top of page

Naftule Brandwein: Discography

Naftule Brandwein: American Repertoire

Between 1870 and 1915, enormous numbers of Ashkenazim were displaced from Europe to New York (Ellis Island) and the port of Hallifax. The Jewish population of New York increased from 9 to a full 28% of the city's total population, "creating the largest single concentration of Jews in history" (Rischin 1977:93–94, Moore 1981:20) until Jewish immigration to the United States was cut off by the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924.

Included among those immigrants were the children of Klezmer dynasties—musical families who entertained rural masses for generations. Included in those masses would be Naftule Brandwein, who left a successful career in Przemylany, Austro-Hungarian Galicia (Ukraine), for the Lower East Side in 1908, where he, his wife, and son, joined his brother Israel.

Brandwein, like many European Klezmers who left for the United States, would face difficulties navigating the industrialization of New York City and the changing landscape of how a musician works with the introduction of new technologies.

The Musical landscape of 20’s Jewish NY

Post-World War I, the United States’ industrialization aimed to fulfill the desires of a rising middle class. Emerging record companies would produce media made by Jewish folk and marketed that material to primarily Jewish audiences. This points to a shift between European Klezmers and American Klezmers in that European Klezmers historically served mostly non-Jewish audiences, while American Klezmers did the opposite.

Among the first to record Jewish and Yiddish media, there was a notion to bring some of the old world home to the peoples of the new world. Record catalogs marketed to Jews consisted mostly of material about what they had lost coming to America. Early recording companies and publishers produced fewer Jewish instrumental music (what we might consider Klezmer) discs and focused on cantorial recordings and American Yiddish theater numbers.

Most early "Klezmer" recordings, including European Klezmer field recordings by Emile Berliner, were only done so for documentation purposes. Much of the old-world music that served or still serves functions like cantor music or wedding songs began to feel inappropriate to market to a crowd looking for easy listening or simple entertainment.

Naftule’s daughter, Sadie Freeman, describes how, in Naftule’s youth he played with and for everyone. The European landscape was vastly different, and Naftule, being a quick learner and master improviser played alongside/for Romani, Ashkenazim, and Poles alike in the manner of the Hasidic musical family (Rubin, J.E. (2001)).

The early discography of Brandwein reflects some of the European taste in his older style of playing with a selection of doinas and Gasn Nigun (a slow dance style). Though the depth to which he knew the old music would make his playing highly popular amongst his peers, the marketing of the time might have considered a few of these tunes as more "documentational" than easy listening. You will notice an absence of Doinas and Nigun styles as Naftule’s recordings progress through the 20s.

1922 (September) - Columbia

1922 (December) - Columbia


Doina, a Romanian semi-improvisatory rubato piece, was usually played during supper as listening music. "It was the violinists, in particular, who possessed the ability to move their audiences to tears. Sayings such as "his fiddle speaks" or "his fiddle speaks words", expressing enthusiasm for a good player (Elzet 1918:34; Beregovski 1941:446)." The violin was preferred in doinas and listening music because of its interpretive and dynamic qualities, details that just could not be captured on recordings.

The Klezmer Orchestra vs. The Recording Market

Abe Shwartz was famous for cultivating up-and-coming soloists in a changing landscape of Jewish instrumental music. (He conscripted Dave Tarras after all). One of his first and more challenging acquisitions was Naftule Brandwein who would continuously struggle to interface his old-world ideologies about music and its function with a changing America.

1923 (Feb) - with Abe Schwartz’s Orchestra - Columbia

1923 - with Abe Schwartz’s Orchestra - Columbia

Brandwein left Schwartz to become his own band leader and was replaced by Shloimke Beckerman (1885-1974) who would become wildly popular amongst musicians and listeners for both his improvisational skills and utility as an adept sight reader.

On many accounts, Naftule could be a pain to deal with. He could not read music which became more and more of a problem as Jewish musicians began to fill new niches as theater accompaniment. By the late nineteenth century most klezmorim were musically literate (Upaev 1904 [4]:103; Beregovski 1962 in Slobin 2000b:501). Violinists might make use of written material for study but not for their own music. This wouldn’t have been an issue in Europe, but Joseph Cherniavsky’s Yiddish American Jazz band (1923) worked on the vaudeville circuit and needed appeal amongst Jazz hungry audiences. Naftule was kicked out of this band not just because of his inflexibility but because he was a nasty drunk.

1925 Joseph Cherniavsky Yiddish American Jazz Band (with Dave Tarras on Clarinet)

Those who shared rooms with him on tour, like Joe Helfenbein, recall “I went back to Chernaivsky and said, ‘Please, Mr. Cherniavsky, it’s killing me. Let someone else take him for a while.’ But by that time, everyone had him and everyone complained” (Sapoznik). So he was replaced by Dave Tarras, who was socially much more agreeable, a fantastic reader, and a beautiful improviser.

You can see a shift in the kinds of Yiddish music that would excite audiences from the titles in Brandwein’s discography alone. Unlike American born Jews of the time, his repertoire did not expand to fit the needs of new audiences but contracted to fill what niches could celebrate him.

After leaving Shwartz in early 1923, Brandwein began recording a selection of “old-world potpourri.” Early sessions group him under different names, likely to fit which different audiences he could be marketed to under Columbia’s green label.

1922 (Dec) - Russkyj Narodnyj Orchester - Columbia

1923 (Feb) - Russkyj Narodnyj Orchester - Columbia

1923 (June) - Russkyj Narodnyj Orchester - Columbia

1923 (June) - Naftule Brandwein Orchestra - Columbia

  • Shtimen Fun Farshiedene Chayes (Various Animal Noises)

****(I’m so sorry I’ll find this one I promise)****

By late 1923, Brandwein was recording mostly fast paced dance music (sirbas, bulgars, freylachs); a portion of his repertoire, this music was more tantalizing to the home listener.

1923 - Emerson Records

1923 - Naftule Brandwein Orchestra - Victor

1924 (March) - Naftule Brandwein Orchestra - Victor

1924 (June) - Victor

1925 (April) - Victor

1925 (April) - Columbia

1926 (Feb) - Quintet - Victor

1927 (October) - Five Beggars - Brunswick

  • Bialy mazur

  • Polka Konkatka

1927 (October) - Naftuli Brandwein Orchestra - Brunswick

The Depression

The Great Depression had slashed record companies’ rosters of Jewish music. The “ethnic division” was nearly eliminated. The working class customers this music was produced for could more affordably see a Yiddish theater production than purchase a flat disc or any of the variety of play-back machine specific formats like the cylinders produced for Edison.

Consequently, Brandwein became even more restricted in his career opportunities. With immigration from Eastern Europe being cut off, he began to face shrinking and dispersing audiences.

He was not competent in American vernaculars leaving all his possible jobs to strictly Jewish functions where his generation and older would want a taste of home in a way that wasn’t present in secular media produced by Jews. Jewish music lost popularity to Jazz and American verse-chorus formats. According to his colleagues he did not play saxophone either. He was highly respected for his abilities in Jewish music but not much else.

Immigrant Klezmorim interfaced with music differently and were faced with the decision to adapt to also play more mainstream music types or quit music as a profession altogether. No longer did the guild-like structures of member-owner bands of Eastern Europe exist; American Klezmorim were now all free-lance musicians working single-engagement jobs.

Whereas their parents and grandparents could sustain themselves part time as musicians, in America, Klezmorim needed to work on multiple fronts and be flexible to work as members amongst several ensembles.

In 19th century Europe and earlier, study progressed from playing a drum in a band and gradually learning more instruments until one was ready to leave the community to work with their own group. There was an existent hierarchy amongst which members of musical families were to hold specific roles. "The system of payment within the kapelyes was based on the concept of shares (khalokim). Each band-member received a percentage based on his status within the group from the first violinist on down to the drummer." Rubin, J.E. (2001).

Density of immigrant populations in New York meant that Jews from all over Europe with differing practices would now all share the same block subsequently homogenizing the culture of the American Yiddish speaking population.

Musically, this meant that a skilled European musician who knew many regionally specific repertoires had no means of exercising this ability. The average Jewish musician was no longer growing up with a familial repertoire and learning by the old aural tradition but taking individual jobs or residencies with bands where they would need to read music and follow arrangements to fit disc times, radio slots, accompany theater productions, etc.

By the late 1930’s the popularity of the Kammen book, a “training wheels' ' for American born Klezmer musicians, set a common repertoire amongst American born musicians with a heavy focus on Burglars which were reduced in their transcription to their most basic forms. The immigrant Klezmorim considered the book an aberration - though it would last a lot longer in America than the European Klezmer school of thought and gave opportunities for reading musicians to take jobs doing Jewish music alongside other styles.

New York wedding musicians shifted towards operating as cliques and guarded their repertoire and specific styles they had carried over from Europe. Brandwein would face away from the audience and hide his clarinet fingerings from others in the audience who might want to steal his tricks. Older Klezmers would work hard to protect “the real repertoire” and all its tricks as if it were their livelihood. Thus, those traditions largely died with them.

“Immigrant Jews were nearly unanimous in their desire to shed their immigrant cultural status ... moving out of the ghetto materially and socially. Young and old alike were convinced that Jewish languages, dress, food, and social customs need to be discarded or at least seriously modulated to conform to the requirements and opportunities of American society. Thus, Yiddish culture in America always consisted of the particular, transitional, and temporary, for it stood in the overwhelming shadow of mainstream American identity and culture ... When there were no more Jews to whom American society and English-language culture were variously bewildering, intimidating, and incomprehensible, there simply did not need to be any more Yiddish-language Jewish culture (Loeffler 1997a:16).”

Slowly, musicians like Brandwein were forced into the Catskills where they could serve Jewish audiences at Jewish functions.

The Borscht Belt

The 1930’s are claimed to be the most successful portion of Brandwein’s career though it offers us the fewest recordings and thus the smallest morsels of evidence of this claim. With Jewish recording destroyed by the great depression, for the duration of the 1930’s Brandwein mostly played in the Borscht Belt (NY Catskills region) as a feature at summer getaways, resorts, and clubs home to Jewish audiences; unlike Tarras, who would reach several audiences a day by performing on low band radio signals that were shared by different programs in the same studio.

Brandwein would return to recording again one last time with four tracks recorded for Victor in 1941.

1941 (April) - Victor

Some of these are old tunes (Kleine prinzessin first recorded in 1922) and others, like Nifty’s Freilach, swing a little bit. By the 1950s, Brandwein had difficulty getting many gigs. The changing expectations in the music scene had long moved out of his domain. By the 1950’s Brandwein could be found drunkenly walking the median line of a busy Catskill highway playing Brahms.

The Catskills became a holiday getaway for many where all the old stars (often previous competitors in the Jewish media market of the 20’s) could be seen amongst the new ones. Molly Picon, Sid Caesar, Jerry Lewis, and blowing as hard as he could, seated firmly in his chair; an ailing Brandwein.


Rubin, J.E. (2001). The art of the klezmer: improvisation and ornamentation in the commercial recordings of New York clarinettists Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras 1922-1929. (Unpublished Doctoral thesis, City University London)

Sapoznik, Henry (1999). Klezmer! Jewish Music from Old World to Our World. (Schirmer Trade Books).

Discography construction:


17 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page