Jews in Irish Music ~ Jason Pollack

JasonPJason Pollack is one of the premier Irish Fluters in the SF Bay Area.

“My Dad was a psychiatrist. He had the Newman family name on his mother’s side. His father was Pollack, but died when he was young, so my dad was raised by the Newmans. So I could just as well be a Newman. My great-grandmother, Naomi Newman was the sister of Barnet Newman, the famous Modern artist, who’s sculpture stands in the entrance to MOMA in NY; an upside-down obelisk that stands on a rock. He was also a painter, famous for his brilliant white canvas with a perfectly symmetrical blue stripe going down it. He and his wife were not related to Jackson Pollack, but one of his first patrons.

My grandfather grew up poor on the Lower East Side, eventually an orphan, because his mother died. His uncle Newman raised him. They lived in one room in a 2-room tenement and another family lived in the other. My uncle and aunt traced my heritage in Poland, because in Poland they kept records of the Jews. They had records of centuries of Newmans; a uniquely Polish thing. On the other side of my family in Ukraine, my grandmother didn’t have a birth certificate until she emigrated. So she had two birthdays; one when she thinks she was actually born and the birthday that’s on her records which is two or three years later. It took her that 2-3 years longer to get her social security.

On my Dad’s side of the family, actually my grandmother’s, were the Weinbergers; crazy, artistic Hungarians. They also grew up on the Lower East Side, where this person was practicing the piano, this person was practicing the violin; they were driven. They ALL played instruments, and were very demonstrative and zany. They all ended up in Los Angeles coming from NY in the ‘50s to be pharmacists. Uncle Irving came out first and said, “Hey, we can all open pharmacies, it’s sunny, it’s beautiful, we can get homes.” So that’s what they did, and were successful. My great aunt Dorothy started a graphic arts business that’s still thriving. Dad moved to Van Nuys in The Valley when he was 12 from The Bronx. He ended up going to school first at Reed College in Oregon for Pre-med. The science classes were too hard at Reed so he transferred to Cal Berkeley and then UCSF. He was the Mental Health Director for Contra Costa County, which is why we moved there from San Francisco, where I was born. But then he established a practice here in Berkeley. He’s now retired.

My Weinberger grandmother was such a good pianist that she was accepted to Julliard out of high school, but she was unable to go. The Depression hit, it was the ‘30s and her father had died. So she had to go to work. But she was always a very good musician. The Weinbergers would get together and play Classical Music. Irving loved Bach, and Artie was a bad violinist, but he played along and they had their “party pieces” that they performed together. I got to hear them a lot in LA. On my mom’s side were the Steimans; but her mom’s name was Katz, who came here through Corpus Christi and then up to Detroit. They came to San Francisco and eventually owned a building at Frederick and Stanyan in The Haight, where she grew up. She actually went to Cal in the ’30s. She met her husband and dropped out. They had two kids and she became a Steiman, who were also related to the Shanskys who were part of the Petaluma chicken farmer empire; good old-world agricultural folk. My grandfather became an egg distributor. They had their chickens in Hayward.

My mother’s brother Harold was a fantastic musician, with perfect pitch who ended up playing trombone. Went to SF State and then got his Masters at Eastman School of Music in Rochester NY. Played it the Ottowa Symphony for a while and then got a Second Chair position at Pittsburg Symphony in PA he held for 30 years. He then became the Personnel Manager for the PSO until he retired. He was a big Jazz fan, with great records by Woody Herman and Stan Kenton.

My dad is pretty talented as a singer, takes lessons and is part of the UC Berkeley Alumni Chorus. They do arranged pieces like Carmina Burana; very challenging.

So I started off being more interested in Jazz. My big influences were Phil Woods, a great alto sax player who just passed away, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles. Not on flute; I started on saxophone, in 3rd grade. But I never really quite got it. My parents did not get me lessons, or find me the best teachers, or get me the best instruments. They were kinda absentee.

I was at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music studying flute in my freshman year out of high school. I wanted to be a Jazz reed guy; meaning you have to play saxophone, flute and clarinet. My dream was to be a NY reed man; studio, Jazz, kick-ass player, wear a dark suit. Sax is the king instrument because it’s the most creative, with the most compelling sound, which I believe can do the most things melodically. It’s not EASY; I’ve tried and was not very good at it. The really great tenor players tend to be big men, ‘cause it’s a big horn. There aren’t too many little tenor players. I was in the Jazz band before and my high school band teacher was a tyrant. The flute worked best for me. I just picked up the flute and I was shredding on it. So I started to take lessons with my Junior high school teacher, and he was a classical flute player, so we started to do classical flute. The Diablo Youth Orchestra was just starting, this was the early ’80s, I was living in Martinez, and auditioned and got in as the second flute player. That same year the San Francisco Youth Orchestra started, funded by the SF Symphony, with rehearsals and performances at Davies Symphony Hall, and the assistant conductor Jahja Ling led the Youth Orchestra. So I auditioned for that & I got in. That was my sophmore year. I was one of four flute players from around the Bay Area. At the same time I was doing the Pepsi Competition, and the first time I was finalist. They gave out scholarship money if you win. I played Mozart’s Second Flute Concerto; that was my piece.

I gave up playing in the high school band, and started lessons with Floyd Gowan the piccolo/3rd flute player in the SF Symphony, going to his place in Daly City during the week and on Saturday I’m going to Davies Symphony Hall to rehearse with the Youth Orchestra. At the time Michael Tilson Thomas guest conducted rehearsal, as did Kurt Mazur, the head of the NY Philharmonic. We also had Emanuel Ax. I met James Galway backstage when he was rehearsing with the Symphony. He wasn’t playing any Irish music in that program.

I ended up moving to San Francisco at 17, and got into the SF Conservatory. My plan was to go there and eventually transfer.

Everybody plays Boehm Flutes in classical. The early flutes, that they originally played Bach on, are now called Baroque Flutes. They’re still made and played by Period Musicians. They are similar to an Irish flute. It has the embouchure hole, and 6 holes for your fingers, 3 for each hand. And only one key at the end. So you can do all the chromatics and all the intricacies of Bach with this instrument via cross-fingerings. And you only needed that one key to play a D#/Eb. It was known as the One-Key Flute that was the de facto flute for 200 years. In the 19th Century they figured out this flute was too hard to play, and it’s too quiet. They wanted to play louder, and the symphonies started to get louder, and larger.

The English came up with the English Simple System flute, which made the teeny holes in the Baroque flute much larger, and the bore larger, and the embouchure hole larger, as well. So it was capable of having much more volume, but once you opened up those holes you couldn’t do all the cross-fingerings, so they had to add more keys. So at the height of that design it was an 8-key Simple System; a louder, fully chromatic flute that was easier to play. But then they went crazy. If you look at the 19th Century there are literally a hundred design iterations. Everyone was still trying to crack the code.

2-theobald-boehmTheobald Boehm came up with a system he first adapted to the Simple System flute, in the sense that the head of the flute is cylindrical and the body is conical. Eventually Boehm figured out to make the head elliptical with a cylindrical body; he switched it. Then he based his hole placement on acoustic scientific principles. Because on the Simple System flutes the placement was full of compromises to fit the human hand. For example, the G hole was placed incorrectly and it was the wrong size. Putting keys on the Boehm system solved this. On the G and A keys in Boehm flutes two pads actually cover two large holes simultaneously for each of those notes. So there is no way that the human hand could actually perform such an operation.

It also coincides with the Mechanical/Industrial Revolution. They were just now capable of making all these complex metal things. And springs and pads and tiny screws. By the end of the 19th century it was SO much easier to play. So much easier to play in tune, to play fast, everything. If you’re getting paid to play you better play perfectly. So there was a wide-spread migration from Simple System flutes to Boehm modern System. Some of those Simple flutes were just scrapped. They were worthless. Nobody wanted them. The story is that a lot of them showed up in Ireland in the pawnshops. The traditional players came by and said, “let me see that thing. It fingers just like my whistle and pipes.” They liked it. That’s how it got started.

In my freshman year at the SF Conservatory in the mid ’80s I was a fairly heavy drinker, like my dad and grandfather. I found I could go to the Irish pubs in San Francisco and get served even though I was under-age. I went to Yancy’s in the Inner Sunset, and the Plough and Stars on Clement St. I was sitting there drinking Irish whiskey and I saw this guy playing this crazy flute and making crazy sounds. I came up to him and said “I’m a flute-player, too, attending the Conservatory, I’m curious what you’re doing. How do you learn to do that ?” He said in his Irish accent “you just have to come and sit and listen.” It was so different than my formal training. It was like he was speaking from Mars. That was my first exposure to Irish flute. Totally forgot about it. I spent one year at the Conservatory and went to SF State and got a really killer tenor saxophone. I was taking lessons from Mel Martin, who’s still around and one the to top tenor sax and flute players here in the Bay Area. I was in the Jazz Band, but wasn’t really taking off, doing poorly as an alcohol and drug addict, very depressed and messed up. I dropped out of school and ignored my family. I got clean and sober when I was 25. I stopped playing music, both Jazz and Classical. I began playing guitar and singing Pop and Beatles stuff. I ended up in a band playing bass. I got OK, pretty good; not great. I got my Masters in Engish Composition with hope of teaching college, which I did do. I got married to Karen and we had my daughter. When she was like 3 years old she was really into these dance shows, Flamenco, Hawaiian, and other big productions, like Celtic Women. We watched it in 2006. The women wore these beautiful dresses, and they’re up by this castle, and they have smoke effects and all that. They have the really cheesy fiddler/violinist.

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I enjoyed it. After the 4th or 5th time watching it, I was impressed by a tune set she played. I thought “that’s the TRUTH.” Then I thought, this is IRISH MUSIC, there’s a FLUTE in Irish Music. At that point, I went on the Internet and entered “Irish Flute” and – BAM ~!  There it was !

First thing I went to was The Chieftains, then I heard Matt Malloy play, and, I don’t know what he’s doing, but it sounded REALLY cool. I later got Grey Larson’s book, like a PHD dissertation on Irish Flute, too much based on ornamentation for me. I discovered others besides Matt Malloy from Roscommon like Kevin Crawford that I was really more drawn toward . I’m very choosy. Across the whole spectrum of Irish Traditional Music I’m very choosy; it’s got to have wind. If it’s dominated by a banjo or accordion, forget it, I’m out. One of the things I’ve discovered about Irish music, is it’s one of the best applications of flute. It’s a very masculine approach to the instrument, in that you’re really driving the flute. The sound that’s prized by most people is a very “blasting” tone, which can only be produced in that way on a Simple System flute because of the conical bore. My technique is, for the lower the note you have to allow the air to go all the way down and back up to blast out the embouchure. Very different from the more classically influenced players like Grey Larson and Chris Norman where the sound comes through the flute. To me the most quintessential Irish sound is this BLAST; Kevin Crawford and Michael McGoldrick both have it. But, there’s all these different schools of playing in Irish Music. Conal O’Grada, Harry Bradley, and Michael Clarkson, are all well-known in the Irish Flute world. It’s a broad spectrum. You could be totally mellow and lyrical; or you can be really harsh and rhythmic and pulsing. I tell my students: the goal is, you need to be able to play, solo, by yourself, so people can dance to it. So the rhythm, and the feel, and the groove, is so strong. That’s the magic. If people start moving while I’m playing, it’s a credit to me, that they can’t control themselves. I’ve just activated something in them that is forcing them to move their body.

I sometimes do play whistle, but I try to avoid it because it takes away from my flute embouchure. After I play a tune on whistle, say at a session, it takes me a set to get it back. I practice my Irish flute EVERY day. I don’t miss a day.

valerie-jason-irish-band-03The only Irish group I’ve had is the one I have now with Valerie Rose. It’s just she & I. We’ve never had anyone commit to being our guitarist. Kyle and Will played a lot with us, then Mark Boronkay, who’s also Jewish. Valerie always remarks “how come I’m always hanging around with all these Jewish guys ?” Playing Irish Music, right ? Also Daniel Hersh, who plays anglo concertina with her from time to time.

One of my ideas for a project is to have a more progressive Trad band, kinda like Michael McGoldrick and one of my teachers Brian Finnegan, more inclusive and not just “pure drop” Irish trad, but including newly composed tunes, intentional arrangements, and more Jazz influence. Almost nobody’s doing it.

I was mentioning to someone recently that 20-30% of the Irish players in the Bay Area are Jewish. An older family friend said that’s because Jews are active in all the arts. We’re artistic people who perceive quality and are attracted to it.

Irish music is like Klezmer without the schmaltz. It’s more straight-forward. We’re happier. We’re comfortable. There’s something modern sounding there. Cleaner and more modern. Interesting, I’m now getting into Klezmer music and taking it into a project and bringing an Irish sensibility to it.

Jason-Pollack-Band1The way I started off is, I found all these tunes online, and started learning them and then I saw there’s a SLOW session for beginners; great ~! I went and learned about session etiquette, and experimenting with actual Irish flutes. Then I went down this rabbit hole and I didn’t come out. And I keep being compelled to play this music. I think the reason why Jewish people really like it is that it’s egalitarian. It’s democratic. You show up, and if you know the tune, great. Play the tune. You don’t know the tune, fine, don’t play the tune, hang out and listen. Its open. Come, we encourage you. Like Shay Black at the Starry Plough, he knows my name, he encourages me to play. I consider him a mentor. Early on he asks me to start a set, then invites me to move in and join the inner circle. “Hey Jason, I want you to come lead one of the sessions.” We did and eventually he tells me “You and Valerie are going to lead the session on the 3rd Sunday of every month.” I couldn’t sustain it, though because I was working, and the family, and all that. It was good experience. Shay is so kind to musicians. He never taught me to play any tune, but he is my mentor on encouraging others, nonetheless. I now feel that being welcoming is my charge.

Back to the connection of Jews to Irish Music, is the music is great, and it’s challenging enough, and it’s communal. And playing IN UNISON. I think this is a deep Jewish principal. We are all unified; we are all equal. There’s not really a hierarchy. A brotherhood ethos. They formed one of the first tribal councils and cooperative styles of governing. Mishpucha. Kibbutzim. Communism. Actually, Christianity is also a Jewish construct.

With the music again, it’s a beautiful thing when you’re all playing together. You’re all welcome. And, you’re all equal. There are two [ or more ] takes on this, for example The Starry Plough’s inclusion of players at all levels vs the Plough and Stars more exclusive, expert sessions.

It depends on where you are as a player. Where you are in your journey as an Irish musician. Players at The Plough and Stars are much further down the road. The tunes that I play, they’ve played ten thousand times, and they’ve moved on to other tunes. The people in that session are in similar parts of their journey. I’m somewhere in between. I have the chops to play with them at the Plough and Stars, but not the repertoire.

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