Missouri’s only klezmer big band will play ‘happy music’ at Sababa


William Motchan

Marc Hochberg will perform with Klezundheit! a klezmer big band in St. Louis, at the Sababa Jewish Arts and Culture Festival on Sept. 18. File photo: Bill Motchan

BILL MOTCHAN, Special to the Jewish Light

Few musical styles bring as much energy to the stage as klezmer, a genre with Eastern European Jewish roots. Klezmer blends jazz with Greek and Balkan melodies to create a unique sound that usually includes a fiddle, clarinet and accordion. 

On Sept. 18, the Sababa Jewish Arts and Cultural Festival will feature Missouri’s only klezmer big band, known as Klezundheit! The Jewish Light caught up with Bob Herman, the group’s leader and conductor, for a preview of their upcoming performance.

How did Klezundheit! originate?

We formed as a temple project at Central Reform Congregation 22 years ago. My very good friend Paul Wexler, who is a very talented clarinetist, and I played the oboe when we were playing in an orchestra together. I said, ‘There’s not a lot of Klezmer music going on here, and I’m interested in it.’ He grew up in Manhattan and heard it everywhere, but never played it. So we started exploring it.

How would you describe klezmer music to someone who hasn’t experienced it?

Generally, it’s happy music. Even the sad music is happy music.

Does Klezundheit! perform a specific type of klezmer?

We model ourselves after a group called the Klezmer Conservatory Band, which was out of Boston and the Berklee School of Music. They were a large ensemble doing transcriptions in the klezmer style, and they’re no longer in existence, but we are.

What’s the most challenging part of conducting a big band?

It’s like herding cats. I stay out of their way. My job is to set the tempo and push it and make sure it’s got energy. Music on the page just lies there like a turtle on its back. You need somebody to really push it in places that need pushing and make it into the happy music that it is.

The Klezundheit! big band has 13 members. Any notable musicians in the group?

We have a violinist who was in the original band, Marc Hochberg. I have written music specifically for him. I hope to do one of the pieces specifically for him. I wrote a piece for him 20 years ago called ‘Marc’s Hora.’ He’s just wonderful at it. He’s a terrific musician. I met him playing classical music and he was a violin prodigy.

When audiences hear Klezundheit! what kind of reception do you receive?

There was a series called ‘Garden Live!’ on KFUO back in the days when they were still a classical station. We had a great following, mostly non-Jews. They dug the music. There were happy people clapping and I taught them call and response in Yiddish. It very funny to see all these people who never had the experience of that really enjoy the music. We played at Baptist churches where they did everything but get up and dance.

During klezmer performances, is it common for audiences to get up and dance?

It has been known to happen so it may very well happen at Sababa.