Pete Sokolow (1940-2022, ז"ל)
It is with a broken heart that I share the very sad news of the passing of one of the last giants of classic klezmer music, the brilliant pianist, bandleader, orchestrator, teacher – and dear, close friend — Pete Sokolow (z”l)
Dubbed by his Hasdic fans as "Peysakh Duvid, dem organ shplierer," or by me as "The youngest of the old guys," Pete lived a fully formed and tremendously realized fulfilling musical life.
Born in Brooklyn in 1940, Sokolow’s father was a devotee of the music of George Gershwin and taught him to play piano in that style. But the young Sokolow was too in awe of the great reed players of early New Orleans (a “moldy fig” was how he referred to himself) so learned clarinet and saxophone to emulate his idols.
When Pete started working in Jewish bands in the 1950s Catskills, that he discovered the widespread inadequacy of keyboard players universally unskilled in any nuances of Yiddish music harmony, so changed gears and returned to the piano.
Pete’s instincts were, of course, correct as he soon became the preferred accompanist of klezmer icons like Dave Tarras and Max Epstein and the Epstein Brothers making him, as Pete joked, the “fifth” Epstein brother.
Despite his love of the music, Sokolow turned to teaching in the New York City school system to raise his young family, but the growing Hasidic music business drew him back into performing despite his low opinion of the music.
It was around this time in the early 1970s that I first met Pete when my late father Cantor Zindel Sapoznik (z”l) assumed his post as the cantor of Brooklyn’s Marine Park Jewish Center and where Pete was a member of his choir. (Pete and I did not exactly hit it off, I was playing old time country music at the time and Pete referred to me as “the cantor’s hippie son.”)
However, with my own subsequent discovery of klezmer music, I discovered Pete’s deeply accrued knowledge so soon became a willing supplicant and regular visitor to his cluttered basement listening to old 78s and LPs, looking at sheet music and first hearing of players — Sid Beckerman, Howie Lees, Paul Pincus, Max Epstein, Ray Musiker, Irving Gratz and many more — who I would soon count among my close friends and bandmates.
As Köchel did for Mozart or Francis James Child did for English balladry, Pete Sokolow sat down with the old guys and meticulously and systematically transcribed all their old time Yiddish music thereby creating an easily assessable library of a generation of mid-century New York klezmer repertoire. The transcriptions would become a basis of our book “The Compleat Klezmer,” the first modern klezmer anthology.
Co-founding Klezmer Plus! in 1982, Pete Sokolow built the band around these musicians and, under his leadership, brought a fully formed instant visceral presence to the early days of the klezmer renewal. Pete’s intimate knowledge of these veteran klezmer players who time and taste had cast aside but who he eagerly sought out with a singular vengeance, reignited their long dormant playing, and restored to them the dignity of being celebrated for their singular musical prowess while simultaneously affording me the singular lifetime thrill to regularly share bandstands with them and, in the best possible way, learn the nuances of the music from the very players who fully lived it. I was the worst musician on the bandstand and I couldn’t be happier!
The band quickly added to its weddings and bar mitzvahs by playing at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the National Folk Festival, the Seattle Folklife Center, and periodic concerts for the Library of Congress. In 1991 we produced the award-winning CD: “Klezmer Plus! Featuring Sid Beckerman and Howie Lees” the basis for our subsequent book “The Klezmer Plus Folio.”
When I started KlezKamp in 1985, it was, of course, to Pete Sokolow whom I first turned and who instantly became the head of the music faculty not only plugging in the Sids, and the Howies and the Pauls (enabling them to become beloved folk icons in their own right) but who found his own joyous outlet for his love of music and his love of teaching. Pete would come to 29 of the 30 KlezKamps, missing only the last one due to illness.
For those three decades, Pete’s colorful character (“A circumcised W.C. Fields” one old friend called him) and his enthusiastic (and at times, sandpaper-y) demeanor could – and did — put off some students. But the smart ones who persevered, would quickly find that beneath the gruff and jagged exterior was a deeply passionate and lovingly generous holder of a beloved tradition who would happily put every one of his students into a direct connection to the unbroken continuity of the music he adored
However, this was only one of his powerful musical passion. Dubbing himself, "Klezmer Fats" after his favorite Harlem Stride pianiast "Fats" Waller, Pete was an outrstanding exponent of stride and boogie woogie piano wowing audiences for years at a series of free concerts at the New York Public Library and being a stalward on bandstands dedicated to audthentic sound of New Orleans Dixieland and later Swing.
Pete’s passions (old cars, airplanes, movies, etc) extended to old time radio, so, we worked together from 1990-1996 on the last iteration of WEVD’s long running all-Yiddish signature program The Forward Hour, Pete became the show’s regular musical co-host enthusiastically playing audience requests on the station’s long unused Hammond B6 organ.
Pete would also be my music director for several NPR series: a short lived but delightful 1995 NPR program dedicated to the cartoons of Ben Katchor’s Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer and the 2002 Peabody award winning NPR series “The Yiddish Radio Project.” Pete not only created all the music for the 10-part series (including a delightful klezmer version of the “All Things Considered” theme!) but led the orchestra on the Yiddish Radio Project’s six city nationwide tour with Yiddish theater veterans Seymour Rechtzeit, Claire Barry, David Rogow and others.
And when Pete was a member of Kapleye, he was on our 1995 loving tribute to old time Yiddish radio, Kapelye, On the Air and the same year when PBS hired us for the Itzhak Perlman In the Fiddler’s House to recreate a radio segment featuring Fyvush Finkel singing my English translation of his hit 1942 record Ikh Bin a Border Bay Mayn Vayb.
Yet, for all the gigs and projects and undertaking we eagerly co-conspired on, it will be the numerous small things which inform my deepest loving memories of Pete: our long car rides to and from gigs where he would fill the time and the air with stories about gigs past and then, after we had set up our bandstand – always at least an hour early — he would get the other old guys to add their own stories. Or going around the city taking pictures of locations where Yiddish radio stations used to exist, visiting old musicians and recording their stories, visiting Blimpie Blank’s Bargain Music store on a dilapidated Lower East Side or haunting junk stores on City Island looking for klezmer 78s.
Pete’s last record was for KlezKamp’s “Living Traditions” series a 2011 tribute to his long involvement as a klezmer musician on which he plays all the instruments and produced by Ken Maltz. The CD’s inter-generational cover is reproduced here.
On June 19, 2017, the Yiddish Artists and Friends staged a sold out all-star musical tribute to Pete which featured many top players (Michael Winograd, Ken Maltz, Aaron Alexander, David Levitt, Jordan Hirsch, Joanna Sternberg, etc.) with me on banjo and MC and coordinated with his son Daniel.
While there were disappointments, (The Library of Congress repeatedly declined to consider my repeated applications to consider him for its prestigious National Heritage Folklife Award) Pete triumphed in being a unique and dynamic and inspiring presence to the emerging generation of klezmer music, passing the baton to a generation he helped make more literate, insightful and passionate.
It is impossible to think of any Yiddish music projects which I ever undertook for which I did not first think of Pete as an enthusiastic and eager collaborator, enabler, critic and inspiration.
It is impossible to think of a time that Pete was anything less than an encouraging and devoted friend, a forthcoming Dutch Uncle, and a sympathetic, generous, and supportive soul.
It is impossible to think of a world now without Pete Sokolow: a once in a generation musician and a virtuoso mentsh.
Boruch Dayan Emes: May your memory be an eternal blessing.
A super special concert honoring Pete
Kapelye on the PBS special "In the Fiddler's House" with Fyvush Finkel with Pete at the piano
Pete's interview with the National Yiddish Book Center