines Hasidic nigunim in the context of improvisatory spiritual jazz. In more recent years, he’s worked as a member of Jon Madof’s Fela-Kuti-meets-Shlomo-Carlebach Jewish flavored afrobeat group, Zion80, as well as his own group, the Klezmer Brass Allstars. 

And that’s just scratching the surface.

London has performed, collaborated, toured, directed, composed, and performed in myriad projects with artists as diverse as David Byrne, LL Cool J, Mel Tormé, John Zorn, and on and on; not to mention his experiences playing countless weddings, bar mitzvahs, sessions, and basically anything that comes his way. 

“I am a working class musician, and the emphasis is on the word work,” he says. “You have to make a living, and trust me, it is a lot more fun for Frank London to make a living playing music than it is to work in a department store or an office. I’d go crazy. Starting in high school I was playing jobs.”

But London doesn’t just show up and play the gig. Over the years, he’s become an invaluable repository of lore. He knows the stories—usually firsthand—backstories, and histories of the musicians and movements that constitute the contemporary Jewish scene. He also has a deep, functional, academic-like grasp of the concepts, theories, traditions, and details that inform the last two centuries-plus of Jewish music. 

Needless to say, speaking with him was a blast, and we covered so much ground, I decided to split the interview into two parts (I’ll post part two in a few weeks). Here in part one, we discuss his early history and first exposure to Jewish music, and how, for him, that wasn’t about reaffirming his hyphenated Jewish-American identity; the fascinating history of klezmer music as a border music, and how he considers it a true synthesis of East and West; and his initial exposure to Hasidic weddings and how that led, eventually, to the birth Hasidic New Wave. 

How did you end up at the New England Conservatory? 

I grew up in Plainview, Long Island. I graduated high school in 1976, and I always played music, mostly rock ’n’ roll. I was a trumpet player, so obviously any rock band that had a horn in it interested me. You had bands like Chicago and Blood Sweat and Tears, but I found them corny. I always liked music that had an edge. There was a Dutch band called Ekseption, and also bands like Mandrill, Lydia Pence and Cold Blood—all these kinds of groups. Also all the psychedelic hippie stuff and prog rock. Anything that was a little creative and little bit edgy. I was very much into King Crimson and Frank Zappa. All sorts of things.

I would play all that stuff, but in my last year or two of high school, I took over my high school radio station, which was kind of a joke. I would DJ and I ran it, and somehow it allowed me to be on the mailing list from different record companies who would send different promo records to us. I ended up being on a promo list for a label called Strata East Records, which was a short-lived Brooklyn-based African American creative music cooperative lead by Charles Tolliver and Stanley Cowell. They sent me a whole bunch of their records. Anything weird interested me and Strata East had a lot of progressive jazz. There was one record called Sound Awareness by a guy named Brother Ah. His name had been Robert Northern, and he changed his name. He was a young virtuoso African American French horn player. He’s on the Monk at Town Hall record. He’s on the Coltrane Africa Brass record. He’s the French horn player in the original Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra. He’s a very known guy. He developed this concept known as “sound awareness,” and I listened to this weird record. It was pretty damn obscure. 

Then I went to college. I went to Brown University, and lo and behold—and this is just how the 1970s were—Brother Ah was on the faculty teaching Sound Awareness. Of course I took Sound Awareness with Brother Ah and it really opened my mind up to improvisation. To make a long story short, I realized all I really wanted to do was music. Brown University was a great place to be a scholar, but not really to learn music. Other than Brother Ah’s course, it wasn’t the right place to be. I decided to go to Boston. I auditioned for the New England Conservatory (NEC), and got rejected. I moved to Boston anyway, and started taking classes at NEC, even though I wasn’t enrolled. I was what they called a non-matriculated student. I was paying them money, but I wasn’t getting credits. Somewhere in the middle of the semester I played a bureaucratic game with the head of the department—he was a sweetheart but not the most rigid guy—and basically he signed some papers and “poof!” I was enrolled at NEC. 

Did you get interested in Jewish music at NEC, and was that through the Klezmer Conservatory Band?

Yes, but I have to mention three things to get to that point. There was nothing about Jewish music that interested me from my growing up. I grew up as what I consider a very religious Jew. I grew up as a religious Reform Jew. I drove with my family to Sabbath services every Friday night—not Saturday—and we lit candles, drove home, had a Sabbath meal, and then lived our life. We did every holiday. As I’ve said many times in interviews, on Passover I ate my normal ham and cheese sandwich on matzo, because I am a Jew and Jews don’t eat bread on Passover. If you know about Reform Judaism without judging it, that is not a contradiction. According to the structure of Reform Judaism, they did things their way, so I grew up as a very religious suburban Reform Jew. 

But that also means there wasn’t a lot of Yiddishkeit. There wasn’t a lot of cultural Judaism. My identity is Jewish. My religion is Jewish—not halachic [or legal, or orthodox] Judaism—that all comes later, but there wasn’t a lot of cultural Judaism. 

Also, when I was 14 or 15 years old, I started going to music camp in the summers—the Lighthouse Art and Music camp in Pennsylvania—and who was the teacher and the big band director? Hankus Netsky. Even though he’s only a few years older than me—I think at most three or four years older than me—he’s been my teacher since I was about 14. He was my teacher at Lighthouse Art and Music camp. When I got to NEC and I was studying in both the Afro-American Department [now called Jazz studies] and also the Third Stream Department [now called Contemporary Improvisation], he was my teacher there. He’s been a presence, and it was at that time that he was just getting interested in exploring his family’s Jewish music. That was around 1977.

The final thing is that when I got to NEC—and into Boston in general—is that I was exposed to every kind of music in the world. Everything other than rock ’n’ roll: jazz, classical music, Haitian music. I played in the Haitian band Volo Volo de Boston. I played in a salsa merengue band. Balkan music, gradual process music, music for dance, music for theater, just everything. Music blew my mind. I co-founded two bands, too, one called Les Misérables Brass Band, which is a brass band playing all the world’s brass band music, and another called Ensemble Garuda, which was dedicated to studying free group improvisation in the techniques of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the AACM (the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), Steve Lacy, Earle Brown, and Sun Ra.

I went from having a very sheltered cultural existence to the hugest one imaginable, so when Hankus Netsky said that there’s going to be a Jewish music concert. “I am putting together an ensemble and would you like to play.” I said, “Sure.” Not because it was Jewish, but because I would say yes to everything. That was my philosophy, just say yes. I was in that concert, and the group that played two or three songs at that concert became the Klezmer Conservatory Band. It’s not like I got into klezmer because of the Klezmer Conservatory Band. It was that we were all there when Hankus had this idea. We didn’t realize that it was going to become a band. We just played these three songs in a concert. 

That got me into it, and I have to say, I did not have the feeling, "Oh my God, this is my people’s music. I have found my home.” Other musicians might say things like that. I said something different. I said, “This is a really great music. I didn’t know this existed before.” We’re talking about these old recordings of this music from 1907 to 1930 or so. Although I have to say, as a white Jewish Long Islander playing every kind of music in the world, there was something nice to know that indeed my people—whatever that meant—or my ancestor’s music, was also good music, and that it stood up with all the other world musics. I was glad that we weren’t the only people on earth who had no great music. 

You’re saying that your interest in Jewish music was that this was just another cool music. It was a nice feeling that it was Jewish or yours, but it wasn’t a way to express your identity or to find your people or a way to be authentic. For you, it was none of those things. 

Absolutely. On hundred percent. This is very important to me. In the world now—jumping ahead 40-plus years—in this world we live in today, with all these identity politics questions. I believe our identities are much broader than any one thing. I believe our identities are huge and made up of so many elements. Some that we’re born with. Some we acquire. Some that are put upon us. Some that are practical. Some that are mystical. We are very broad people. 

For me, I believe that through 40 years of growth and exploration of Jewish music—which is what I’ve been doing for 40 years among other things—it has changed my identity. It has certainly enriched my cultural and historical knowledge of my people. But of course I could say the same thing about my studies of Brazilian music, except I wouldn’t use the words, “My people.” But it also enriched and changed my practice of Judaism. That’s a very particular thing, in that the Judaism my kids grow up with is not the Judaism I grew up with, because it has a cultural component. It’s also got a very different musical component. It’s got a different spiritual component. It certainly changed. But it’s not that it touched me and said, “This is the answer to your questions,” or, “This is who you are.” But the more I learned it, the more I could grow with it. 

When I interviewed Cookie Segelstein from Veretski Pass, she mentioned that her bandmate, Joshua Horowitz, felt that a more accurate way to describe the scales used in klezmer would be akin to the makams used in Arabic music, as opposed to calling them scales or modes. [Editor: actually, she was referring to using names akin to makams as opposed to using Jewish religious terms. Oops. At least the misquote led to an interesting discussion.] Similarly, when I interviewed Mark Eliyahu, who originally comes from Dagestan, we spoke about the makams, as well as Persian classical music. I looked up Dagestan on the map, and it borders Ukraine, which is the heart of Eastern European Jewry. It’s as if these seemingly alien worlds are right next to each other.  

We’ll get to geography in a second, but historically the Ottoman Empire—at its largest—dominated so much of the world where klezmer and Yiddish music developed. The Ottoman Empire brought with it Ottoman music, which is based on Arabic classical music, or the makam system. Certainly all that stuff inundated to a greater or lesser degree, depending on where you were, but Ottoman influence is huge. So absolutely, by studying makams you learn so much about klezmer. The way I phrase it, which is a little different or augmented, is if you look at the map—and this goes with what you were saying—if you look at the entire Pale of Settlement, you see that it was the border between East and West. Between so-called Oriental and Occidental—to use these very problematic terms.

If we overly simplify, but with some accuracy, the music of the East—of the Arabic Ottoman world—is based on this makam system. And if we overly simplify, but again with a lot of truth, the music of the West—even all Western classical music—is based on Western folk music. It is a harmonic music based on major and minor scales, or what we think of as Western functional harmony. What I love about klezmer, is that klezmer has both, because it is a border music. You look on the map and you are right on the border between East and West. 

I can show both. Some are clearly Eastern and makam based, and therefore the idea of harmonizing them—to use a current term—it’s like cultural appropriation almost, to take this melody and put chord changes to it. It’s like the West trying to dominate the East. You can call it a type of colonialism. But if you look at other aspects of klezmer music, usually from the areas closer to Germany, Czech, Moravia—and Moravia is a very interesting place as a cradle of klezmer music—you have music that is much more diatonic, harmonic, and according to Western systems. As the music evolves in different places, different people take it in directions that go more one way than the other. 

But that is only one part of the picture. The picture is beautifully complex, because it is a border and you have East and West. You have modal systems, and scalar harmonic systems.

Is the makam system modal? 

Makams are modes. Makams are a modal system just as raga is an Indian modal system. That means it’s not only about scales, but it’s about the way melodies move within the scales. It’s about the intonation, and it’s really not about harmony. Often in Arabic orchestra music everyone is playing monophonic—or homophonically—they are playing one big melody all together. It’s not about chords. 

For me, the nut I haven’t cracked yet, is where does Ashkenazi cantorial music come from—meaning the modes and the nature of the performance. Listen to an old European cantor from 100 years ago, and the listen to an Islamic religious singer, the muezzin, which is the person doing the call to prayer. 

The muezzin sings in different makams for different times of day or different prayers and on different holidays. There are hundreds of makams and there is a different makam for each. It’s a highly developed system, and the muezzin sings the makam for that time of day, or that day of the week, or that time of the year. Doesn’t that sound like classic nusach? The nusach for mincha is different from ma’ariv. The same prayer has a different nusach for the time of day and certainly if it is on a holiday.

These philosophies and ideas are really related. In fact, the names of the klezmer modes—there are five predominantly klezmer modes (we can argue if there are between three and seven)—and they have a number of names. But one of the names for each of these modes is the name of a prayer. For example, the mode, Ahava Raba, we have to assume that there was a time that when you chanted the Ahava Raba prayer, that you probably chanted it using that particular mode. Why else would they call that mode, Ahava Raba? Nowadays, the Ahava Raba prayer is chanted to melodies in all modes and scales; people don’t respect classic nusach the way they used to. But this idea of the association of prayer, time of day, spirituality, and modality is common between Jewish practice and Arabic practice. The connections are deep.

In addition to playing all this Jewish music, do you have a parallel career playing jazz?

Yes, no, yes, no. I am a musician. I have a parallel career playing music. I divide the music I play and write, and the music I am involved with into two kinds: music that has a genre and music that doesn’t have a genre. When you’re playing music in a genre, it’s like speaking a language, you have to know the rules of that genre. You have to know what they are. You have to study, and know how to do that. When you’re playing music without a genre, like in all music, you have to try to be in it. Keeping things divided like that is important to me in my artistic process, so when I am studying something, I want to understand how it works.

Did Hasidic New Wave grow out of you and Greg Wall playing a lot of Hasidic weddings? 

Greg and I overlap a lot. We played together in Boston, not a lot, but we really played together in New York. He was also starting to explore Jewish music in a different way in Boston. 

Here’s the story. For me, I always want to go back to the beginning and tell the narrative. I grew up Jewish on Long Island. I am a working class person and I am a working class musician—and the emphasis is on the word work. You have to make a living, and trust me, it is a lot more fun for Frank London to make a living playing music than it is to work in a department store or an office. I’d go crazy. Starting in high school I was playing jobs. I played bar mitzvahs and weddings. I also played church services and all sorts of things. I know lots of repertoire and I know American music. I play secular weddings, Christian weddings, Jewish weddings, and I always have. As we started the Klezmer Conservatory Band around 1980, we started getting called to play at weddings and parties, or simchas, although I didn’t know that word back then, but now I do. And now I have a new repertoire that can be played at these events, which is the klezmer repertoire. But you have to realize that by 1980, klezmer was not organically a part of anyone’s Jewish ritual. Klezmer had stopped being a part of weddings and bar mitzvahs somewhere in the early or mid-1960s. Starting in the 1950s and 60s, Israeli music and Shlomo Carlebach’s music became the Jewish music that would be played at American Jewish simchas. But klezmer music was not part of it. As I found out, there were little traces of klezmer from the older musicians who had been doing it continuously. They weren’t dead yet, and in general, it’s a spectrum.

Accordions and clarinets were out, and rock instrumentation was in.

Let’s be specific: the clarinet players were now playing mostly sax, but when they played the horas—the first big circle dance—even if they were playing Israeli music, they would use clarinet for that. If you listen to that Israeli music—and this is a whole other discussion—but that Israeli music took, among other elements, Eastern European klezmer music, and changed it to make it Israeli. But they kept certain signifiers, and the clarinet is a signifier in that music. When you pick up a clarinet, it’s a signifier, “We are Jews.”

There was a cultural revival based on the idea of identity politics in the U.S. in the 1970s. What became called “hyphenated-Americans.” “I’m an Afro-American (that’s the term they used at the time).” “I am a Jewish-American.” “I am an Irish-American.” “I am a hyphenated-American.” The idea was to embrace your people’s cultural heritage and learn your history. It was based on Alex Haley’s book and TV show, Roots. Finding your roots. When the klezmer revival came out, all these assimilated American Jews said, “This is the music of my parents or grandparents.” The older ones said, “I remember that music from when I was a kid.” If you were an assimilated American Jew—Reform, Conservative, non-observant, and some Orthodox, too—and you wanted your simcha to sound more “traditional” or more “authentic” or more “Jewish,” you would get a klezmer band. There weren’t very many, so you would get us. 

By the time I moved to New York, not only had I played hundreds, if not thousands, of American Jewish weddings where we’d mostly play American music with a few of these Israeli and Carlebach tunes. I’d also played hundreds, if not thousands, of klezmer weddings where we’d play this regenerated klezmer repertoire. But I’d never played a hasidic wedding, because that is a different musical tradition that I hadn’t been exposed to. I come to New York, and one thing leads to another, and I get onto a hasidic wedding. I go to this wedding, and they started playing. They don’t have music—everyone knows the music—and I don’t know one song. Not one. They’re playing Hasidic music, and I didn’t even know “Od Yishama.” 

Nothing?

Why would I? I had never been to an Orthodox wedding as a guest or as a musician. I didn’t know any of this. The other musicians are all looking at me like, “We thought you said you know how to do Jewish weddings?” I was like, “Yes, I do, I’ve done thousands of Jewish weddings, and none of them were this.” That was a funny moment. But then what do you do? You learn. There’s no secret. I went to another one as an unpaid member, and I brought my trumpet and a tape recorder and I taped the whole thing. Then I transcribed every song from that wedding and I wrote it in a book. I learned and then I could play a Hasidic wedding. I forget how, but then Greg and I both started playing with the Piamenta Brothers, and that taught us all sorts of Jewish music, and it kept on expanding. By now I’ve played 10,000 Hasidic weddings and Orthodox weddings. I know the difference between a Satmar repertoire and Lubavitch and others. 

To make a long story short, Greg and I loved the energy of a Hasidic wedding, because the people went nuts. We were used to American Jewish weddings, which were normal. People dance, did rock ’n’ roll, and sang “We Are Family.” Very staid. But at a Hasidic wedding, people are running in circles and getting drunk and throwing things and everyone’s singing. It had all the things. Just like discovering klezmer taught me what was hip about Jewish music, seeing a Hasidic wedding brought me into Hasidic teachings, and the spirituality, and into the learning.

But their aesthetics were terrible. The aesthetics of that world are horrible, and they would just do the corniest things. Greg and I had this realization, “How can we take these wonderful Hasidic nigunim and the wonderful energy—which is like punk rock energy—of hasidic weddings, and the spiritual intensity, and do that with our knowledge of aesthetics, improvisation, and group playing? How can we put it together?” That’s how we got into Hasidic New Wave. 

Every project I’ve done—because there are so many musics in the world and there are so many reasons for doing music and there are so many ways—there’s concerts, simchas, political protest, dance events, theaters, recordings, movie scores, there are so many things to make music for and each one has its own purpose. There are so many types of music, too. To say “Jewish music” is like a joke because there are a million types of Jewish music, like I learned when I learned that I didn’t know anything about one of them. But with any kind of music, with almost everything I do, I make a little box and it has walls and it has fences. It has a definition. I think, “Theoretically and philosophically, what am I doing in this project?” Then I might end up breaking all my own rules, but I at least know what those rules are. It helps me explore and it keeps everything from coming mashed up and the same. 

Stay tuned for part two of our conversation with Frank London.

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