Detroit Jewish News, September 4, 1998

A Little Bit Klezmer, Y'All?
Knoxville's Tennessee Schmaltz,
performing at The Ark on Sunday,
adds a touch of country
to a Traditional Jewish musical form.
Special to The Jewish News

noxville, Tenn. Not a place you'd expect to find a thriving klezmer audience, right? But thanks to a band known as Tennessee Schmaltz, even the country-music lovers in this below-the Mason-Dixon-line city are taking a liking to traditional Yiddish music. What's not to like about a hora with a Southern twist?
Combining traditional klezmer instruments with wacky Appalachian sounds, Tennessee Schmaltz melds Old World charm with country twang. There's a chance to hear for yourself at 8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 6, when the band takes the stage at The Ark in Ann Arbor. It's a gala gig that band members are thrilled about.
Ken Brown, an attorney with Lockheed Martin Systems in Knoxville who plays alto and soprano sax, can't wait to play a particular piece for the first time before a live audience. The song "starts with the 'Orange Blossom Special,' a classic bluegrass fiddle tune that is blatantly fast," explains Brown. After that, "we segue into little [fragments] from 'Hava Nagila' and 'Tzena, Tzena.' We klezmerize the Tennessee Waltz."
The band was the brainchild of flutist Judy Megibow, who attended KlezCamp for a couple years in the Catskills, where klezmer bands and musicians gather every summer to trade songs and tips.
"She's always loved that music, Brown says of Megibow, who works full time as the Russian resettlement coordinator for the Knoxville Jewish Federation. "She figured, 'why not try to put together a klezmer band in Knoxville?' So she did."
Megibow tried to find Jewish musicians who played traditional klezmer instruments — without a ton of success at first. Knoxville's Jewish population is small — a Reform temple has about 200 families, and the sole Conservative shul has nearly 270, says Brown. The city has no Orthodox synagogue, and those who keep kosher drive to Atlanta to buy kosher meat.
But Megibow persevered. joining her and Brown are violinist Aaron Feldman, a Knoxville lawyer; Rob Heller, a professor in the department of communications at the University of Tennessee, on clarinet and washtub bass; Manny Herz, an architect in Oak Ridge, Tenn., who plays keyboard; and Israeli-born Danny Shapira, a nuclear physicist who plays accordion. Megibow also plays the piccolo.
The clarinet and alto and soprano saxophones add an Appalachian hint to the music, says Brown. Those instruments "did not even exist when klezmer music was being developed in the 19th century. [But] soprano sax sounds especially appropriate because it has a nasal, sexy oboe sound. It's not the typical klezmer sound. But then, were not your typical klezmer band."
The original idea was just to play for fun, adds Brown. And the group did just that for a year and a half,
beginning in 1995. But when Tennessee Schmaltz started playing local gigs, the Jewish community actively started booking the band. Schmaltz played a concert for Jerusalem's 3,000th anniversary and has performed at weddings and b'nai mitzvah celebrations.
Huntington Woods resident-Dale Rubin, special events coordinator for Federation's centennial celebration, became a fan of Tennessee Schmaltz when she lived in Knoxville. "I saw them at a couple of bar mitzvahs," she recalled. "Tennessee has never seen anything like them."
Three years into what is becoming a wildly successful hobby, "people actually pay us," says Brown, sounding a bit stunned.
"We were basically in it for the fun. We still are because we just love the music. [But] gradually, as we've played more together and clearly gotten better, we started getting a little more ambitious."
The band played at a popular folk venue called the Laurel Theater last winter in Knoxville, with resounding success. "We sold out. People were dancing in the aisles, no room to dance, a big hit," says Brown. "We played for a bluegrass festival, international festivals [and] have received more and more exposure.
"What's so much fun about playing in this kind of band down in Knoxville is that even the largely gentile community is catching on to this unique Jewish sound," he adds.
In between songs, the band explains the genealogy of the music, and people seem to appreciate that, Brown says. "One of the biggest kicks we had was playing the bluegrass festival in June. We were the only Jews there, and [the audience] loved it. [Klezmer music] has a universal appeal. That's one of the things we try to play up."
"It's fun to play Jewish music in Tennessee," adds band member Rob Heller, who says that just 2 1/2 weeks before the concert at The Ark, the group has been busy adding new kinds of instruments — whistles, cow bells, odd kinds of percussion. "We think we have the Spike Jones touch." Heller is amused by the band, which he describes as a bunch of "semi- middle-aged professionals strutting on stage as if we're rock stars getting adulation. It surprised all of us how nice it is to have a part-time job as a 'klezmer rock 'n' roll star,"' he chuckles. Band members say they get along amazingly well and even have a bit of fun while rehearsing. "Very often, we take a piece and make it into, a lounge act or a rumba," Heller says. "I think we can lay claim to being the only klezmer band in the entire world with a washtub bass."
Tennessee Schmaltz will play at The Ark 8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 6. Tickets, at $11 each, are available at the door. Advanced tickets may be purchased in Ann Arbor at the U-M Union Ticket Office, School Kids Records; Herb David Guitar Studio and at all Ticketmaster outlets; or charge by phone at (734) 763-TKTS or (248) 645-6666. The Ark is located at 316 S. Main St. in Ann Arbor. (734) 761-1451. Visit the band's website at

Tennessee Schmaltz: Klezmer music with a touch of country. Clockwise from top left: Rob Heller, washtub bass and clarinet; Ken Brown, alto and soprano saxophones; Dan Shapira, accordion; Manny Herz, keyboard; Aaron Feldman, violin; Judy Megibow, flute and piccolo.