Much as the Grand Ol’ Opry, when still housed in the old Ryman church, refused for many decades to allow drums on its stage, the better to maintain the “high lonesome” sound of front-porch purity, so it is that Jewish purists and old-timers insist that ruach (spirit) at a Jewish wedding is best generated not by electric guitars but by ruach’s other meaning — wind — or more exactly, wind instruments, such as the clarinet or the flute.
Even when that Jewish music is subterranean, played in a subway station by Isaiah Richardson, Jr., an elegant black man in bow tie and derby, his soulfulness, spirit and ruach overwhelm the surface oddity of the Great Yiddish Songbook winging out of his clarinet.
We met Isaiah — let us call him by his prophetic name — on the Times Square platform of the Uptown No. 2, where he was performing. “I came to Jewish music through the clarinet when I was 13,” he says; he’s now 35. “Every clarinet player knows at least some jazz, and klezmer, somewhat. That’s the history of the instrument, going back to the 1920s,” a time when subways had wicker seats, and Isaiah’s South Bronx neighborhood near Southern Boulevard was thoroughly Jewish, with children often sung to sleep to M.M. Warshawsky’s magnificent lullaby, “Oyfn Prepitchuk,” about learning the Alef-Bet by a fireplace, and the “tears in every letter.”
Isaiah plays it on his clarinet, accompanied by a rumbling train pulling into the station. He first heard that lullaby and the ethereal “Yerushalyim Shel Zahav” (Jerusalem of Gold) from the soundtrack of “Schindler’s List.”
Once while performing in Hamburg, Isaiah recalls, “I ran off from the band at 8 a.m., taking a two-hour ride to the Neuengamme concentration camp. What I saw brought tears to my eyes. After 30 minutes of walking around, I felt sick. … The study of music, its culture and the people it comes from is a musician’s life mission.”
Isaiah speaks with reverence of that sweet long ago when Jewish “immigrants were coming to America, (the families) of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, and Dave Taras,” who later mentored the klezmer revival. “Rhapsody in Blue” would be thought a Jewish classic had George Gershwin come of age along the Vistula River instead of the Hudson.
Isaiah says, “My teacher at Juilliard, I didn’t know it at the time but she played klezmer.” Isaiah remembers hearing Benny Goodman’s “And the Angels Sing,” and “all of a sudden, in the middle, there’s klezmer! I thought, ‘Whoa, what was that?’”
Isaiah signed up for a music club that “would send you a CD every month. You checked off what kind of music you liked. I checked jazz, and noticed separate boxes for klezmer and Jewish. I checked them both. I got an album by Andy Statman.” Statman, the Orthodox clarinetist and mandolinist, studied and played with Taras and David Grisman, who worked with Jerry Garcia and played mandolin on the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple.”
“I listened to Statman’s album, I don’t know how many times,” says Isaiah. “I never knew a clarinet that could sound like that. I searched for more. I bought Statman’s book, ‘How to Play Klezmer.’ I later told him and Statman told me, laughing, ‘Oh, you couldn’t have learned very much from that!’ But everything is a beginning. I’m still learning.”
Lyrics matter to Isaiah: “Without lyrics you cannot properly phrase melodies on an instrument. The lyrics began to mean something to me. Many songs are prayers sung to be remembered. It sticks with you, changes who you are as a person. I’ve actually started studying a little Hebrew.”
Isaiah, who grew up in the Bronx neighborhoods of Morris Heights and then the Grand Concourse, knows the blues. One pre-dawn his instruments were stolen from him on the 2 train. At 4 a.m., returning home after a recording session where he played his clarinet, saxophone, Chinese flute, and earned $500 for five tracks, “I was happy. I drank a little bit,” and he was eating his Halal dinner in a styrofoam container. He dozed off. “When I woke up, the Halal food was all the way over there, at one end of the car, and I was over here. My saxophone was gone. My duffel bag that had the clarinet, gone. Flute, harmonica — gone. Everyone in the subway car, they were all just looking at me. I remember the date, Sept. 24, 2010. The only instrument I had was a trumpet, at home.”
Today, Isaiah plays in more than a half-dozen bands; one is Brown Rice Family (formed with two friends, one from Japan, one from Korea). Isaiah, who is not married, studied for two semesters at Shanghai University in 2007, learning Chinese language and music. He adds, “I have become quite famous in Taiwan as a saxophonist who plays Taiwanese music — on a Taiwan-made saxophone.” Isaiah toured in Japan with Brown Rice Family.
He first went to Japan when he was in the Marines, and played in the Marine Corps Band. He credits the Marines and the Marine band as influencing his sharp dress, even if he’s playing in the subway.
For his commuting audience, says Isaiah, “I play 80 percent Jewish music, 10 percent Chinese/Taiwanese music,” and ten percent “depends how I feel. I’m mostly not playing Jewish music (professionally) but in the subway I have total control and play Jewish music because I genuinely want to. If I don’t play it down there, I’m hardly playing it at all, except to myself.”
Isaiah is also a member of Maku SoundSystem, a Columbian band whose website describes the music as carrying “hints of Columbian folklore, psychedelic-rock and Caribbean grooves.” In 2012, Jim Farber, reviewing Maku in the New York Daily News, took note of Isaiah’s unique musical fusion but likely couldn’t believe what he was hearing, attributing Isaiah’s influences to Central America, not Eastern Europe. Farber wrote: “The music erupts with Afro-Colombian rhythms. It also features some of the wildest clarinet playing you’ve ever heard. Though it sounds like a punk take on East European klezmer music, the clarinet has long had a place in Colombian instrumentation.”
Isaiah says, “I don’t plan on playing much in the subway next year.” It causes some to underestimate him. “Some musicians, looking to hire for a show say, ‘Oh, not that guy, he plays in the street.’ Some imagine my (musical) level to be much lower than it is.” He points out that he’s played the Kennedy Center in Washington, Smalls jazz club in the West Village, Lincoln Center, Broadway (“Old Hats”), and for HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.” They also ignore my clarinet and only talk about the saxophone. I play saxophone, yes, because a clarinet cannot cut through the noise of trains. None of this is good for someone trying to establish himself as a clarinetist.”
Isaiah recently e-mailed from Louisiana: “Hey Jonathan, I hear it’s snowing again in New York. I’m in New Orleans right now. Busy year so far. The Carnegie Hall and Blue Note shows last month went well. I was on tour much of last month, with another group,” Monsieur Perine, “from Colombia, that won a 2015 Latin Grammy for best new artist.”
Maybe Cajuns prefer “Jole Blon,” and it increasingly costs more than a Metrocard to hear Isaiah play. But if you’re waiting for the Seventh Avenue local, one day, and hear “Khosen Kallah, Mazal Tov,” Isaiah’s home.