Last year, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) awarded a National Heritage Fellowship to Andy Statman. That’s a big deal. The Fellowship is the NEA’s top honor. It was created to recognize the recipient’s artistic excellence and to support his continuing contributions to America’s traditional arts heritage.
And past recipients are a who’s-who of iconic American artists like B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe, and on and on.
You don’t become an iconic American artist overnight.
But you don’t become an iconic American artist overnight. It takes time and practice and patience and perseverance.
And Andy Statman is all about time and practice and patience and perseverance. It’s obvious. Listen to his music. Look at his career. Look at his life. And ask him about Judaism.
Andy’s earliest musical memories are his family’s collection of 78s; an old-school mashup of show tunes, classical music, popular songs, and Jewish music (what would today be called klezmer). Shortwave radio and an encounter with WWVA out of West Virginia – Andy lived in Queens – turned him on to country music and bluegrass, inspiring him to take up an instrument. (His older brother played in a jug band, brought home bluegrass records, and was a big influence as well.) He started on guitar, switched to banjo, and by age 15 was seriously studying mandolin.
He soon started studying with David Grisman – then a young virtuoso and today recognized as one of America’s greats – and Grisman knew how to make Andy work. He made Andy transcribe hundreds of songs and solos. He listened to his playing, answered his questions, gave him pointers, offered advice, and gave him more music to transcribe and learn. Andy was ready to work, made steady progress, and started gigging around New York.
But the deepest emotions in bluegrass are conveyed through singing. And Andy wasn’t a singer. So his mind was wide open to new sounds when he heard (saxophonist) Albert Ayler on the radio. Ayler was the vanguard of late-sixties free jazz – about as out there as you could get – and his music expressed an intense primal passion and raw emotional power.
Andy was hooked and took up the saxophone. He had already mastered the hard part of music – ears, time, listening, internal hearing – so he wasn’t a beginner. But switching to a wind instrument forced him to think differently. He couldn’t rely on muscle memory; the stock positions, fingerings, and phraseology he was used to. It was a new experience.
That meant more work, learning, and intense hours in the woodshed. Daunting? Not at all. He went right to it.
Andy took a stab at college but was soon back in New York getting reacquainted with the musicians he worked with in high school. It wasn’t long before he ran into David Bromberg. Bromberg had just scored a major deal with Columbia Records and hired Andy to be in his band. He toured with Bromberg and played on sessions with the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Dr. John, Flaco Jimenez, and many others. After a few years he left Bromberg’s band to form Breakfast Special (an incredible, eclectic group - look them up).
But Andy kept learning and growing. In 1975 he was playing with Zev Feldman – another multi-instrumentalist – and they were studying music from places like Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Greece.
And that was cool, multicultural, and über hip, except that they were two Jewish guys. Wasn’t there music indigenous to the Jewish people as well?
Andy thought about the music he grew up with – the Jewish music on the old 78s his parents had around the house – that music was Jewish. And that music wasn’t getting played. It was considered dated, old, and no longer representative of a living community.
But that didn’t mean it wasn’t good. Andy remembered that it was incredible.
The Jewish music Andy’s parents listened to – called klezmer today – represents an older stream of Hassidic music and is the instrumental counterpart to Hassidic vocal music. It produces a feeling, invoked by phrasing and ornamentation, and is representative of a community in Eastern Europe living on either side of 1900. That community no longer exists and their music – at least as a vibrant and developing art form – had fizzled by 1920 or so.
But it was still great music. And for a Jewish musician living in the 1970s it was very relevant.
And so for Andy – a voracious student of traditional music – here was an opportunity to discover his own traditional music. He didn’t need to do it for a living – he was already working and in-demand – but it was a fascinating study for his growth and self-exploration.
Enter Dave Tarras. At one time Dave Tarras was the leading progenitor of Jewish music. Today he was old and living in New York in relative obscurity. Andy transcribed Dave’s music, learned how to play it, found Dave’s phone number in the musician’s union directory, and called him up.
Dave was amazed. He couldn’t believe a young musician was interested in him or his music. He thought it was finished. Andy visited Dave after a gig in Nashville. It turned out they lived ten minutes from each other and Andy became his disciple. He started playing clarinet and was now on his way to mastering klezmer, the music of early twentieth century Eastern European Jews. (Dave Tarras – with Andy’s help – made a comeback in the 1980s and was awarded an NEA National Heritage Fellowship in 1984.)
But meeting Dave Tarras and studying klezmer music wasn’t Andy’s first exposure to Judaism or Jewish culture.
Andy grew up in the Jackson Heights section of Queens. In those days Jackson Heights was a wonderfully diverse neighborhood that was one-third Jewish, Irish, and Italian. His family was your typical Jewish American family. They were Jewish, not very religious, but traditional in a 1950s-American kind of way. They had Chanukah parties and Passover Seders and a loose connection to the old world. Andy attended a local Talmud Torah – after school Jewish lessons – and although he loved the Rabbi (everyone did) for him it was still just more school, after school. And Andy wasn’t made for school. So that didn’t last and he left the Talmud Torah. For his Bar Mitzvah he memorized his Torah portion from a tape and read it in a local synagogue.
You’re a Jew
But Andy kept tabs on the Jewish world. He wasn’t opposed to it, he just didn’t know much about it. His sax teacher – Richard Grando – often talked to him about God and religion. He encouraged him to think and introduced him to Carl Jung’s concept of acausal synchronicity.
It was as if the universe was yelling, “You’re a Jew.”
The way Andy understood Jung’s synchronicity, the fact that he was Jewish wasn’t just some sort of cosmic accident. He could have been born anywhere as anything. He was born Jewish and that was who he was. His personal history was the result of everything that preceded him. It was as if the universe was yelling, “You’re a Jew.”
Might as well learn about it.
In the late sixties and early seventies he attended services at a few synagogues. But he wasn't inspired. He talked with his family’s rabbi – from the old Talmud Torah – and he convinced him to spend a full Shabbos in Crown Heights with the Lubavitch Hassidim.
And that was a lot more like it. He went back the next week and bought a pair of tefilin. He also talked with his grandfather about the family and his Jewish roots.
But Andy wasn’t one to just jump into things. When he did something he did it right, and that meant he studied, learned, and made changes slowly and pragmatically. Over the next ten years he started studying with a rabbi, stopped eating non-kosher food, stopped watching TV on Shabbos, and slowly immersed himself in the Jewish world.
He looked at it like immigrating to a new country. The externals of a Jewish lifestyle are nice, but immersion in the system requires adapting to a completely alien culture. Orthodox Jews look different, think different, see things differently, approach things differently, and you can’t just adapt all that at once. It takes patience, study, discipline, and perseverance.
In 1980 Andy and Zev released Jewish Klezmer Music, an amazing collection of duets featuring Andy on clarinet and mandolin and Zev on the dulcimer tsimbl.
The album was huge.
Klezmer was indigenous Jewish music and they went at it with a vengeance.
Andy and Zev weren’t the only people interested in klezmer, and their album – along with a few others – opened a Pandora ’s box. After years of assimilation, America’s thirty-something, eighties-era Jews were self-confident in their Americanness and not afraid to explore their ethnic heritage. Klezmer was indigenous Jewish music and they went at it with a vengeance. Some groups were preservationist and recreated – to a T – the sounds from the old 78s. Others, like John Zorn and his radical Jewish culture, used klezmer as a Jewish starting point for adventures in jazz, punk, and the avant-garde. But regardless of approach, a klezmer revival was underway.
Not that Andy was interested in a revival. A revival implied the resurrection of a dead art. Klezmer wasn't dead, it was great music rooted in a deep spiritual language. It was the instrumental counterpart to the music of the Hassidim. The goal of the original musicians – back in Europe – was to rip your kishkas out, to bring you back to God. And maybe that explained why so many people – religious, secular, Jewish, or not – were drawn to it, even after the "revival" became more about Yiddish culture and less about the music per se.
Jewish Klezmer Music was a traditional album. Andy was careful to stick to the language created in the early nineteen hundreds. For him it was a cultural study and an opportunity to explore his roots. He didn’t expect it to go further than that. But the album took off and the music was challenging and fun to play. People wanted to listen to it (and it didn’t hurt that klezmer gigs paid better and offered better working conditions than playing bluegrass in bars).
Pushing the Boundaries
His next few albums broke from the traditional mold. Andy’s music, while still rooted in klezmer, pushed the traditional boundaries and embraced the free improvisatory elements of John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, and others. His album, Between Heaven and Earth, used old Hassidic melodies as a springboard for this type of improvisation. It was his crowning achievement in this style and the New York Times hailed it as one of the top ten albums of 1997.
And Andy’s exploration of Jewish music loosely paralleled his growth as a Jew. By the mid-eighties he was no longer working on Shabbos. He was studying the Talmud, kept kosher, and moved to Flatbush. He looked, dressed, acted, and in every way was a Torah observant orthodox Jew.
In the late nineties he went back to bluegrass. Although he never stopped playing mandolin, he left the bluegrass scene when he got into Jewish music in the late seventies. After his explorations in jazz and Hassidic music, he turned his focus back to American roots music.
And many of the bluegrass musicians he worked with knew him for years, from long before he adapted the lifestyle and look of an orthodox Jew. What did they think of his transformation?
They loved it.
Andy’s integrity and slow, realistic embrace of Orthodox Judaism is a testament to his sincerity. It is obvious that his journey is real, personal, and rational. Like his music, Andy is the real deal.
Great musicians want to work with Andy. They are drawn to his soul. And his dedication to Judaism only makes it shine brighter.
What does Andy think about being an NEA National Heritage Fellow? “I took it all in stride until I got to DC and the Library of Congress and realized what a big deal it was,” Andy said. “I was up there with people I have know for years like Flaco Jiménez and Mike Auldridge. And I was added to a list that included people like B.B. King and John Lee Hooker. That was pretty heavy.”
Of course it was heavy. The NEA’s National Heritage Fellowship is a recognition of excellence. And excellence is a quality that transcends mere virtuosity.
And chances are the NEA was drawn to Andy’s soul as well.