City breezes and nightlights infuse a lot of Marika Hughes’ songs, and so does love and its longings. Born of classical musical royalty, she’s an urban poet who writes music and lyrics, plays the cello, sings and fronts a band. Her latest CD, “New York Nostalgia,” is a love song to this city.
“A lot of the songs are about an ‘almost love,’” she says in an interview near Lincoln Center, close to where she studied at Juilliard and visited her “tantes,” or aunts, on Central Park West. The nostalgia is for an earlier New York City, one that was grittier, friendlier and more racially integrated, when many artists and musicians lived on the Upper West Side. Her New York of the 1970s and ’80s was a city “with everything not so precious, a little dirtier in a beautiful way.” During high school, her string quartet would play at the corner of Columbus Avenue and 73rd Street, but as things shifted in the city, the police would chase them away.
Hughes’ biography is all over her music. She’s the daughter of a German-Jewish mother and an African-American father who ran a jazz club together, and she’s the granddaughter of Emanuel Feuermann, considered one of the great cellists of the 20th century. Born in Poland in 1902 into a musical family, Feuermann was sent to study in Vienna, where he made his debut at age 12 with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. He then taught in Berlin, but was ousted from his position by the Nazis in 1933. In 1935, he made his American debut with the New York Philharmonic. Returning to Europe and then fleeing persecution, he moved to London, where he married Eva Reifenberg, and then to Zurich. He happened to be in Vienna in 1938 when the Nazis invaded, and a violinist friend helped him and his wife and daughter Monica escape. They moved to the U.S. later that year, and he continued to play and teach. In 1942, he died suddenly after complications from routine surgery. He was close with Artur Rubinstein, Jascha Heifetz and other internationally celebrated musicians; Arturo Toscanini was a pallbearer at his funeral.
While Hughes was growing up, her late grandfather was a presence. The first records she learned to spin were Feuermann playing Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata and Aretha Franklin’s “Amazing Grace.”
The name Marika is a combination of her parents’ names, Marvin and Monica. Her mother was a pianist; her father was not a musician but described himself as a professional listener. Marika began violin lessons at age 3 and was also a regular on “Sesame Street.” She played violin with seriousness until she was 12. In a visit to the music store run by her grandfather’s student Mosa Havivi (where she got all of her instruments for free), she asked to try one of the cellos. After holding it for the first time and playing the C-string, she was hooked. Over the next year, she played both cello and violin, and then chose the cello.
For her, the classical music world was a tough and pressured place. “The generation of musicians from Eastern and Central Europe, who were the first people recording, had these brutal expectations that I would be his granddaughter in a certain way. I was a very good cellist, but I wasn’t him,” she says, and adds, “I always went to the beat of my own drummer; I had different intentions, whether I knew it or not.”
From 1980 to 1987, her parents ran a popular West Side jazz club called Burgundy’s on Amsterdam Avenue between 82nd and 83rd Street. Her mother managed the day-to-day operations of the club, while her father continued his work as a software engineer. Marika loved the place, and would stop by on her way home from school. She would have enjoyed staying there every afternoon and evening, but she had to practice her cello. If someone she loved was playing, she was allowed to return and stay up late.
“I was there a lot,” she recalls. Journalist Ed Bradley and literary agent Marie Brown were regulars. She remembers hearing guitarist Peter Bernstein, jazz pianist Danny Mixon and singer Novella Nelson. “It was a very mixed place. Everyone lived in the neighborhood.” In the early years, the club served food, and she’d go to Zabar’s to pick up bagels for Sunday brunch. Then, Anthony Bourdain used to cook there, before achieving fame as a chef, cookbook author and television personality.
Their home was also an open gathering place for extended family and visiting musicians, including those who knew her grandfather. Her “tantes,” the European aunts on her mother’s side, doted on her, encouraging her musical abilities, teaching her proper elocution and serving as important influences throughout her life. One died at age 99 and another recently at 106.
Hughes attended Manhattan Country Day School and Horace Mann, and then studied political science at Barnard and cello at Juilliard. After a sojourn in northern California — serving coffee, playing in local symphonies, teaching, expanding her classical repertoire, experimenting with other genres, recording commercials and film scores, only slowly letting on to people in the music world that she was Feuermann’s granddaughter — she returned to New York City in 2006.
Since then, she has performed on her own and also as a “side girl,” or freelance cellist, with Whitney Houston, Sean Lennon and others, and has recorded with many artists, including Lou Reed and Ani DiFranco and also with Jewlia Isenberg, on the Tzadik label. Hughes now leads the band Bottom Heavy and has recorded a previous CD with them as well as solo CDs. Her own music has traces of classical, pop, jazz, experimental and soul rhythms. On stage, she’s very natural, with the personal warmth and vibrancy gained from being around club hosts who loved their guests.
About “New York Nostalgia,” she says, “When I listen to the music, I hear the classical in me — it’s very diatonic — I hear the blues, I hear the art rock of the ’90s, I hear the spirit of jazz. It’s hard to define myself. It’s all there, it’s my voice — this vast span of musical styles.”
In writing music and lyrics, she often begins with structure and chord progression. She wrote the song “No Dancing” on the No. 38 bus, when the lines “Put me on your to-do list, baby” came to her. Her voice is rich and her songs are gems, their spirit hopeful.
Now, she lives in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. Her mother passed away, and her father lives in Harlem, always attending her gigs.
“I’m exactly half-Jewish and half-black. Right down the middle, and then completely intertwined,” she says.
“As to the Jewish part of me, I grew up in a house that was very involved in social justice — it was a part of our thinking. I always knew that my grandmother and grandfather had to leave Germany, and I knew why. I always had a lot of Jewish friends and felt a cultural sensibility, nothing to do with religion.” She hasn’t yet been to Israel — she was supposed to go twice — and says she would love to go.
“I have incredible pride in my biracial heritage. I’m very fortunate to be able to roll into different worlds and feel comfortable.”
The only place she says that she felt discrimination and disrespect based on race has been at the international classical music competition held in Berlin every four years, the Grand Prix Emanuel Feuermann. The organizers, who have the rights to use her grandfather’s name although the family is not involved, have not welcomed the accomplished musician who is Feuermann’s granddaughter.
She has seen her grandfather’s cellos, but has not been able to play them. She says that her grandmother was given terrible advice and sold them, and they are now being sold between banks; his Stradivarius recently sold for $15 million.
Hughes has also done work in South Africa and Haiti as well as New York City, working with teens to write plays, with underlying messages about making wise choices. “I was looking to do something that mattered, not just about improving me, but about improving the world.”
Launching “New York Nostalgia,” Marika Hughes will play on Monday, March 14, 7:30 p.m., at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theatre (425 Lafayette St.) with her band Bottom Heavy, including Charlie Burnham on violin, Kyle Sanna on guitar, Fred Cash Jr. on bass and Tony Mason on drums.