To put the 4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra in a musical box would be awfully restricting, but they are certainly rooted in the traditions of Klezmer melodies. The group, led by the musically encyclopedic Roger Ruzow, have been playing together for many years in Atlanta and beyond, performing Ruzow’s unique blend of Klezmer music and West African influences under the umbrella of jazz.
For those unfamiliar, Klezmer is a genre of music that originated with the Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews. It’s a relatively modern musical tradition, and something that would later be an influence on more avant garde music and facets of jazz. Ruzow’s interpretation of the genre is unique in its own right, and it’s something that audiences have continually loved ever since he first started to explore it.
Ruzow and company are headed to town for a gig at El Rocko Lounge on Sat., July 13, and we talked to him ahead of the gig to learn more.
I’m curious—when was your initial introduction to both jazz and klezmer music?
Ruzow: Jazz, I’ve just been hearing all of my life. I was exposed to a lot of different kinds of music growing up in the 70s and 80s in Miami. It was pretty much what was on the radio and what was played around the house. I really, honestly, didn’t become fully interested in jazz until I was probably in high school. It wasn’t until I got into college was when I began to really steep myself in it.
[Musically], it was as eclectic as you can get. The record player playing John Coltrane’s Live At Birdland right next to Black Sabbath’s Paranoid. Right next to Butthole Surfers and Sex Pistols and Pharoah Sanders. And, of course, Charlie Parker. Everything.
It speaks to my attention span—if you listen to our songs, the form changes stylistically right in the middle of the song.
With klezmer, I didn’t know I was listening to it. A lot of people ask me what it is, and the first thing I tell them is Fiddler On the Roof. After college, playing a lot of different styles of music like free jazz, rock, and other things, the idea was to really think about the klezmer and investigate it.
It was about hearing the technicalities of it, and then hearing the relationship between what is that Balkan Jewish music and all kinds of other styles of music like the music of Morocco, Northeast and Central Africa. Even Nigerian music like Fela [Kuti]. They’re all connected.
It seems like there’s much more of a blank canvas under the umbrella of jazz to experiment and interpret. That feels pretty evident in just the evolution of the genre. Would you agree?
Ruzow: Think about Miles Davis—it’s jazz, but it’s not jazz. It’s like a 25-yard wide paint brush. You’d say that what Louis Armstrong was doing in the 20s was jazz, and then say that what Ornette Coleman was doing in the early 60s is jazz.
Or Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. That's another one where it seems like the definition of what people think jazz is was totally challenged.
Ruzow: And sometimes, depending on your militancy, jazz is almost pejorative. When I hear people say "jazz," you're immediately putting it in a box. When I was younger, it was like, "How can you say that you have to play in this context, and then outside of this context is wrong?" Well, does it sound good? Jazz is just a huge floor of the library.
When it comes to composing, how does that usually happen for you?
Ruzow: It depends. Some of the songs that we have, I'll take a song and then do an arrangement of it. One song is an arrangement of more of a Hasidic melody but turned around. I turned that into something that has the same melody but rearranged so it has that sort of that West African highlife style. It's just hearing different things and rearranging it. Staying true to the initial song form and melodies, but taking some liberties with it.
There are other songs that I’ll write where I’ll just have a melody or an idea for a harmony, and then develop it from there. There’s another song, “Great Lagos Wed. Night Talmud Meeting,” that’s just a good example of Afro-Pop and Klezmer. It’s some original song but it takes an idea from a Fela song, and then it shifts right into a klezmer tune.
It’s just the idea of mixing these styles of music and then creating something new with those styles.
What do you hope is the biggest thing people take away from seeing a show?
Ruzow: That they enjoy themselves; that they want to hear more of it. And occasionally I’ll get people coming up to me and saying, “What was that?” Klezmer is actually a phenomena of the late 19th, early 20th century. Benny Goodman is influenced by it, you can hear it in his clarinet playing.
The main idea is that everybody comes and has a good time. I’m trying to write something that I want to hear, and hopefully other people will like it too. But hopefully people will be interested in it and hear the different styles.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk about all of this with me!
Ruzow: Yeah! We’re coming to Savannah with about seven or eight members. All great Atlanta players. Five horns—tuba, alto, baritone, tenor, trumpet, and euphonium. Drums and percussion as well. Bill Pritchard is a professor of tuba, and is well known internationally. Jason Casanova is a euphonium player and is a professor at several universities. I’m so lucky to be able to play with these musicians.