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David Tarras

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Dave Tarras, born in Ukraine, played in Yiddish theater pit bands soon after arriving in New York in the early 1920s. He was a versatile musician who created a new klezmer sound that fused popular American music with recognizable European roots. Photograph by Jack Mitchell, Courtesy Center for Traditional Music and Dance
Dave Tarras with his Aunt Malka in Ternovka, ca. 1910, Courtesy Henry Sapoznik
Dave Tarras on tour with Joseph Cherniavsky's Yiddish-American Jazz Band, ca. 1924, Courtesy Henry Sapoznik
Dave Tarras, ca. 1935, Courtesy Henry Sapoznik
Right to left: Dave Tarras, Sammy Beckerman, Sammy Kutcher, Irving Gratz, Leo Kutcher, ca. 1940s, courtesy Henry Sapoznik
Dave Tarras, ca. 1940s, courtesy Henry Sapoznik
Dave Tarras tribute, 1984 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Dave Tarras, photograph by Ricki Rosen, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Dave Tarras, a native of southern Ukraine, learned to play the clarinet as a young man. By the time he immigrated to the United States in 1921 and settled in New York City, he was an accomplished musician. His first job in New York was in the fur industry, though in a relatively short time he began to play in Yiddish theater pit bands.

Tarras made two recordings for the Columbia label in 1924 and soon became the preferred accompanist for many popular figures in Yiddish theater, including Aaron Lebedeff, Moyshe Oysher, Molly Picon, Maurice Schwartz, Sidor Belarsky, Seymour Rechzeit and Miriam Krassen and many of the great cantors of the era, such as Leible Waldman and Jan Peerce. He also was employed by Jewish composers and orchestra leaders to play in the concert orchestras of Joseph Rumshinsky, Abraham Ellstein, Sholom Secunda and Alexander Olshanetsky. In addition to this work in orchestras, theaters and recording studios, he was active in the immigrant Jewish community, performing for various Hasidic groups.

Tarras' repertoire was far-reaching, reflecting his own regional and familial background from Eastern Europe, but also building upon his unique capabilities as a musician. He was renowned for his versatility, his talent as a composer, his choice of traditional melodies and the virtuosity of his tone and phrasing. Over the course of his career, Tarras created a new klezmer sound that fused popular American music with recognizable European roots. Klezmer improvisation techniques are similar to those of American fiddle or Greek music: Basic melodies are embellished through slurs and ornamentation. Americanized klezmer music centers on clarinet melodies.

Klezmer, like the Yiddish language itself, is a creative combination of different cultural features and styles, combining the long, melismatic melodic line of cantorial phrasing with rhythms of Eastern European village dance tunes, the shepherd's clarinet with the gypsy violin, the instrumental techniques of art music with the free, improvisational style of Near Eastern folk music. Klezmer has been credited with influencing the development of American popular music, especially in the swing era.

The Tarras family comprised three generations of Hasidic klezmorim who settled in various towns of southeastern Ukraine. There they came into contact with gypsy musicians who played lively music on a variety of instruments. In combining these influences with the traditional Jewish repertoire, Jewish musicians further developed a new form of dance music. The hallmarks of this style are the dances named bulgar, honga, hora, sirba, and the melodic diona.

Over the course of his career, Tarras made hundreds of recordings for almost every major label. In addition to klezmer, he recorded with numerous trios and ensembles, playing the clarinet part for Greek, Polish, Ukrainian and other styles of American popular music. Like many other clarinetists, he sometimes "doubled" on saxophone, which has a similar fingering.

Bibliography
Davidow, Ari. "Klezmer." Whole Earth Review (fall 1995) 87: 92.
Ferraro, Susan. "The Clamor for Klezmer." American Way (July 1983).
London, Frank. "An Insider's View: How We Traveled from Obscurity to the Klezmer Establishment in Twenty Years." Judaism (winter 1998) 47, 1: 40.
Lornell, Kip, and Anne K. Rasmussen, eds. Musics of Multicultural America. New York: Schirmer Books, 1997.
Slobin, Mark. "The Neo-Klezmer Movement and Euro-American Musical Revivalism." Journal of American Folklore (1984) 97.

Discography
Tarras, David, et al. David Tarras, Vol. 1. Global Village 105.
______. Dave Tarras, Vol. 2. Global Village 106.
______. Dave Tarras: Yiddish-American Klezmer Music 1925-1996. Yazoo 7001.
______. Master of the Jewish Clarinet. BA US 1002.

Watch

Masters of Traditional Arts kiosk video, produced by Documentary Arts

Listen

Dave Tarras, audio biography, produced and recorded by Alan Govenar, edited and narrated by Nancy Lamb

Dave Tarras, 'Tsignaneshti,' Music for the Traditional Jewish Wedding, Ethnic Folk Arts Center EFAC A8902

Dave Tarras, 'Kishinev,' Music for the Traditional Jewish Wedding, Ethnic Folk Arts Center EFAC A8902

Dave Tarras, 'Unzer Toirele,' Yiddish-American Klezmer Music 1925-1956, 1992, Yazoo Records, Yazoo 7001

Dave Tarras, 'Pas D'Espan,' Yiddish-American Klezmer Music 1925-1956, 1992, Yazoo Records, Yazoo 7001

Dave Tarras, 'Zum Gali Gali,' Yiddish-American Klezmer Music 1925-1956, 1992, Yazoo Records, Yazoo 7001