An Unorthodox Jazz Musician, Encountering Mixed Reactions to His Jewish Music
by Zach Pontz
At first you may be skeptical of Isaiah Richardson Jr. He doesn’t look like somebody who would be playing Hava Nagila for passengers waiting for their train in the subway. Firstly, he seems too young, and secondly, he’s a black kid from the Bronx, dressed sharply, derby hat and all. But when upon meeting Isaiah, the 32-year-old ticked off “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem,” “Bashana Haba’ah,” and “Zum Gali Gali” as some of his favorite songs to play passing crowds, I knew he was serious about his Jewish music.
I first discovered Richardson online, stumbling across several videos posted to YouTube of him playing traditional Jewish music and Klezmer, including one in which he serenades a group of Israeli students in the New York City Subway.
When I finally caught up with Richardson, over coffee in Brooklyn, I learned that he isn’t your typical street performer. In fact, he’s not really a street performer at all. An accomplished musician with performances at Webster Hall, Carnegie Hall and the 92nd Street Y under his belt, he currently plays with the band Brown Rice Family, the Colombian Punk Rock band Maku SoundSystem, and is a working musician-for-hire. At the time of our meeting he was shooting a project for HBO.
A multi-instrumentalist who identifies himself as a clarinetist first and foremost (he also plays the saxophone, harmonica, trumpet and piano, among other instruments), he fell into playing in subways by accident, then by necessity.
“I remember the exact date: September 24, 2010. I did a recording earlier in the day and fell asleep on the train and all of my instruments got stolen. My tenor sax—gone. Flute-gone. Clarinet-gone. Harmonica—gone. At that point all I had was a trumpet. So I decided then, and if you’re a musician and that’s what you do and your things are gone—that’s a problem. And I didn’t have any money then, so I decided to play the trumpet on the street,” he relates.
Among the songs in his repertoire were several klezmer and traditional Jewish tunes he had picked up while studying the clarinet, first in a program at Juilliard when he was just 12, then later in high school, college and for the Marine Corps band.
“I just heard all these sounds and every clarinetist wanted to learn how to make those sounds,” he said of growing up around musicians who found their influence in the klezmer music first cultivated by Eastern European Jews, and then spread across the globe.
But his real education came in high school when he got hold of a certain album by a prominent klezmer musician. “I got an Andy Statman album, Hidden Light, and I can’t tell you how many times I listened to that album. Just over and over again, every day.” Other musicians that Richardson is fond of citing include Benny Goodman and Dave Tallas, whom Richardson speaks of in almost hushed tones. “Nobody can touch Dave Tarras. Nobody,” he says.
While Richardson no longer relies on the subways and streets of New York for gigs, he continues to play them as a means to fill the time and challenge himself.
“Technically it’s more difficult to play by yourself. And people don’t care whether you’re by yourself or with a group—they still want to feel the groove. You have to get their attention,” he says.
But not all of that attention is good. Some people take exception to the setting of the performance of certain songs and allow Richardson’s unorthodox appearance to influence their reaction. Take for example one woman who was indignant when Richardson played the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah, a solemn song of commemoration.
“A woman came up to me and said ‘I don’t like that. I don’t like that. That’s not right. Do you know what that is? Do you know what that is?’ I mean I know what that is. So then it just became an issue of I need to somehow let people know I know what I’m doing. A lot of studying, and listening and reading went into that.”
Others just simply don’t like the implications.
“There was one time I was playing and maybe after about ten minutes a woman started saying ‘F Israel! F Israel!’ She said ‘Palestine!’ Right in my face, ” Richardson recounted. “I get that too much,” he added, noting the negative response he gets from many passersby.
Another issue he’s dealt with is the perception that he’s an amateur out to make a quick buck.
“When people see somebody by themselves they relate it to panhandling,” he says. But with Richardson, it’s certainly not the case.
“I was just trying to make a little extra money so I never thought that people would think that that’s what I’m trying to do.”
The misperception notwithstanding, Richardson continues to busk in an atmosphere that allows him absolute creative control–and the opportunity to step outside his typical professional responsibilities.
“I don’t get to play Klezmer or Jewish music so much. So when I’m down there I can just play all I want.”
Check out some videos of Richardson playing below.