Teaneck’s trumpeter

Teaneck’s trumpeter

Jordan Hirsch’s musical life in jazz, klezmer, and Yiddish theater

Photo by dov adler
Photo by dov adler

You could see him across the bonfire in Kiryas Joel on Lag B’Omer, playing the trumpet as the chassidim celebrated past midnight.

Two weeks later, on a Thursday in May, you could see him up in the balcony at the Theater in Madison Square Garden as Yeshiva University celebrated its graduation exercises.

Three days a week during the school year you can see him in St. Hilda’s and St. Hugh’s, a private school in Manhattan. This summer you can see him performing in the orchestra of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s musical “Amerike: The Golden Land.”

But really, to see Jordan is to miss the point. You’re there to hear him play the trumpet — or if you’re at the school, to learn British brass band from a classically trained musician who is a regular on the metropolitan klezmer scene and has recorded a bunch of klezmer albums.

Jordan Hirsch

Jordan’s musical interests go back to the early 20th century. He is a big fan of early jazz, of Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke. His family’s musical roots go back to the 1940s and 50s, to the world of left-wing folk music that included Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Jordan’s father, Larry Hirsch, went to City College from 1948 to 1952.

“He was part of the City College cafeteria socialists,” Jordan said. “He was also a member of the Glee Club. He was a bass baritone. He somehow got hooked up with the Hootenanny Singers backup choir. He would hang out at these folk jam sessions that would be presided over by Leadbelly, who was like the rebbe. Pete Seeger would be there, and Fred Heller from the Weavers, and Oscar Brand. The Hootenanny Singers would sing at political rallies and concerts of people like Harry Belafonte and Theodore Bikel.”

Sometimes the concerts were political rallies and sometimes the rallies turned into riots, as happened on Labor Day, 1949, in Peekskill, New York. That day, after a concert featuring Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, and the Hootenanny Singers, anti-communist rioters, cursing Jews and blacks, threw stones at concert-goers, smashing car and bus windows, as the police looked on.

Things had quieted down by the time Jordan was born in 1962. His path to the trumpet was “a rather unremarkable story for the time,” he said. “It was a typical thing for kids to play instruments.” Students in the East Ramapo public schools in Monsey were given an instrument when they were in third grade. Jordan was given a violin.

“I hated it!” he said.


It was hard.

“At the entry level, the violin can be very challenging,” he continued. “I was a kid. I didn’t like to practice. I would practice my violin very quickly and sloppily. So of course I got no results.”

After a year, he had a chance to choose another instrument. But all the band leader had left was a trumpet.

To help him catch up with his bandmates, who had been playing trumpet for a year already, his parent got him private lessons with “a terrific teacher. He was a gentle soul. Really terrific with kids.”

This time, the lessons took.

With a trumpet, “once you know how to make a sound, if you just do what your teacher tells you, you can play some simple song,” Jordan said. “The challenges of the trumpet come later on. The subtleties involved in producing a good sound get harder as you go.”

By junior high, he was very into playing, practicing with his friends in the school practice room during lunch and recess.

He became more interested in living an observant Jewish life in eighth grade, when he became involved in the Orthodox Union’s youth group, NCSY. As a result, in ninth grade, he transferred to the Frisch School. It was his first time in a yeshiva. “I was sort of gobsmacked by the double curriculum,” he said. He put down his trumpet.

Then, the summer after ninth grade, a friend needed a trumpet for a brass ensemble. Jordan agreed to play with him, started taking lessons again, and “I haven’t stopped since.”

In high school, when his classmates were listening to rock and roll, he got interested in jazz. “My favorite thing was listening to Benny Goodman and Count Basie,” he said.

One day he was listening to a record from his parents’ collection. It was Benny Goodman’s 1938 concert in Carnegie Hall. One track features “Bei Mir Bistu Shein,” the 1932 Yiddish musical hit that was translated (except for the title which serves as its chorus) into English by Sammy Cahn and later became a hit for the Andrew Sisters.

“There’s this big trumpet solo in the middle, by the famous trumpet soloist Ziggy Elman,” Jordan said. Ziggy was born Harry Aaron Finkelman and had played in Jewish wedding bands. “It was phenomenal. A klezmer trumpet solo in this jazz concert. I was blown away.”

And that’s when Jordan’s interest in jazz became an interest in klezmer as well. “People didn’t call it klezmer music; was just music.” It was the instrumental folk music of Eastern European Jews. “Klezmer” is the Yiddish pronunciation of the Hebrew phrase “klei zemer” — musical instruments. If jazz started out as the music of New Orleans in the early 20th century, klezmer was the Jewish music in the early 20th century.

Jordan discovered more klezmer music as he explored his parents’ record collection. There was, for example, Giora Feidman’s 1973 album, “Jewish Soul Music,” in which the Argentinian-born Israeli clarinetist introduced his family’s legacy of shtetl wedding music to American listeners, and the Klezmorim, who started in Berkeley and released “East Side Wedding” in 1977.

“It was the early awakenings of people popularizing klezmer,” Mr. Hirsch remembered.

The so-called klezmer revival — Mr. Hirsch avoids the term — was barely underway. Andrew Statman was recording his first klezmer record; Henry Sapoznik and other people working at YIVO were starting to discover some of the music on the old 78s.

In his junior year of high school, Jordan started playing at junior NCSY shabbatons. Music was a big part of the youth group’s weekend retreats. Boy–girl dancing was verboten, as were contemporary rock songs, but mixtures of exuberant circle dancing and soulful kumsitz singing were key ingredients in NCSY’s menu of teenage religious revival.

Jordan formed a three-piece band with Jonathan Rimberg — who went on to head Nafshenu Orchestra, a Jewish wedding band — and Mark Infield, a fellow klezmer aficionado who continues to play gigs while working in Frisch’s physical education department. After high school, Jordan went to Israel for two years, where he kept up his lessons. Then he went to Yeshiva College. For three years he played 30 NCSY weekends a year with Jonathan Rimberg. “A lot of musicians in the Jewish music field got their start with NCSY,” he said. “As a trumpet player, I would play the intros and melodies. I did a lot of singing in those days. We would copy stuff from Ruach and other successful groups. It was a sort of Jewish folk pop style with a lot of Shlomo Carlebach and the Rabbis’ Sons thrown in.”

NCSY Israel Center 1982
NCSY Israel Center 1982

Around then, Jordan started to play weddings and meet the older musicians who had started playing in the Jewish music scene in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s — before Shlomo Carlebach, before Ruach Revival, when everything was klezmer but klezmer didn’t know its name.

“They were born in the 1910s and maybe the early 20s,” Jordan said. “Those musicians who were playing in the Jewish music business all had this background. Their roots were in the style we would now call klezmer. I was hearing on the Jewish music bandstand that music I had heard in my houses.”

He was hearing it, he was recognizing it, and he was doing his best to play it himself, figuring out by trial and error the tricks needed to get the style and sound that is idiomatic for that music. He didn’t yet know a lot of tunes from the repertoire, but word started spreading that he knew the klezmer trumpet sound.

Jordan left Yeshiva College before graduating. The Jewish music business beckoned. That is, the world of bands who play at Jewish, primarily Orthodox, weddings. “As someone who is shomer shabbos, it’s always a good opportunity to play and work,” Jordan said. Playing frum weddings means never having to miss a gig scheduled for a Friday night.

“So much of music-making takes place on weekends. Unless you’re a full-time orchestra musician or have a steady job, our weekends are filled with gigs. Being in the Jewish music business, which is built around that accommodation, I was able to work pretty frequently for pretty good money and not have to compromise any of that.” During the week, he worked in the sales office of Neshoma Orchestra, and at nights on the weekends he worked in the Orchestra. He did a lot of weddings with the chassidim in Williamsburg.

“Even if you weren’t a great trumpet player, you could work a lot in 1985,” when he graduated from high school, Jordan said. “There were so many weddings out there and not a lot of players.” For Jordan, there were opportunities to learn. One of the musicians he played with was Ray Musiker.

Mr. Musiker was born in 1927 — the fourth generation in a family of klezmer musicians. “He would say, ‘Let’s do a klezmer.’ I would listen to him play the first eight measures and assimilate it as fast as I could. Eight measures by eight measures, I was learning all these klezmer tunes. I was also learning some of his style. He was a gifted teacher, very good at explaining things. I would ask him questions: ‘What’s that tune? Where could I find it?’ He liked being put in the position of being the elder statesman. It was a very avuncular role for him.”

On the circuit, Jordan found himself being typecast as “a guy who could play good second trumpet. I was very good at picking out harmonies, but having all sorts of problems playing. My sound wasn’t mature or pleasing. A trombone player, a wonderful guy, once said to me on a gig: ‘Jordan, you are a very good musician. You have very good ears. You play very well. Your sound is like sh••.’”

It was a problem. “The trumpet is a very challenging instrument,” he said. “You’re dealing with the small muscle groups in your face, controlling the aperture to create the sound. If you overblow, you get extra pressure and your lips swell up.”

So he started taking private lessons again, working on his lip problems. He went to Carmine Caruso, known as a “chop doctor” and author of “Musical Calisthenics for Brass.” “He got me playing again,” Jordan said. “I started to sort out my sound and my playing abilities.”

Jordan began to explore his love of jazz as a performer. He started playing with a jazz big band in Manhattan and studying jazz — and big band trumpet playing — at Lynn Oliver’s famous jazz workshops.

He was getting closer to the level of performance he aspired to. “I felt I could touch it,” he said. So he went back to school, studying music at Brooklyn College. He was a trumpet major. The focus there was primarily classical repertoire and style.

“I still never felt wholly satisfied with my sound,” he said. “I’m still not there, but at least I’m on the right track.”

In 1996, one of Jordan’s trumpet teachers at Brooklyn College started a band program at St. Hilda’s and St. Hugh’s, where his child was studying. He recruited Jordan. Jordan wasn’t sure — his father had taught in the New York public schools and it seemed a hard profession. But he tried it. He liked it.

“The kids liked me, the school liked me, and I’ve been there since,” he said. “There’s rarely a satisfaction for me in music better than seeing a kid figure out how to play their first few notes on a cornet or trumpet. I am very lucky.”

Meanwhile, a new klezmer scene was forming. In 1985, Henry Sapoznik had organized Klezkamp. It would be an annual phenomenon for three decades, with workshops on klezmer music as well as Yiddish and Ashkenazic Jewish culture. Players were coming together. Bands were being formed. Mr. Hirsch was too busy to take off the week and go there. Instead, he was learning from the old-timers, his bandmates, in a more organic way.

In 1993, saxophonist Greg Wall started a klezmer band, “Klezmerfest,” and invited Mr. Hirsch to join it. They went on to record two albums. “Good, New York–style, straight-ahead klezmer music,” Mr. Jordan said. “We still play a number of gigs over the course of the year. We all like playing together.”

Then Jordan’s older brother David wanted to start a klezmer band just for fun and recruited Jordan. Thus was born Kleztraphobix; the group recorded an album in 2003, went on hiatus, and now plays occasionally. Its members are considering another album.


“Kleztraphobix features a lot of original compositions and more adventurous kind of arrangements,” Jordan said. “It’s kind of a klezmer fusion band. Even the traditional music we play is arranged in a more avant–garde kind of way, with elements of jazz, funk, rock, Latin music, different kinds of rhythmic variations.”

A couple years ago, Jordan was invited to teach trumpet at KlezKanada, the summer program parallel to the winter Klezkamp. “In klezmer music, we often talk about the klezmer tradition,” he said. “KlezKanada helped me think about the relationship between Yiddish theater music, Yiddish folk music, different kinds of Yiddish dance music. It helped me pull together a lot of threads I have been working with but hadn’t fully assimilated.”

Performing with the faculty band at KlezKanada, 2015
Performing with the faculty band at KlezKanada, 2015

And thus was born “Overnight Kugel.”

“We play chassidic music the way klezmorim would have played it,” Jordan said. “It comes from years and years of playing chassidic weddings — this repertoire that’s parallel to the Yiddish klezmer repertoire. It’s based on the chassidic recordings of early 60s, which is a little less virtuosic, more folk tune–accessible than klezmer music.

“We haven’t done many performances. I hope to get the band into a recording studio soon.”

Mr. Hirsch never lost his youthful love for jazz. A few years ago, Joe Godin asked him to put together a band to play at Smokey Joe’s Kosher BBQ in Teaneck. Jordan called up Pete Sokolow, who started playing klezmer as a college student in 1958 and “has been this master teacher of klezmer and old jazz.” Last month, Pete was the subject of a klezmer all-star tribute concert in which Mr. Hirsch participated.

At Smokey Joe’s, they played music of the 1920s and 30s — early jazz.

Playing with Pete Sokolow and the Creole Curmudgeons at Smokey Joe’s
Playing with Pete Sokolow and the Creole Curmudgeons at Smokey Joe’s

This summer, Mr. Hirsch’s big project is the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene musical “Amerike.” He has been playing with the Folksbiene since 2010. He’s performed in shows and concerts, playing with such performers as Theodore Bikel and Fyvush Finkel.

“I always love playing shows,” Jordan said. “I love being part of the theatrical experience, working with actors and singers and sets. The whole experience of being in an art that encompasses so many artists. People don’t necessarily pay as much attention to me as to an actor on the stage, but I’m part of that art. The fact that I may be in the pit and out of view of the audience is really not a negative to my mind.”

Jordan and Fyvush
Jordan and Fyvush

He thinks that klezmer may yet find a regular home in North Jersey. “When you scratch the surface, there is an interest in traditional-sounding Jewish music,” he said. “More people are interested than you realize.

“We have to find a way to create a monthly scene.”

He remembers playing at a Saturday night cafe held in Teaneck a few years back, and the success of his Smokey Joe’s performances.

“I told my friends that there’s hot jazz. Come and hear it. And they came, and it turns out they really liked the music. There’s a lot of cool stuff out there and they may not have heard it. One of the interesting effects of iTunes and Pandora — which have created challenges for the commercial viability of musician’s careers — is that it has given people the opportunity to discover music they don’t know.

“Presenting music that’s not necessarily in front of everybody all the time requires dedication, some patience to find the audience, maybe some concentrated cultural funding,” he said. “In some ways the music we hear in our communities is kind of monochromatic. It’s either the folk-pop you hear as part of synagogue services, or Carlebach all the time in some of the Orthodox synagogues.

“It’s hard to get people to slow down and appreciate some of the roots of our culture,” he concluded. “We have to start small. We have to find a venue and be dedicated and patient.

“When that happens, you build the audience.”

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