NYFS logo    tagline
 Pinto Guira making guiramaking a mandalaplaying mandolin

Voices Fall-Winter 2012:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “Andy Statman: National Heritage Fellow — Innovating across Musical Worlds” by Pete Rushefsky here.
JOIN the New York Folklore Society today to receive Voices.

FW 2012


Volume 38

Andy Statman - National Heritage Fellow - Innovating across Musical Worlds - By Pete Rushefsky

This past October, the National Endowment for the Arts bestowed our nation’s highest honor in the field of folk and traditional arts on Brooklyn resident Andy Statman.

Even prior to his NEA recognition, Statman has long been one of the most celebrated traditional musicians in the United States. A virtuoso on clarinet and mandolin who has long been at the vanguard of both Jewish music and bluegrass, Statman was one of the most important instigators of klezmer’s revitalization, a movement that began in the late 1970s. For many years, he was recognized internationally as klezmer’s leading virtuoso. As his music shifted from klezmer—a secular form tinged with religious gestures—towards a creative engagement with the more overtly religious Hasidic music, the move had a profound impact on the field of Jewish music.

Since the award’s inception in 1982, the National Heritage Fellowship program has recognized leading American masters who provide “continuing contributions to our nation’s traditional arts heritage” (www.nea.gov/ honors/heritage). Typically, these artists have learned their craft through apprenticeships with an older generation of tradition bearers, and are looked to by their communities to provide artistic expressions that facilitate community cohesion. On all of these terms, Statman certainly is deserving of a place next to the roughly 300 artists recognized before him.

However, in other ways, Statman’s award represents something new—a sort of validation of a very contemporary breed of traditional musician. Statman came to the genres that he is best known for—klezmer and Hasidic music—when he was in his mid-20s and 30s, through a series of transformative musical experiences and a journey of personal discovery. Statman is not the first Fellow to have arrived via a musical roots journey—fiddler Michael Doucet (recognized by the NEA in 2007) began studying Cajun music in his mid-20s, also, through an NEA Apprenticeship grant.

To a greater degree than any other Heritage Fellow recognized in the past, Statman has built a career as a genre-pushing, musical polyglot. The NEA website heralds Statman’s oeuvre with these words: “The culmination of decades of creative development, his music expands the boundaries of traditional and improvisational forms.” Indeed, it would be hard to find a better representative of the creative possibilities for music offered by New York City over the last half-century than Andy Statman.

Since his early teens, Statman has shown an incredible knack for seeking out preeminent teachers and assimilating their instruction. He grew up in the heart of two “back to the roots,” or perhaps one might say, “forward through the roots” musical movements with hubs in New York City—contemporary bluegrass and the klezmer revival. Added to this was a significant immersion in jazz and shorter apprenticeships in a variety of other genres, including Caucasian and Greek music.

However, for this author, the most remarkable aspect of Statman’s music is not its cosmopolitan eclecticism but rather its judicious restraint. Whether klezmer or bluegrass, traditional or contemporary, Statman has an acute sensibility for the boundaries of the tradition. But boundaries do not constrain his music; rather, his prodigious musicality allows him to explore their full range, and perhaps, as the NEA asserts, expand them.

Andy Statman was born in 1950 and grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens. His parents were both born in the US; however, many older immigrant relatives lived nearby. His father’s father, who came to America from Pruskurov (now Khmelnytskyi, Ukraine), lived with them until Andy was seven. This exposed Statman to an extended immigrant family that was proud of their new American identity.

Andy Statman
Andy Statman. Photo: ©2009, Bradley Klein, www.twangbox.com

His mother supplied a formidable musical lineage—a line of cantors who Statman can trace back to 18th-century Poland, from Tomaszów Mazowiecki, a small city in central Poland. In the New World, several members of this family became prominent entertainers. His grandfather’s first cousins, Willie and Eugene Howard (originally Lefkowitz), were two of the first openly Jewish stars of Vaudeville and Broadway, hugely talented actors who became involved in the nascent talking pictures industry. Another cousin, Sammy Fain (originally Feinberg), was a renowned Academy-award winning composer for movies and popular music, and Sammy’s brother, Harry Fain, was an accomplished violinist and arranger.

Music played an important role in the Statman household. Statman’s parents shared a love of music with their children and frequently played records spanning Broadway, big band, classical, jazz, and early rock ‘n’ roll. They owned a few Jewish records as well, of artists like clarinetist/comedian Mickey Katz and Abe Schwartz’s klezmer ensemble.

Statman’s brother Jimmy, eight years older, was a guitarist and harmonica player who became involved in the city’s old-time music scene. As Jimmy began to listen to Dave Van Ronk and the New Lost City Ramblers, the younger sibling’s ears piqued.

Andy Statman is quite precise in recalling music that influenced him. He remembers being captivated by a compilation of regional bluegrass produced by Mike Seeger for Folkways, as well as specific recordings by the Greenbriar Boys and the Country Gentlemen.

Around 1963, Statman started taking up bluegrass banjo, learning from Julian “Winnie” Winston, recognized then as New York’s premier banjoist (Winston would go on to serve a short stint in 1965 with Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys). In between lessons, Statman would play for hours at Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, where one could encounter a number of simultaneous jam sessions—bluegrass, old-time, singer/songwriter, etc.—juxtaposed around the park’s ever-broken central fountain.

Andy Statman with country music star Ricky Skaggs at the Derech Amuno Synagogue in
Greenwich Village
Andy Statman with country music star Ricky Skaggs at the Derech Amuno Synagogue in Greenwich Village. Photo: ©2007, Bradley Klein, www.twangbox.com

Soon, he was seduced by the recordings of mandolinists—particularly, Everett Lilly and Curly Seckler of Flatt and Scruggs’s band, as well as singer/mandolinist Earl Taylor. These were musicians who had taken inspiration from Bill Monroe’s mandolin style, but managed to create their own sound.

One evening in spring 1965, Jimmy Statman was playing at a “hoot” (hootenanny, or folk music party) at Hunter College, which Andy attended. It was there he first met mandolinist David Grisman, then an NYU student and playing with the Garrett Mountain Boys (the band took its name from a mountain near Grisman”s hometown of Passaic, New Jersey). A protégé of mandolinist Frank Wakefield and folklorist/musician Ralph Rinzler, Grisman was “living the bluegrass life”—at age 21, he was performing regularly with Red Allen and the Kentuckians (Wakefield’s old group).

Grisman owned an extensive archive of 78s, 45s, and 33s, as well as tapes of live shows, and he took Statman under his wing. In addition to recordings, Grisman would provide Statman with an aesthetic sensibility, steering him towards recordings of Monroe and Wakefield. Grisman would send the younger musician home with recordings of mandolin breaks to learn, instructing him to “call when he got stumped.” Statman worked through each, lick by lick, using a tape player that could play at half speed. It was tedious at first, but soon he became proficient at using the machine to reconstruct what he heard on the recordings in minute detail—discerning whether Monroe or Wakefield had used seven or nine strokes in a tremolo!

Attendance at live shows played an important part in Staman’s growth as a bluegrass musician. When he was 15–16 years old, he would meet a group of older, collegiate bluegrass aficionados (including banjo player Peter Wernick) on Canal Street, and they would drive out to venues in the hinterlands of New Jersey and Pennsylvania that regularly presented major bluegrass acts. Stages like the Starlight Bar and Grill in Manville, New Jersey, and the outdoor Sunset Park in Chester County, Pennsylvania, catered to displaced Southerners and truck drivers. One of Statman’s first paid gigs came in 1965 at a country music bar on Long Island frequented by a similar clientele of Southern transplants; he played that night with banjoist Tony Trischka and guitarist Joel Diamond.

By 1967, Statman had reached a point where he felt he had mastered the canon of bluegrass mandolin. At the time, he believed that the “heaviest” part of bluegrass’s sound was expressed through singing, and he felt limited by not being a singer. He was also hearing new sounds on the radio, including music by the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and the world of jazz. In particular, he was excited by free jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler. Soon, Statman was inspired to learn sax with Richard Grando, a leading figure in New York’s avant garde jazz scene.

In 1970, he was invited to join a progressive bluegrass band, based in Ithaca, called Country Cookin’, which featured Trischka and Wernick on banjo, guitarist Russ Barenberg, fiddler Kenny Kosek, and bassist John Miller. Soon after, he joined David Bromberg’s bluegrass band that was touring nationally. Next, he became a member of Breakfast Special, a group that incorporated musicians from the former two bands and played dates up and down the East Coast’s growing bluegrass festival circuit.

Cover of Jewish Klezmer Music, released by Shanachie Records in 1978.
Cover of Jewish Klezmer Music, released by Shanachie Records in 1978. Original photo of Zev Feldman and Andy Statman by Wren De Antonio used in cover design. Courtesy of Shanachie Records.

Now a wind player as well as a mandolinist, Statman’s ears opened to the sounds of the City’s rich ethnic musics. In addition to revisiting the klezmer records that his parents owned, Statman would borrow recordings from the library, listening to music from around the world. He also heard amazing sounds broadcast on Ethel Raim and Martin Koenig’s radio show on WBAI (Raim and Koenig were the founders of the Balkan Arts Center, later renamed the Ethnic Folk Arts Center, and today known as the Center for Traditional Music and Dance).

Through a mutual friend, in 1973, he began a fertile musical partnership with Walter Zev Feldman, who was then playing Persian santir (hammered dulcimer) and Near Eastern percussion. Statman began seeking out a number of masters of maqam-based music for lessons, including Armenian kemenche/tar player Andrinik Aroustamian, Mountain Jewish kemenche player Zevulon Avshalomov, Greek cimbalom player Paul Lemberis, a Romanian- Jewish mandolinist named Martin Kalinsky who also played balalaika and domra and later, Epiorti Greek clarinetist (and NEA National Heritage Fellow) Periklis Halkias.

In 1975 Andy Statman found the teacher who would shape his transformation into a klezmer musician. Dave Tarras was then living in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn. Born in Ternovka, Ukraine, in 1897, Tarras came to New York in 1921 and became the dean of American klezmer music, the individual most responsible for developing a uniquely American klezmer sound (Tarras was recognized with a National Heritage Fellowship in 1984).

Actually, Tarras and his contemporaries didn’t want to be known as “klezmers.” In Yiddish, “klezmer” connotes an “untrained” folk musician, in contrast to a classically-trained “muzikant” or “muziker.” The musicians would refer to the music they played as “Jewish wedding music” or by the names of particular dances like “the freylekhs” or “the bulgars.”

By the time Statman met Tarras, klezmer was on life support. The music’s long decline occurred for a number of reasons. In 1924 a change in immigration laws greatly restricted the replenishment of Yiddish speakers from Eastern Europe. The trauma of the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel in 1948 caused American Jews to look toward a new modern Israeli culture rather than that of Europe as a source of inspiration for their peoplehood. And Jews had long been suburbanized and assimilated into the American mainstream.

After touring nationally in 1976 with Vassar Clements, Statman came back to an apartment in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where Tarras had recently moved. He began to visit Tarras three times a week, and the two spoke by phone daily. Tarras became like a grandfather, and gave Statman his first clarinet—up to that point, Statman had been transcribing Tarras’s music for saxophone and mandolin.

According to Statman, Tarras saw himself as much more than a traditional klezmer musician. He had built a career on radio broadcasts, studio dates, and concerts in the Catskills, in addition to the normal bookings of wedding business. Like a Jewish Bill Monroe, Tarras had composed a corpus of melodies and created a new style that transformed klezmer during the mid-20th century (sadly, Statman believes Tarras had only rare chances to perform this material live, though much of it was recorded). Tarras was tuned in to a variety of music, including jazz and “society” music, and enjoyed listening to the Beatles. Nonetheless, during their lessons, Tarras was an exacting teacher in issues of Jewish phrasing, ornamentation, and tone. It was clear that Tarras wanted Statman to have the tools necessary to become his protégé and for Statman to cultivate his own klezmer sound.

In 1978, Statman and Walter Zev Feldman worked with the Balkan Arts Center to create a tour featuring Tarras’s trio, Statman and Feldman, as well as Yiddish singers Feigl Yudin and Ethel Raim (Raim, the Center’s cofounder, was prominent as a vocalist for her work with the Pennywhistlers). Thanks to the support of the NEA, the project also produced a studio recording of Tarras’s trio (which included Sammy Beckerman on accordion and Irving Gratz on drums). Titled Music for the Traditional Jewish Wedding, this would be Tarras’s last studio effort. The tour was a surprising success, finding capacity crowds of seniors who came to hear a man that had played at many of their weddings. There was also a smaller crowd of young musicians who came out to these concerts; along with Statman and Feldman, they would form the nucleus of a revival of Yiddish culture. Video excerpts of Tarras performing at the first of these concerts in November 1978 can be seen on Center for Traditional Music and Dance’s Archive web page, www. ctmd.org/archives.htm.

The project launched Statman’s career in Jewish music, but he was never in it to “revive” klezmer. It was an art that brought great satisfaction, and the working conditions— performing for concerts, weddings, and bar/bat mitzvahs—were more favorable than playing into the early morning hours at smoky clubs. Statman released a series of albums on Shanachie. The first was the seminal 1978 Jewish Klezmer Music album with Feldman (now on a Romanian tsimbl, the East European version of the hammered dulcimer). After Feldman decided to devote more of his time to academic scholarship, Statman recorded two klezmer albums with a larger band called the Andy Statman Klezmer Orchestra. The Orchestra recordings included tunes that Statman had commissioned Tarras to write. In the early ‘80s, the Orchestra became quite busy, touring folk festivals, colleges, synagogues, and Jewish community centers, and even debuting at the Berlin Jazz Festival in Germany.

By the mid-1980s, Statman began to lose interest in klezmer. Living in Brooklyn, he began meeting Hasidim from the various communities. They would give him tapes— here was a huge, new repertoire of spirtual melodies known as nigunim (singular: nigun). Most nigunim are wordless and are sung by individuals or groups using vocables, which vary from community to community (the 18th-century founder of Hasidism, Yisroel ben Eliezer, or “the Baal Shem Tov,” believed that melodies could transcend the spiritual limitations of language). Master singers in the Hasidic community are like walking archives of hundreds or even thousands of nigunim, and they infuse these melodies with incredible tam (taste) and spirituality. True to a recurring theme of his career, Statman was again drawn to vocal music as a model for instrumental performance. Gradually, Statman’s religious practices followed his musical explorations, and he adopted an Orthodox lifestyle.

Statman began performing privately for various rebbes (not to be confused with a rabbi or clergyman, a rebbe is the spiritual leader of a Hasidic community). He recorded albums of Breslov and Lubavitch Hasidic music, marketed in the Hasidic community. Statman also became an associate of the Bostoner Rebbe of New York, Chaim Avrom Horowitz, as well as the Rebbe’s son Yonah Horowitz. Statman calls the Horowitz dynasty (including Avrom’s father Moshe), “prolific and innovative composers” of nigunim. Much of the Hasidic music Statman has recorded has been learned from the Bostoners.

For the past 25 years, Statman has found a home in the Modzitzer Hasidic community, at whose shul (synagogue) on Coney Island Avenue he davens (pray/take part in the service) most every Shabes (Sabbath). The second Modzitzer Rebbe, Shaul Yedidya Eleazer Taub (1886–1947), was one of the most famous Hasidic composers. One of Taub’s innovations was the creation of intricate, multi-section nigunim, which he called “operas.” Taub’s musical “secretary,” Ben Zion Shenker, has been another important musical mentor to Statman. Shenker is still very active in the Modzitz community as a ba’al tefile (prayer leader), and Statman describes him as perhaps the most important contemporary composer of nigunim.

Andy Statman has had a huge impact on Jewish music and continues to innovate across musical worlds. For many of us involved in klezmer music, Statman was the first artist whose albums shook our souls. He has been a major influence on every klezmer revivalist of note. His beautiful melody “Flatbush Waltz” is the most famous composition to have been produced by the klezmer revival, now a standard heard at weddings, concerts, and communal events worldwide (this author has even witnessed a performance of “Flatbush” by a Chinese ensemble in Chinatown). In the mid-1990s, he was featured alongside violinist Itzhak Perlman on two recordings, a series of tours, and an Emmy-winning PBS documentary In the Fiddler’s House that significantly raised klezmer’s profile in the US. When Statman turned to Hasidic music, it exposed thousands of klezmer musicians and millions of listeners to an entire world of melodies that for most was previously terra incognita. And many of us have been inspired by his example to explore Hasidic music as a pathway to a heightened Jewish spirituality.

Statman tours frequently for concerts, festivals, and workshops ranging from Jewish music to folk to jazz to bluegrass. When not on tour or observing the holidays, he continues to play twice weekly with his trio in a long-standing residency at the tiny Charles Street Synagogue in the West Village, and is still active as a wedding musician.

With his trio (featuring Jim Whitney on bass and Larry Eagle on drums), Statman recently released Old Brooklyn, which brings a number of old friends aboard, including Paul Shaffer (of the Late Show with David Letterman), Nashville stars Ricky Skaggs, Béla Fleck, and Byron Berline, as well as fiddler Bruce Molsky. In many ways, it’s the loosest album he’s put out since some of his early mandolin recordings, as this band of worldclass virtuosos attack a wide-ranging album of originals with a spontaneity that leaps from the headphones.

Now a grandfather and the patriarch of his own large family, recognized by his nation as a cultural treasure, Andy Statman just continues to get better.


Pete Rushefsky is the executive director of the Center for Traditional Music and Dance. Special thanks to Ethel Raim for her help in editing this piece, and to Andy Statman for his generous time spent in interviews. For more information about Statman’s recordings and performance calendar, visit his website www.andystatman.org.

Andy Statman
Andy Statman. Photo: ©2009, Bradley Klein, www.twangbox.com

Andy Statman and Dave Tarras, 1978
Andy Statman and Dave Tarras, 1978. Photo: Barbara Statman.

This article appeared in Voices Vol. 38, Fall-Winter 2012. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

TO PURCHASE A BACK ISSUE of Voices, visit our online book store.

TO PURCHASE A SINGLE ARTICLE from Voices, use the form below:

Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore

To order a single article, please enter volume number, issue (“fall-winter” or “spring-summer”), and title of the article you wish and click on an order button below to purchase through Paypal or with your credit card. We will send you a PDF of the article via e-mail upon receipt of your order.

ITEM #603
Single Article $3.00
Volume No. & Issue

Member Price  $2.00
Volume No. & Issue

NEW YORK FOLKLORE SOCIETY ♦ 129 Jay Street ♦ Schenectady, NY 12305 ♦ 518.346.7008 ♦ Fax 518.346.6617 ♦ nyfs@nyfolklore.org