By Bert Stratton
I look for my musical roots wherever I can find them. My grandmother played piano at a white Baptist church in Yazoo City, Mississippi. Not bad, I’d say.
This Mississippi bubbe (grandmother) — Ida Kassoff Zalk — had a brother, Earl Kassoff, in Cleveland. Earl was a drummer, xylophonist and house painter. He went by the stage name Earl Castle, and led bands here in the 1930s and 1940s.
When I first began looking for musical roots — in the 1990s — I couldn’t find much info on Earl. I talked to a couple relatives. Earl didn’t leave behind sheet music or tune books. He died in 1969.
I’m the bandleader of Yiddishe Cup, so people sometimes ask me, “Did your parents play? Is your family musical?” Not particularly. That’s why I look for lineage! ( Or yikhes — that’s the Yiddish word for lineage. Yikhes, I’m searching for that.) At a gig, an elderly musician schmoozed with me afterward. I asked him if he remembered Earl Kassoff. Yes, he did. The schmoozer was Harold Finger, age 77. He had played clarinet and sax professionally during the 1930s and 1940s. Back then “musician” was a job like, say, “plumber.” There was work.
I took my tape recorder to Harold’s apartment in Lyndhurst and interviewed him. He said there were “four or five bands that got the Jewish work back then.”
I asked, “What bands?” He didn’t remember the names. “What were the most popular Jewish tunes?” I said.
He said, “The songs from the Kammen book. That was the big thing.” The Kammen book — technically the Kammen International Dance Folio – was published in 1924, is still around. The Kammen book is to Jewish music what a sex manual is to sex. The book is for musicians who don’t know many Jewish songs and are asked at the wedding,” Can’t you play something besides ‘Hava Nagilah’!”
My Uncle Earl’s band did mostly “dance work” — American music, Harold said. Earl had worked the downtown theaters, as well as the Golden Pheasant — a Chinese restaurant where Artie Shaw started.
Harold said he didn’t stick to the melody all the time. He did some “faking” (improvising). Now he played clarinet in a community orchestra. “I don’t do much jobbing anymore,” he said. (Jobbing was gigging.)
Harold died three years after the interview. I thought his kids might enjoy the tape (from 1992), so I called a Harold Finger relative and left a message in the mid-1990s.
I didn’t hear back.
By the way, Harold Finger was not related to Sam Finger, the late-great Cleveland clarinet player, also Jewish. Sam was a terrific Dixieland musician.
A Harold Finger relative should have called me back! Harold’s wife was on the tape, teasing Harold about how he loved his saxophone and clarinet more than her. Harold said, “I quit playing music for you!”
Talk about lineage.
My lineage: I had a piano-playing grandma in Mississippi, and a house-painting –xylophonist great uncle in South Euclid. Top that.
[Illustrations by Ralph Solonitz]