Like almost every other wacky idea that eventually alters the cultural trajectory of the human species, the origin of the 4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra can be traced back to a sketch on a cocktail napkin. Five years ago, trumpeter and composer Roger Ruzow was sitting at a table in the basement bar at the Highland Inn, drinking a beer and mulling over an idea that had been whirling around his head for several months.
“I was thinking about an ensemble that would play music in an Afrobeat style, influenced by western African melodies and rhythms, especially the music of Ghana and Nigeria,” Ruzow said in a 2009 interview. “Then I thought about how much I liked klezmer music. I’m Jewish, so maybe it’s genetics, but using those scales and modes comes naturally to me.”
Klezmer and Afrobeat? Comprising a heady stew of Yoruban tribal music; American jazz, funk and R&B; and West African highlife, Afrobeat was concocted in the late 1960s by Nigerian bandleader and political activist Fela Kuti. And Klezmer music was derived from 19th-century central-European peasant traditions, particularly the Ashkenazic Jewish culture, as well as myriad gypsy bands, which morphed into an urban form containing elements of Yiddish theater and vaudeville tunes, ritual celebratory fanfare and prayer song, and, most importantly, jazz. Klezmer emerged from within the fledgling Jewish immigrant communities in New York in the early decades of the 20th century.
Back at the Highland Inn, as wacky as the exercise seemed, even to him, Ruzow quickly sketched out a few arrangements for a nine-piece ensemble (brass and reeds, guitar and/or keyboard, rhythm section). He gave them suitably expressive titles like “Greater Lagos Wednesday Night Talmud Meeting” and “Sweet Auburn Mishegas.” Turning to his drinking companion, saxophonist Ben Davis, Ruzow unveiled the sketchy charts and asked whether he’d be interested in playing “this stuff.”
“Sure, why not?” replied Davis. During the ensuing talent search, which took several months, not every musician approached by Ruzow had the same immediate, nonchalant, reaction.
Shouldn’t work, but does
“When Roger first asked me to join his band, which he said was going to play some sort of combination of Afrobeat and klezmer material, my first thought was, ‘Hell no! That’s ridiculous!’” says Jeff Crompton, saxophonist, composer and veteran of the Atlanta jazz and alternative music scenes. “But then, he’s an old friend, so I said OK.”
On a cool, sunny Saturday in late January, slouched comfortably on the couch in the living room of Crompton’s Candler Park abode, Ruzow and his bandmate field questions while listening to an eclectic medley of Chicago blues, New Orleans funk and jazz (a little bebop, a dash of swing, a shot of Ayler). Both men are professional educators and amateur historians, which necessarily means the interview is punctuated with esoteric discussions about who played with whom on what session and that can’t be true because, look here, we all know Wilbur Ferguson had not yet changed his name to Ishtar Esophagus Marcellus when that recording was made.
Five years ago, Crompton admits, he knew almost nothing about klezmer music, and what he thought he knew did not inspire confidence in the Afro-klezmer project. Still, he figured, it was worth showing up for the first rehearsal during which the irreconcilable flaws in the plan would be exposed, thereby affording an opportunity to make a graceful exit without feelings being hurt too deeply.
“Instead, I was completely blown away,” Crompton says, shaking his head. “I kept shaking my head and thinking, ‘Wow, this is the best stuff Roger has ever written.’”
Duly converted, Crompton began contributing arrangements and composing pieces for the ensemble. He soon became the 4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra’s de facto concert master. Onstage during performances, when he’s not blowing some of the sweetest or baddest sax solos you’re ever likely to hear, Crompton is the one wearing a white lab coat (an insider’s reference to the late Lester Bowie of Art Ensemble of Chicago fame), instigating background riffs, counting down transitional passages, and “fussing at people when they miss cues,” which happens more often than the average listener ever notices.
“This is difficult music,” Crompton says. “Even now, when Roger calls a tune that we haven’t played for a while, some people might forget exactly how something goes and weird things happen. The good news is, we’re at the point where, when weird things happen, everyone can just adjust and go with it.”
From skronk to funk
Born in Hialeah, Florida, Ruzow attended Coral Gables High School and studied with locally renowned trumpeter Jack Pinto. At Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., he played bass in area rock bands while earning a degree in music production. Soon after moving to Atlanta in 1994, Ruzow co-founded Gold Sparkle Band with four companions. The band enjoyed a memorable run through the end of the decade, garnering rave reviews for playing smartly crafted, energetically anarchic, free improvisational jazz. When some members decided to relocate to New York, Ruzow declined to make the leap. Facing health issues and having been newly graced by a full-time teaching position, he chose to stay put. These days, Ruzow teaches music to grades k-through-seven at Unidos Dual Language Charter School.
An Atlanta native, Crompton recently retired after 29 years of service in the Fulton County School System. As an adolescent, he was inspired to pick up the saxophone when he heard Paul Desmond on television and saw Boots Randolph in concert. For Christmas one year, his mother gave him a Budd Johnson album, which contained within its grooves a bass solo by Richard Davis. Johnson’s full-bodied, Texas-honed horn and Davis’ fanciful finger-work compelled Crompton to forsake the paths of his boyhood heroes—while keeping the useful elements of their stylistic chops—and forthrightly stride down the road to avant-garde improvisation. A list of major saxophonic influences along the way includes Sidney Bechet, Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and Steve Lacy. His performing resume includes stints with Darryl Rhoades and the Mighty Mighty Men from Glad, free-jazz/funk trio The Bazooka Ants, and pianist/composer Michael J. Smith.
“While Jeff and I share a history of playing ‘free improv,’ that’s not what the 4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra is about,” Ruzow says. “However, the goal remains the same; the music is still a vehicle for improvisation and development leading to moments of spontaneous excellence.”
‘It’s all just music’
Since the formation of the 4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra (so named for the intown Atlanta neighborhood where Ruzow lives), the member roster has occasionally fluctuated, depending on day-job work schedules, family commitments and other unavoidable vagaries. Two self-produced 4WAKO albums have been released—East Atlanta Passover Stomp (2009) and Abdul the Rabbi (2012), the latter’s title track the only vocal number composed by Ruzow to date.
Actually, Zano Bathroom of Atlanta-based hip-hop duo Social Studies wrote the lyrics and delivers the message carried by “Abdul the Rabbi,” whom Ruzow describes as “a conflicted anti-hero.” Above the strains of a gutbucket, hard-funk rhythmic foundation tinged by brassy Mesopotamian hues, Zano intones in a dulcet tenor voice: “…the mind reeling / divine ceiling / we soar past the hard task / discard masks of old ways / even though we gravitate to the grave / we unfold and orchestrate how we behave.”
Unfolding and orchestrating behavior is certainly one way of describing what bandleaders do. But the leader of the 4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra isn’t focused so much on directing behavior as he is on sketching a bridge designed to conjoin musicians and audiences across continents and cultures.
“I don’t hear a huge disparity between styles, between Afropop and klezmer, between klezmer and jazz, between rai and rock, or funk and rock, or rock and klezmer, and on into chamber music,” Ruzow says. “To me, it’s all just music.”