Two weeks ago we ran a story and video about an unidentified man playing a medley of Jewish songs on saxophone and clarinet in the Times Square subway station. At the time we didn't have any more information about him, but now we know the rest of the story, which we'll share with you.
He's Isaiah Richardson Jr., an alumnus of the Juilliard School, the High School of Music and Art and the Performing Arts, and the United States Marine Corps Band. So what's he doing playing Jewish music in the subway?
Zach Pontz interviewed Richardson for the Jewish newspaper The Algemeiner, and got some insight into his background and musical interests. Here is his report:
When I finally caught up with Richardson, over coffee in Brooklyn, I learned that he isn’t your typical street performer. In fact, he’s not really a street performer at all. An accomplished musician with performances at Webster Hall, Carnegie Hall and the 92nd Street Y under his belt, he currently plays with the band Brown Rice Family, the Colombian Punk Rock band Maku SoundSystem, and is a working musician-for-hire. At the time of our meeting he was shooting a project for HBO.
A multi-instrumentalist who identifies himself as a clarinetist first and foremost (he also plays the saxophone, harmonica, trumpet and piano, among other instruments), he fell into playing in subways by accident, then by necessity.
“I remember the exact date: September 24, 2010. I did a recording earlier in the day and fell asleep on the train and all of my instruments got stolen. My tenor sax—gone. Flute-gone. Clarinet-gone. Harmonica—gone. At that point all I had was a trumpet. So I decided then, and if you’re a musician and that’s what you do and your things are gone—that’s a problem. And I didn’t have any money then, so I decided to play the trumpet on the street,” he relates.
Among the songs in his repertoire were several klezmer and traditional Jewish tunes he had picked up while studying the clarinet, first in a program at Juilliard when he was just 12, then later in high school, college and for the Marine Corps band.
“I just heard all these sounds and every clarinetist wanted to learn how to make those sounds,” he said of growing up around musicians who found their influence in the klezmer music first cultivated by Eastern European Jews, and then spread across the globe.
But his real education came in high school when he got hold of a certain album by a prominent klezmer musician. “I got an Andy Statman album, Hidden Light, and I can’t tell you how many times I listened to that album. Just over and over again, every day.” Other musicians that Richardson is fond of citing include Benny Goodman and Dave Tallas, whom Richardson speaks of in almost hushed tones. “Nobody can touch Dave Tarras. Nobody,” he says.Last November the New York Times ran a video report on Richardson, who frequently plays on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.