An Unorthodox Jazz Musician, Encountering Mixed Reactions to His Jewish Music

May 12, 2013 8:11 am 22 comments

Isaiah Richardson Jr plays the clarinet. Photo: Youtube.

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.

22 Comments

  • Christopher Krueger

    Semper Fi!
    OoRah Marine! Great Job!

  • Christopher Krueger

    SEMPER FI!!
    OORAH!

  • Just incredible, absolutely astounding I shall very much LOVE to hear Hidden Light and thank a most noble blessed Soul out there in his witness of Music to Our Shalom God who will bring peace to evil unstable mankind forever…It is a gift of Splendorous wonder to be a chosen vessel fit for The Master’s Use and use of his talent that reach to a soothing tone in God’s ears to not give this nation the judgement it deserves for the continued hatred of not loving each other as neighbors all across the world that God so desire we do. May God so immensely, richly continue Blessing you as you Bless so many countless others that you very well DO or else ignorance would never spew! A’chew!
    PSALM122:6

  • Great recordings. Keep it up.

  • with all the problems between blacks and jews, i’m glad algemeier took the time to write this story. here we have a black musician who loves jewish music. this is something to be appreciated….he said he listened to statman’s ‘hidden light” every day. that says something.
    i hope he regains the instruments that were stolen and that he learns more about the feeling of jewish music.

  • when i first heard his video, it bothered me. i thought he was just trying to get over. now that i’ve read about him, it’s great to know that he was inspired by andy statman. very sad to hear of the negativity he has to deal with…. since he loves jewish music, hopefully he can spend time with jewish musicians to absorb more of the feeling and source of the music.

  • Isaiah truly knows terrific music and expresses it with an impressive tam(taste).

  • David Hepler

    He should come to Japan and play in public areas near train stations and in parks.

  • The minute I read the leader I knew he was a professional musician. Most professionals go through a phase of playing parties and usually acquire a knowledge of ethnic music common in their area. I’m not in the least surprised that a New Yorker (regardless of color or ethnic origin) would have been exposed to Jewish music fairly early. True musicians do not limit themselves to one type of music, clearly Mr Richardson’s knowledge of musical genres is broad and eclectic.

  • I think it’s wonderful that such a talented musician would share Jewish music with people who might never have heard it before. I was horrified to read about the despicable verbal abuse that he has received from anti-Israel barbarians and very disturbed that it is an increasingly frequent occurrence. I am puzzled as to why anyone should object to his playing Hatikvah; famous Jews have been singing — and writing — Christmas music for many years. Actually, I would love to hear Mr. Richardson’s rendition of Hatikvah (or anything else) in person, but unless he plays in Dallas, TX, I’m afraid that’s not possible. However, if he decides to play in Jerusalem, I’ll tell my daughter to make sure she catches him.

  • I wonder if, instead of playing music of the Jews, this guy played his own, rich literature of music, and stopped attempting to trade on the sentiments of others. Blacks have their own rich repertoire: why don’t they play it, especially if they’re trying to make a buck playing on the street? Black street musicians are missing the point. They don’t play Polish mazurkas, Irish jibs, and German waltzes. So why play the Jewish stuff??

    GET WITH IT, YOU GUYS!! NObody can play or sing the Blues and other JAZZlike a Black musician! Blacks OWN JAZZ. QUIT IMITATING OTHERS AND PLAY YOUR OWN RICH HERITAGE!

    …and if you insist on playing Hava Nagila and the like, start playing gigs at Bar/Bat Mitavas!! You’ll turn the joint inside out with excitement!!

    • I think he does play bat mitzvahs and weddings and always has his entire life. That was the point of the article to open people’s rather closed minds and prejudices based simple skin color.

    • “Attempting to trade on others’ sentiment”. You stupid , racist, SOB. He loves
      the music. Leave it…….!!!!!

  • That is simply awesome
    :-D

  • Melanie Ringel

    He’s so talented and inspirational!

  • A beautifully written article. Finally a positive article. Hopefully this should open many people’s minds and unite us all. Despite threats of violence he keeps playing what he loves. Beautiful.

  • Would Bronx Klezmer like to join Manhattan Klezmer next Sunday evening (May 19th) at the legendary Deer Head Inn?

  • Fredric M. London

    G-d bless him!

    • Neil Katz, M.D.

      God has already blessed him with the gift of a soul that makes him feel and understand the music

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