Abe Schwartz in 1917

When most of us think of the year 1917, we probably recognize it as the year the United States officially entered World War I. In the realm of sound recordings, two other entrances are particularly noteworthy: the Original Dixieland Jazz Band released what is generally considered to be the first jazz recording, and Abe Schwartz made his first recordings for Columbia Records.

Abe Schwartz on violin, accompanied by his daughter, Sylvia, featured on the sheet music for "Russian Sherr" (New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1921). Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Schwartz, a self-taught violist who became a prominent band leader in Jewish New York, had emigrated from Romania in 1899 as a teenager. In 1917, he was hired by David Nodiff, an Artists and Repertoire agent for Columbia, to be in charge of Jewish instrumental recordings and help identify potential recording artists for the company. Schwartz went on to become an important orchestra director for both vocal recordings and Yiddish theater, as well as a prolific songwriter and composer. He is the band leader on recordings by many well-known singers, including Aaron Lebedeff, Joseph Feldman, Morris Goldstein, Rubin Doctor, and Abe Moskowitz, and recorded with clarinetists Shloimke Beckerman, Naftule Brandwein, and Dave Tarras. In addition to Jewish titles, he also recorded as the Columbia Greek Orchestra, the Russky Narodny Orkestr (Russian National Orchestra), the Orkiestra Wiejska (Polish), the Polska Orkiestra Columbia, and the Columbian Ukrainian Orchestra, among other variations. And in 1920 he recorded three discs (six sides) of his own violin playing, accompanied by his twelve-year-old daughter, Sylvia.

However, in 1917, all that was still to come. Schwartz’s first recording session, early that year, resulted in one disc, Columbia E3372 (the “E” stands for “ethnic”). One side is a tune called “Russian Bulgar,” a mostly major tonality tune with a modal B section. The flip side, “Russian Scissors” (more commonly called “Russian Sher”), was the recording that had resonance through generations to come. Abe Schwartz’s “Famous Russian Sher,” which combined a number of traditional sher melodies in a particular sequence, was often copied, including twice by Schwartz himself (in 1927 and 1935) and published as sheet music as well.


Listen to Abe Schwartz's "Russian Bulgar" (Columbia E3372, recorded c. 1917)



What makes the 1917 recording so significant is not just that it became so well know, but that because Schwartz re-recorded the same medley twice more. Taken together, these discs offer us an unusual window into the development of his musical sensibility and the extent to which he was influenced by the American bandstand’s aesthetics.

In the 1917 recording, which begins with a spoken announcement in Yiddish and a whistle blast, the ensemble plays with the fluid sense of rhythm typical of older, European recordings. Instead of a crisp, precise downbeat, there is more of a felt sense of where the beat is, with all the players landing close around it. While this kind of playing can sound strange and chaotic to the modern listener, it actually represents a truly organic style, where the musicians almost breathe together in their shared understanding of the music’s pulse.


Listen to Abe Schwartz's "Russian Scissors" (Columbia E3372, recorded c. 1917)


A second characteristic of this older style that can be heard in this version of the sher is heterophony. While a klezmer band may have several people playing the melody at the same time, each one will play it in his own way, embellishing and enhancing it without regard to what the other melody players may be doing. Though the sound of the ensemble is dense and occasionally chaotic, the basic pule of the music and its forward momentum are strongly maintained. In the 1917 sher, this heterophony can be heard throughout, but is most obvious at the ends of phrases.

Oriental Orchestra, "Russian Scissors," Columbia E3372, c.1917. Image courtesy of the Mayrent Collection of Yiddish Recordings, University of Wisconsin Digital Collections Center.

The third and perhaps most obvious characteristic of this older style, and the one that will probably sound most “wrong” to the modern listener, is that very little attention is paid to the harmonies played by the band. Consider this example from the B section of the tune: The melody clearly indicates that there is a change not only in chord but in tonality (minor to major) when the B section begins, but the ensemble does not make the change until the second phrase of the section. While we might be inclined to regard this as a mistake it is, in fact, evidence that harmony occupied a distant third place, behind melody and rhythm, in traditional Yiddish dance music. No one on the dance floor would have even noticed that the chord failed to change.

Ten years later, that dance floor was a very different environment. The folks who purchased the 1927 recording, Columbia 8155-F, had presumably a decade more of listening to mainstream music and an expectation that their own music would not sound quite so foreign. And indeed it does not. From the very first downbeat, the rhythm is precise and crisp, the phrasing starts and ends together, and all the chord changes happen as expected and at the same time. And there is no longer a charming introduction in a foreign tongue.


Listen to Abe Schwartz's "Russishe Shehr" (Columbia 8155-F, recorded c. November 1927)



The differences between the 1927 and 1935 recordings are not nearly so great and mostly involve changes in instrumentation. In 1927, the band had included trombone, banjo, and drums, which gave the performance the typical 1920s “big band” klezmer sound. In 1935, while the ensemble was almost the same size (six players vs. seven in the earlier recording), the sound is much more intimate and almost old-fashioned. There is no trombone, banjo, or drum, but there is an accordion and a fiddle, both of which harken back to an older sound. It is as if Schwartz were feeling nostalgic for the old days.


Listen to Abe Schwartz's "Russian Sherr" (Columbia 20322-F, recorded July 16, 1935)


The other recordings that Schwartz made in 1917 are equally interesting, albeit in other ways. His second Columbia session, in August, produced two discs (E3618 and E3563), containing four tunes that had been recorded under exactly the same titles by Abraham Elenkrig in 1915. It seems as though Schwartz may not yet have felt sufficiently confident to strike out on his own. In fact, several of the eight tunes he recorded in his third and final 1917 session, in November, may have been direct copies of tunes released by Max Leibowitz that same year on the Pathé label (unfortunately not yet included in the Mayrent Collection). The Leibowitz and Schwartz recordings of “Tantz, Tantz Yidelach” (a version of “Ma Yofus”) even share a distinctive four-bar introduction.

Abe Schwartz did find his creative footing and went on to record dozens of tunes, mostly for Columbia, including many that he wrote himself. The sound of his ensemble in many respects came to define the 1920s klezmer band. But in his 1917 recordings, we get a rare glimpse of his European roots.

Read more about Abe Schwartz's career at his biography page.


Sherry Mayrent is a clarinetist, historian, educator, author, and composer of traditional klezmer music. She served as Associate Director of KlezKamp, the long-running Yiddish arts program, and musical director of the Wholesale Klezmer band. She currently runs the website Klezmer Academy, an online resource for studying the music and history of Eastern European Jewish music.