As a clarinet student at the New England Conservatory of Music, Don Byron spent his weekends playing gigs for extra cash. He wasn’t playing bee-bop or swing. Instead, he performed traditional Jewish music with the Klezmer Conservatory Band.
That was back in the 1980s. Byron went on to become a successful, Grammy-nominated jazz artist, but his affinity for klezmer never waned — and in 1993 he recorded an album of songs by clarinetist and singer Mickey Katz, the once-reigning king of Yiddish-accented Jewish music.
Ever since, Byron’s touring schedule has included performances of the Katz songbook. Just like the one he and his eight band mates, including vocalist Jack Falk, will give on Wednesday, Feb. 23 at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley. It’s part of the 440-seat venue’s Black History Month series.
First, we’ll need a little Katz history. In the 1950s and early 1960s, in an era when comedy albums routinely topped the charts, Katz thrived. His songs had titles like “The Ballad of Duvid Crockett,” “Haim Afen Range (Home on the Range)” and “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Katzkills.”
A native of Cleveland who died in 1985 at age 75, Katz played what we have come to know as classic klezmer, but he also had a manic style that often folded familiar pop tunes into funny, klezmer-tinged parodies.
“He had a wacky kind of approach,” Byron says, “but technically he was a very sound player.”
Byron’s appreciation of Katz goes back to his student days in Boston. Already a highly skilled musician, it wasn’t too great a leap for Byron to master the special rhythms and ornamental style of klezmer.
Once with the Klezmer Conservatory Band, Byron insisted the group add the music of Katz to their repertoire. That was some 30 years ago, making the band among the first to revive Katz’s music.
Though popular in his day, Katz was not universally admired. Some thought his music was so overtly Jewish as to perpetuate stereotypes. For others, the Yiddishisms seemed corny, even by the mid-20th century.
“It was not in vogue at the time,” Byron recalls. “[Katz] was active in a period of heavy Jewish assimilation, so a lot of people wouldn’t think of him as very serious.”
Yet Katz’s music is challenging, intricate and authentic. That added up to the right combination for a young black jazz musician absorbing as much as he could.
“People think black folks don’t know about stuff like [klezmer] or can’t do it,” he says. “When I first started playing klezmer, it was a common belief that anyone who
wasn’t playing classical couldn’t play [clarinet].”
Byron could play. The Bronx-born musician grew up in a musical home, and went on to excel in all realms of music, from jazz and classical to pop and gospel. He has collaborated with artists such as Mandy Patinkin, Carole King, Daniel Barenboim and the Kronos Quartet.
He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2009 for his composition “7 Etudes for Piano,” and he recently wrapped a one-year residency at the American Academy of Rome, where he wrote the score for an opera.
Though Katz is not well known anymore, his son, Oscar-winning actor Joel Grey, and granddaughter, actress Jennifer Grey, have long been in the public eye, and both appreciate Byron’s efforts to revive Katz’s music. Byron once joined Joel Grey on “Live with Regis and Kathie Lee” to perform a Katz tune or two.
By the time of Katz’s death, not only had his brand of Catskills craziness begun to fade away, so had another cultural staple he embodied: the comedy album.
Because he grew up loving comedy albums, Byron emphasizes Katz’s humor in his concerts. Still, first and foremost, Byron is a musician’s musician, and he recognized in Katz a fellow artist.
“His actual physical sound is pretty good,” Byron says of the Katz recordings he has come to revere. “For me, he sounds the way he’s supposed to sound, plays all the things he wanted to play in time. Those are the simple truths of a musician.”
Don Byron and his band will perform the music of Mickey Katz at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 23 at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley. $22.50-$24.50. Information: (510) 644-2020 or www.thefreight.org.