Dean, Davenport College, Yale University
It gives me the greatest pleasure to write a recommendation for Susan Hoffman Watts and Elaine Hoffman Watts. Susan and Elaine are two of the finest musicians, performers, educators, and people I know. They are keepers of an almost extinct musical tradition that they inherited from their family: klezmer. Perhaps “sharers” would be a more accurate word than “keepers,” since Susan and Elaine in no way want to keep their music to themselves; they enthusiastically share it with everyone they meet.
I met Susan and Elaine about ten years ago when I attended KlezKamp in the Catskills, where they were both working as instructors. At that time I had just begun to study klezmer music. I quickly discovered that as the descendants of a long line of klezmer musicians, Susan and Elaine were an invaluable resource. I also discovered that they are two of the warmest and funniest people I have ever met, and their constant repartee made our many hours of conversation all the more entertaining.
Susan and Elaine are experts in a specific style of klezmer music that emigrated from Poland to Philadelphia near the turn of the twentieth century. Susan grew up in a musical household where she learned to play the trumpet. Her mother, Elaine, learned to play the drums from her father, Jake Hoffman, a professional musician who played with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Ballets Russes Orchestra. On the side he played klezmer music with Harry Kandel’s renowned Orchestra, and recorded dozens of sides for Victor Records with them. Jake and his brothers learned klezmer from their father, who handed down to them a book containing hundreds of klezmer tunes that he transcribed by hand (in two keys!). Tunes that have survived nowhere else besides this book are part of Susan and Elaine’s repertoire.
When I began to develop a course on klezmer music for Yale University in 2000, I knew that I wanted Susan and Elaine to be guest lecturers and performers for the section on klezmer in America during the first half of the twentieth century. Without a second thought, Susan and Elaine drove up from Philadelphia to New Haven to work with my class. Elaine told stories of playing with her father – the only bandleader willing to use a female drummer. She described the different klezmer dance genres and demonstrated the drum beats that accompany them. These beats have been forgotten by all but the most knowledgeable klezmer drummers today, most of whom learned them from Elaine.
Susan recalled stories of hearing her grandfather play Jewish music on the xylophone in the living room, and told of her own path toward Jewish music. The students were mesmerized. Following the class Susan and Elaine went on to coach the Yale Klezmer Band in the afternoon and perform a concert at Yale’s Hillel in the evening. After the concert, the curator of Yale’s Historical Sound Archives approached me ecstatically and said, “Boy, Elaine can really play those drums. And do you think there’s a finer trumpet player alive!?”
Susan and Elaine were such an unqualified success that I invited them to my class when I taught it a few years later at Amherst College. Again, the results were astounding, with Elaine retelling her family’s musical history and Susan discussing students’ final projects with them after class. It was clear to everyone involved that Susan and Elaine do not just play klezmer, they live klezmer.
Even more remarkable is the way Susan and Elaine have managed to bring their musical skills and background to the contemporary Jewish music scene. Elaine has been invited to perform and record with many of today’s leading klezmer groups. Susan works with so many bands and in so many styles that it’s hard to keep track of her, from performing Balkan-Jewish music with Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All-Stars to traditional Yiddish songs with Mikvah to Hip-Hop klezmer with DJ SoCalled. The variety alone is astonishing, but it is the fluency with which she moves between styles that really stands out. Recently, Susan and Elaine put out their first album, an exciting collection of their family’s tunes. I hope it won’t be their last, because it would be a terrible tragedy to not have more of their family’s musical history recorded by the mother-daughter duo.
Simply put, Susan and Elaine are two of the most outstanding musicians I know. What more can I say than I hired them to play my own wedding?! Beyond being dedicated to their art, they are experts in a rarified musical style that many people love, but few understand. I give them my highest possible recommendation; they would be an excellent choice for any and all touring opportunities.