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Gypsy music in Chicago

One of the world’s greatest cimbalom players – who’s also one of Chicago’s hidden musical treasures – is playing this Sunday, and the Gypsy Culture Preservation Project is urging music lovers to attend (7:30 to 11 p.m., Sunday, April 17 at Marie’s Italian Restaurant, 4127 W. Lawrence).

Alex Udvary is one of the world’s top-ranked players of the cimbalom (a European hammer dulcimer) and, with his many musical cousins, a stalwart of Chicago’s Romani music community.  Udvary is who the CSO calls when they need a cimbalom player; Kodaly, Bartok, Stravinsky, Boulez and others have written for the instrument. He’s also been featured in a TV commercial for Wendy’s.  He comes from a long line of Gypsy musicians; his great-aunt, the Countess Verona, is considered one of the great cimbalom players of all time.

Udvary has performed across Europe and in the close-knit Gypsy community here since moving to Chicago in the ’70s; he plays in a duo at Julius Meinl once a month.  Sunday’s gig is a rare opportunity to catch a larger ensemble – he’ll be joined by cousins playing violin, guitar and bass, performing swing, Hungarian folk, Yiddish, and continental repertoire in the highly-ornamented Gypsy cabaret style – and if the turnout is good, Steve Balkin of the GCPP says it could become a weekly engagement.

Balkin is known as a voice for preservation of Maxwell Street (read his open letter to the new mayor at Beachwood Reporter); he’s an economist at Roosevelt University.  He encountered Chicago’s Gypsies at the old Maxwell Street and has studied their culture in line with his interests in outdoor markets and microenterprises.  As his interest grew, he began compiling online resources and maintains a clearinghouse for Romani Culture on the internet.

“You have to go to Budapest or Paris to hear music like this,” Balkin says. “Alex and his cousins are the last generation of American gypsy musicians who play this repertoire.”  He’s asking fans of ethnic and world music to come out and support  “this spirited, thrilling, soulful music.”

Here’s Alex Udvary with violinist Jovan Mihailovic at Julius Meinl’s:

Benny Goodman

Benny Goodman, who did as much as anyone to bring jazz into the American mainstream, was born in Chicago 100 years ago this month — and  two programs are planned to celebrate his music. 

The son of Eastern European immigrants (his father, born in Warsaw, was a stockyard worker here), the ninth of twelve children, raised in the Maxwell Street neighborhood, Goodman started on clarinet in a synagogue band at age 9 and next year joined the boys band at Hull House.  (Also in the band was pianist Art Hodes,  who would be a major proponent of Chicago style jazz; he remembered it as the best instruction at the lowest price.) 

As a student at Harrison High (he dropped out after one year), Goodman began playing with kids from the Austin High Gang, especially Jimmy McPartland, and spending nights soaking up the music of great New Orleans clarinetists like Johnny Dodds and Jimmie Noone at Bronzeville dance halls, and Leon Roppolo with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings at the Friars Inn at Wabash and Van Buren.  He played with veterans of the NORK at the Midway Gardens near Washington Park; was fired from the Green Mill because his playing was too “hot”; and spent his 14th summer playing a Lake Michigan excursion boat with young Bix Beiderbecke.

He left Chicago when he was 16 and joined the Ben Pollack band, which took him to California and later New York.  He formed his own big band in 1934, using Chicagoan Gene Krupa, another Austin Gang fellow traveller (also born in 1909, by the way), on drums.

Eric Schneider, one of Chicago’s premier clarinetists, pays homage to Benny Goodman with the All City Jazz Band sponsored by the Jazz Institute tonight (Friday, May 1) at 7 p.m. at Warren Park, 6601 N. Western.

Later this month, the Alan Gresick Swing Shift Orchestra will feature John Otto on clarinet in a celebration of Benny Goodman’s music at the Harold Washington Library, Friday, May 29 at 12:15 p.m.  Goodman’s 100th birthday is May 30.



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