Andy Statman

Klezmer Clarinetist, Mandolin-player, Composer, 2012 National Heritage Fellow
Andy Statman
Photo by Chris Giese

Transcript of conversation with Andy Statman 

Excerpt of Hassidic Dance from Galicia

Jo Reed: That's an excerpt from Hassidic Dance from Galicia. It's performed by musician and 2012 National Heritage Fellow, Andy Statman.

Welcome to Art Works the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.

This week, the National Endowment for the Arts announced the recipients of 2012 National Heritage Fellowship. The Fellowship award "recognizes folk and traditional artists for their artistic excellence and efforts to conserve America's culture for the future." It's the nation's highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. Among This year's honorees is Klezmer clarinetist, mandolin-player, and composer, Andy Statman.

Andy is receiving his award for his outstanding work as a performer and a composer in Klezmer. But as great a Klezmer muscian as Andy Statman may be, and believe me, he is, Klezmer only tells part of the story of Andy's musical genius.

Although he was born in Brooklyn, Andy Statman was galvanized as a teenager by bluegrass music and learned to play the mandolin under the tutelage of David Grisman. Never content to stay musically still, Andy Statman pushed the boundaries of mandolin performing with experimental bluegrass groups even as he was drawn to jazz and the saxophone. And then in 1975, as Statman was thinking about his own Jewish musical roots, he met legendary klezmer clarinetist and NEA National Heritage Fellow Dave Tarras, becoming Tarras's protégé. The result was Andy Statman's album Jewish Klezmer Music, which became a touchstone for the klezmer revival. But it's impossible to put Statman in any neat musical box. The year following the success of Jewish Klezmer Music, Statman released Flatbush Waltz, a mandolin masterpiece of post-bebop jazz improvisations and ethnically-inspired original compositions. And so it goes.

Statman's released 20 of his own recordings and has performed on close to 100 others. He has worked with The Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Ricky Skaggs, Béla Fleck, David Grisman, Itzhak Perlman, and many others. He fronts the Andy Statman Trio which plays weekly gigs around NYC.

Given all he has accomplished and that he continues to do, it is small wonder that Andy Statman was chosen to receive a 2012 National Heritage fellowship.

I was lucky enough to speak to Andy Statman. We talked in the kitchen of his Brooklyn home and you'll hear the sounds of city traffic in the background. In this first of a two part interview, I began at the beginning and asked Andy to define Klezmer music.

Andy Statman: Klezmer music is the traditional instrumental music of the Jews of Eastern Europe. In what they call the Pale of Settlement. It'd be the Ukraine, Southern Poland and parts of Poland proper, Belarus, the areas around Romania. There were other Jewish musics in, also, like Hungary and other places, but they were a little bit different, and also other parts of Poland and Lithuania. But this was sort of a unified style of music that, you know, was played.

Jo Reed: And what's distinctive about it?

Andy Statman: The emotional contact is distinctive. Basically, what it is, is it's instrumental versions of Hasidic vocal music. So it's coming directly out of the religious milieu. In fact, most of the great klezmer musicians came from Hasidic families and were Hasidic. It was only when they came to America some of them sort of went off that path, although some in Europe did, also. But it was basically in a nutshell, it's Hasidic vocal music played instrumentally, and it could either be actual Hasidic melodies, or melodies that would- were composed by the musicians themselves that might show their creativity and virtuosity. But the feeling they would invoke is the feeling of a Hasidic melody.

Music up and hot…

And Hasidic music is very broad and- and very creative and very deep, and much broader than we consider klezmer music. And also, klezmer is- is also sort of a, for lack of a better word, a- a term that was applied to the music after it was pretty much gone. That's not what the musicians themselves refer to the music as. It's just, you know, traditional Jewish instrumental music, you know, from East Europe. And uh a lot of the best musicians came to America in the 1890s and up until the 20s, and uh.. it- it sort of flourished here, became a little bit different, and then sort of became dormant, sort of, you know, died in many ways.

Jo Reed: And you helped resurrect it?

Andy Statman: Well, yeah. so to speak, yeah. I mean, that was not my intention, but, you know, I certainly played a hand in that.

Jo Reed: Well, you come from a long line of musicians, I know, on your mother's side, correct?

Andy Statman: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Jo Reed: Canters way, way, way back, generations and generations.

Andy Statman: Yeah. I mean, canters going back to the, you know, 17- mid-1700s, early 1700s. And when they came to America, some of them went into Vaudeville and became well-known Vaudeville entertainers. I had one or two cousins who were classical musicians. And probably the most famous was a cousin named Sammy Fain, usually Sammy Feinberg, who was a Tin Pan Alley songwriter back in the twenties. He started...

Jo Reed: April Love.

Andy Statman: He wrote April Love, Secret Love, I'll Be Seeing You, Love is a Many Splendored Thing, That Old Feeling. I mean, he wrote, you know, uh.. it goes on and on. And uh...

Jo Reed: I love That Old Feeling. That's a great song.

Andy Statman: Yeah, it's a fantastic song.

Jo Reed: What did you hear when you were growing up around the house? I mean, obviously...

Andy Statman: I heard Guys and Dolls, Kiss me Kate, all that stuff, classical music. We had 78s, I remember hearing, like Three O'Clock in the Morning, probably, by Paul Whiteman, as it was a very popular waltz probably back in the twenties or, you know, this Yiddish theater song, folk song, called "Yosel," I remember that I loved that one.

Excerpt of Yosel

Andy Statman: That was one of the first songs that really, really sent me, you know, I really got very energized when I heard that song, that and Three O'Clock in the Morning, "Yosel," and "Three O'Clock in the Morning," and my aunt had a record of klezmer, if you want to call them "klezmer"-- you know, traditional Jewish- you know, Jewish tunes that my, you know, my father had grown up with, you know, the Jews from different areas used to have like town organizations, if you came from that town, and they'd have, you know, meetings and- and balls and, you know, dinners, and they'd buy a common burial plot for people from a particular town. And, you know, each town had its own customs and things, and uh.. so they used to hear all this music. My father, you know, grew up with that, with you know, what we call today klezmer music, so at family gatherings, when I got together with his sister and his brother, my uncle they would put on these records and we'd dance around and things like that. but I also remember when, you know, Rockin' Around the Clock came out, and when Hound Dog came out, and, you know, all that stuff. I remember really liking that stuff, and so I heard all the- all the early, early rock-and-roll-- you know, big bands…

Jo Reed: And I know when you first heard bluegrass that had a huge impact on you.

Andy Statman: Yeah. yeah, a number of things coincided for me with that. So my brother, who's about seven and a half, eight years older than me, he was in a jug band, I liked it. I loved the live music, but when he brought home some records of bluegrass, that's- I really got excited about it. And he played guitar. You know, we had guitars in the house. I'd been interested in shortwave radio, and also in getting out-of-town radio stations on the AM radio. So there were 50,000-watt stations then that broadcast live country music. There was a- a station called WWVA, from Wheeling, West Virginia, which you could get right around dusk in New York, and all night into the early morning probably going back to the twenties, but certainly still in the sixties, people would buy time on their country music or bluegrass or, you know, singer would- would buy time and have radio shows for 15 minutes-- 15 minutes, half an hour, an hour-- and sell their products. And there was this guy named Doc Williams, who was a sort of traditional country music guitarist/singer/band leader-- you know, had a- had a sort- a show. He had a nightly show on WWVA during the weekdays, and then he'd appear on the jamboree, and he'd travel throughout, say, Southern Canada and, you know, the Midwest; not so much the South. And he had what he called a Big Note Guitar Method-- you know, "Teach yourself guitar." So I sent away for this thing, I started learning to play guitar. And then there was a banjo player in my brother's band, and I- I really wanted to learn to play the banjo. So I guess with my bar mitzvah money, I went out and we bought a banjo, and I started taking lessons, and then I eventually decided I wanted to play mandolin. So this is uh.. this started when I was a- around 13,12, 13.

Jo Reed: How did you meet Dave Grisman, the great mandolin player?

Andy Statman: David I saw play at one of these what they used to call hoots, that my brother's band played at. They were on the bill. And, you know, so when I wanted to learn mandolin, I was able to get his number and gave him a call, and that started a- a lifelong friendship.

Jo Reed: And did he introduce you to Bill Monroe?

Andy Statman: Everything I did prior to playing the mandolin was really setting me up for the mandolin. You know, I'd played guitar and then really got into banjo. There used to be in Washington Square Park in New York on Sunday, groups of musicians would get together and play, and there'd be one group playing bluegrass, one old-time, one topical songs, you know, different things. And so I began playing in bands, but I was banjo-oriented, so I was mainly listening to people like Earl Scruggs and Don Reno and Bill Keith, and all these great banjo players. But there were- there were a lot of really great banjo players, and I was just another one of them, and I was the youngest. All these guys were college-aged kids. I was by that time, maybe fourteen.

Jo Reed: You were the kid? <laughs>

Andy Statman: I was the kid, yeah. And uh.. but I started hearing it on these records, these mandolin breaks, and they started, I got the chills when I heard some of them. And, uh.. you know, the uh.. two players-- one was a guy named Earl Taylor-- played a song called "White House Blues" on a Folkways record called Mountain Music Bluegrass Style, and he basically played his own version of a Bill Monroe solo on that. And Everett Lilly, who just passed away, from a group called the Lilly Brothers, he played with Flatt and Scruggs. He took the very, very simple mandolin solo on there, I get the chills when I heard it, so I decided this is what I want to do. I went out and bought a very inexpensive uh.. Czech mandolin and went to see David, and the thing's that my hands were already developed from playing guitar and banjo, and I had an understanding of the musical language. So what he did was he saw, you know, "You have to listen to Bill Monroe," basically gave me, you know, un- intentionally or unintentionally, really, you know, basically, a course in aesthetics of music. And you know, through getting it to Bill Monroe, a whole different thing opened up for me, musically and emotionally, you know?

Excerpt of bluegrass up and hot

Jo Reed: Now, what was it about Bill Monroe's playing that just spoke to you.

Andy Statman: Well, there are few things at play here---one being that I was 15, okay? There's the great romance of another culture, so to speak. I don't- I don't know if it's exot- exoticism. Of course, in America, everyone heard bluegrass anyway, growing up. We all knew fiddle tunes and things like that, you know, Turkey in the Straw, and we've all- all heard the stuff. But Monroe was presented as being the real deal, so it's like you become sort of an initiate in a small club of people who know the real truth about something, so to speak. You understand what I'm talking about? This exists in all music, and it probably exists in every field. But when you're 15, it's a very, for lack of a better word, empowering type of thing, like, " This guy is it." And coming with that becomes a certain almost uncritical acceptance of this person who becomes a larger-than-life figure. But for a 15-year-old, that's great. You don't really have much understanding beyond that. So what was it about Monroe? I mean, it wasn't just Monroe, but he was a super creative mandolin player. He did all these very subtle and powerful things on the mandolin. You know, he developed his own language and was able to speak it very, very well and very creatively, and at this point in his career, he had a great band and he was super creative. All the great people in bluegrass played with him. He was a great songwriter, he was a great singer, and his music had a tremendous intensity and integrity. And the thing about Monroe was that he like, unlike today, when people really try and peg you as being this or that, musically, to fit into a particular box, Monroe, in many ways, was coming out of the minstrel of the Vaudeville tradition. And in terms of recording, what he did was, you know, well, was he a gospel band? He did a lot of the most beautiful gospel quartets, or gospel songs, that have been recorded. No. was he a fiddle-tune band, he was the avant-garde Southern instrumental band at that point. All the great players who were innovators wanted to play with him, on fiddle and on banjo. He did that. Was he a blues band? He was a great blues singer. Was he a country sort of crooning band? He did great sentimental songs and love songs. I mean, he did- he did all these things, and in fact when he toured, he had comedians with him and other things, so he was really coming out of a much broader picture of doing a whole bunch of things. And what it did, it obviously reflected his interaction with the white and the black musicians in his area as a child, and music that he heard on radio. He played a lot of his stuff was very influenced by New Orleans jazz. You know, was he a jazz band? He basically took all these influences and personalized it, and put it in one package, and it was just part of country music, but I guess commercially became known as bluegrass because of the Bluegrass Boys. But the name really doesn't mean anything in itself. It's bluegrass--

Jo Reed: Like klezmer.

Andy Statman: Or well, klezmer comes from the Hebrew word klezemer which means like "instrument of song." So klezmer is referring to musicians, so to speak or musical instruments. And like I say, the musicians themselves will never refer to the music as that.

Jo Reed: While you were still young, a teenager, though a later teenager, you moved in a very different direction from bluegrass, you became very interested in jazz. And you worked with the jazz saxophonoist Richard Grando.

Andy Statman: Right, right. So, what- what happened was through David, you he exposed me to Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti and Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt. You know, I began hanging out more… there were country music parks with transplanted Southerners in Pennsylvania, so I'd go down to see all the musicians, I started meeting musicians, thinking of moving down to Nashville to play there, but at the same time, you know, Richard Greene, who played with Bill Monroe then-- violinist-- was telling me about all the musicians were listening to- to different types of jazz. So I started going down to jazz record shops, and, uh.. you know, I started listening to Stuff Smith, and then listening to jazz on the radio, and I started really getting interested in Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and Monk and Mingus, and my brother had some Cannonball Adderley and Jackie McLean records. I started listening to them. And uh.. in uh.. at the round- at around the same time, I remember I heard I think it was Strawberry Fields, by the Beatles, and I said, "This is incredible." So a little before I was 17, you know, I'd realized that, as great as the instrumental tradition is in bluegrass, the deepest emotions in bluegrass are conveyed through the singing. That's the heaviest stuff. Not that the instrumentals aren't heavy; they're great. But the singing is the heart of everything, in many ways. And I'm not a singer. I heard Albert Ayler uhm.. on the radio. It was a record called Live in Greenwich Village. It was on Vanguard. And he did this song called The Truth is Marching In, and he was exploring, at that time, basically, almost like Eastern European folk melodies, and then sort of playing them faster and faster until they became absorbed in a pulse, in the p- in the power of the drummer playing colors, you know what I'm talking about. And Albert and Donald would do their thing, and, you know, for like a 17-year-old, you know, in 1967, I mean, you know, this was- it was intense and expressive and yeah…

Jo Reed: And you began studying the saxophone.

Andy Statman: Yeah. So I decided I wanted a, I could've easily gotten into guitar, but I didn't want to have any of the bluegrass ideas carry over, because I'd already done that, and if I played guitar I'd have those- those  "finger memory- memory" type of things coming in. I wanted something completely different, and I felt that that- that through breathing, there could be an additional avenue of expression.

Jo Reed: And was there?

Andy Statman: Yeah, yeah. So as it turns out, a banjo player named Mark Horowitz, who I worked with in a number of bands in New York, his brother is someone named David Horowitz, who was or is a a a genius, you know, jazz piano player. And I said I want to study saxophone, ask your brother. And so he ga- gave me Richard Grando's phone number, and so Richard was who was an amazing, amazing person, said, "Okay, listen. Why don't you come out and- and we'll talk, and I'll see if I'll take you on as a student." So I went out to see him, and uh.. I remember the first lesson was <laughs>-- we- we discussed for about an hour to whether God existed or not, and then he said, "Okay, I'll take you on as a student." And that was that. And Richard was like a brilliant man, a Renaissance man, and he had come through the bebop scene, and he was part of I guess what they used to call the "new thing" in jazz back then. So he would- he could play like that, but he was uh.. s- into somewhere a little bit more mainstream. He was, of course, very into Coltrane, also very into Sonny Rollins, and I know he'd worked a little bit with Art Blakey, and so I became sort of almost like a houseboy there, and uh.. I just spent hours there, once, twice a week, uhm.. and became very close with him. And he was into Carl Young, and also some different types of religious things and music from all over the world, and things like that, so this all had a big influence on me. And so, practically around that time, I started playing saxophone in rock-and-roll bands, blues bands, free-jazz bands-- you know, whatever I could do. And I'd bring along the mandolin, and adopt it to those situations. I never thought I'd be playing any sort of bluegrass again or anything like that. I'd thought I'd be playing some sort of saxophone-oriented music.

Jo Reed: Now, when was Breakfast Special?

Andy Statman: That came about around 1971. What had happened was I went to college for a very short time and dropped out, and I wanted to work as a musician, and out of nowhere I got a call to play with a one of the groups-- there was a precursor to Breakfast Special called "Country Cooking," and they were-- that group had a, it was led by Peter Wernick, and then in the group was Tony Trischka and Russ Brandberg , two well-known very innovative musicians, and they were writing their own music, playing pretty much all originals, and playing music that was bluegrass-based, but really Northern and really reflecting a whole other emotional type of thing. You know, very different feelings, different ideas, different-- a very innovative band. So they hired me to do- to do this record with them, which I did. I played the saxophone in one piece and the mandolin on others. And by this time, my mandolin playing had completely changed, it developed in the beginnings of what it is now, it was very free and a different harmonic language than bluegrass uses, and a different rhythmic language. And from there, I started, you know, just getting gigs and making the scene in the Village. I needed to work. And I ran into David Brandberg. I hadn't seen David in a few years. So he invited me down to play with him. He was with Columbia Records at that point. And after the late Steve Berg playing bass with him. He was also a great, great key- electric guitarist, so I became his fir-- you know, other than the bass player, his first regular sideman. All of a sudden, I was on salary, you know, working for a Columbia recording artist. And we were traveling all over the country, and, you know, he got me involved in sessions we did like with- with Dylan, you know, the Grateful Dead, you know, Dr. John-- you know, lo- lots of different people. And I always felt there was an invisible wall between amateur and professional, and going on the road with him, I felt I sort of walked, you know, through that door and got to the other end. Anyway, uh.. he hired uh.. two other musicians, who I would been spending time with in New York Kenny Kosek and Roger Mason and at some point we decided to form Breakfast Special. That was around 1971. And there I was, you know, playing mandolin again.

Excerpt of Breakfast Special up and hot….

Jo Reed: How did you move from being part of a group like Breakfast Special to playing klezmer music. How did that trajectory work?

Andy Statman: Basically through my working with Richard Grando, I began relistening to some of the traditional Jewish instrumental music I heard as- as a child, and began listening to lots of other, you know, related ethnic folk musics, but-- and- and nonrelated, as well. I remember at one of the Breakfast Special gigs, I met Zev Feldman came down to see us, and we hit it off, and we started playing together. He played the Persian santuri, and we worked on a number of different things, and I started studying with different people. There was a santuri player, a Greek santuri player named Paul Linbaris, so I studied on mandolin, and he taught me how to play in different meters and stuff. And I got pretty close Perecles Halkias, an clarinet player, and and then I started studying with two great Azerbaijani musicians. That was Vulnov Shalamov and Adrenic Arestanian. So I was doing all this music, bringing it back and me and Zev we're playing this and working up repertoires and things like that.

Jo Reed: Okay, let me just interrupt you. What was it that just kept drawing you into different kinds of music? What was that curiosity that just kept you moving all the time?

Andy Statman: First of all, there was a lot of great music that was very accessible; not very accessible, but if you wanted, you could find it. And this is before the whole world music thing, so there were still lots of master musicians who were unaffected by, you know, rock-and-roll and all this other stuff. Not that that's bad, but I'm just saying, you know, you have people who represented culminations of traditions, living in the five boroughs. And, you know, if you get recordings of these things and see these people play, and all this music really moved me, and I had in the back of my mind an idea of somehow combining all this stuff in my own way. But my first idea was to just to sort of really learn how to play all this music.

Up until, you know, my around 30, I was just studying, you know, with all sorts of different people. I was always doing different things, studying with different people, and trying to broaden my horizons, and trying to enhance what I was doing. So at one point, I remember after Breakfast Special ended, I mean, I was just playing lots of different bands, I decided that I was getting more interested in Judaism and my own personal family background, and I decided that, you know, I'd found 78s of Dave Tarras and Abe Schwartz, and, you know, all these great, you know, traditional Jewish instrumentalists. I said, "You know, this music is really, you know, my heritage, you know, particularly where, you know, where my father's family come from. This is, if I was born there, as a musician, this is probably what I'd be playing." So I said, "Just for myself, I want to learn to play it to keep it alive."

Music up and hot

That was klezmer clarinetist, mandolin-player, composer  and

2012 National Heritage Fellow, Andy Statman. Next week, I pick up with Andy where we left off, his embrace of klezmer, his relationship with  the great clarinetist Dave Tarras, and Andy's musical marriage of klezmer, jazz, blues, and blue grass  culminating the recently released cd, Old Brooklyn,

And mark your calendar for October 4! That's when the 2012 national Heritage fellows perform in Washington DC! Along with Andy, honorees include dobro Player Mike Auldridge and Tejano Accordion Player "Flaco" Jim´nez. It will be a night to remember!

You've been listening to Artworks produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.

Excerpt from "Yosel" from the album Abe Schwartz, The Klezmer King, used courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment.

Excerpt of "Wedding March" from the album Jewish Klezmer Music performed by Zev Feldman and Andy Statman, used courtesy of Shanachie Records.

Excerpt from "The Brothers Ben Chassid" from the album Breakfast Special performed by Breakfast Special, used courtesy of New Rounder, LLC

Excerpt from "Andy's Ramble" from the cd, Andy's Ramble, used courtesy of New Rounder, LLC.

Excerpt from "Hassidic Dance from Galicia" from the album The Andy Statman Klezmer Orchestra, used courtesy of Shanachie Records.

Excerpt from "Kazatski" from the album Songs of Our Fathers performed by Andy Statman and David Grisman, used courtesy of Acoustic Disc.

"Yosel" is a traditional yiddish folk tune, performed by Abe Schwartz

All other songs are composed or arranged by Andy Statman who also performs them

The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U—just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.

Remember next week, more great music and insight from Andy Statman.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

In the first of two-part interview, musical wonder Andy Statman talks about his early musical career, including the importance of bluegrass for a boy born in Brooklyn. [31:04]