Performance to Honor Musical Trailblazer

Elaine Hoffman Watts plays the drums at her wedding with her father, Jacob Hoffman, on xylophone. | Photos provided

“At the top of the mountain of rich experiences in our lives in klezmer and Philadelphia, we found Elaine Hoffman Watts. She stood so far taller than her height and did not hesitate to teach us about music and life. May we all keep her soul and groove strongly present among us.”

“Beautiful, smart, fearless, groovy Elaine Hoffman Watts. Your memory is the richest blessing.”

“Elaine Hoffman Watts, such a force. Incredible drummer, incredible mensch, a fabulous person to hang out with and play music with. Grateful to have been able to make music with her.”

“She was an essential link in a klezmer dynasty. She broke many molds.”

When Elaine Hoffman Watts died in September 2017, the loss reverberated across the community, as evidenced by the flood of tributes her family received, such as the few above.

The outpouring of love inspired her daughter Susan Lankin-Watts to put together a tribute concert, Both Sides of Love, which will take place on June 17 at 4 p.m. at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El and feature musicians and performers who played with Watts throughout her career.  

If you are a musician in Philadelphia, you likely have either worked with or at least heard of Watts.

Having played with operas, ensembles, symphonies, music fairs, the Pennsylvania Ballet, and more (even with Duke Ellington), Watts — who was also the first female graduate in percussion of Curtis Institute of Music — was a musical mainstay.

In addition to her career in classical music, she was also a leading klezmer percussionist, which may be no surprise as her father, Jacob Hoffman, was a celebrated klezmer musician himself and played with the acclaimed Kandel Orchestra.

“I wanted to take both of these parts of her life and celebrate them,” Lankin-Watts said, alluding to the concert’s title. “It means she loved classical music, and she loved klezmer music. She loved being a musician, she loved her family. There were both sides of love; there were different aspects of love in her life, and I just wanted to celebrate them.”

Elaine Hoffman Watts

The show includes former colleagues who play with groups from the Philly POPS to The Klez Dispensers as well as family members. In addition to Lankin-Watts, two of her nephews — Watts’ grandsons — will be part of the performance, one of whom plays  the drums like his grandmother did and another who will sing a song written by Lankin-Watts’ great-grandfather.

The synagogue’s hazzan Eugene Rosner will also perform as part of the tribute. Watts was a member of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El for more than 50 years. Lankin-Watts and her two sisters became Bat Mitzvahs at the shul as well. She still is a member today.

“One of the most amazing things about Elaine was how dedicated she was to her art, and her husband, [Ernest], was hand-in-hand with her,” Rosner said.

He recalled one particular instance in an icy 1994 when he did a concert with her at Germantown Jewish Centre. She had prepared a timpani part for one of the movements of Bloch’s “Avodath Hakodesh” (“Sacred Service”) and needed to transport two drums in a van to the synagogue in the midst of an ice storm.

“She was there and she was on time and she made sure everything went well,” he remembered. “It was written all over her face how dedicated she was and how much she loved it.”

She brought to the klezmer world a wealth of knowledge that is hard to duplicate, Rosner added. He is looking forward to the concert as it presents an opportunity to hear the different facets of her musical life come together.

“Usually, we do a concert and it’s klezmer or a performance and it’s classical, but here we’re going to have a group of people of all walks of her musical life participating and I’m glad that I could take part myself,” he said.

Her mother’s roots and finesse transferred to Lankin-Watts, who writes and performs klezmer music. As a fourth-generation klezmer musician, she hopes to keep her mother’s legacy alive by continuing the tradition her family started.

She also hopes her mother’s legacy inspires other women to push through doors that may seem closed.

Klezmer was largely a male-dominated genre, and she was turned away early on for being a woman. While Watts grew up learning the music from her father, she did not get her start playing professionally until much later.

“In terms of her legacy, I hope other women see that you can succeed, that you can make your dreams work, you can do what you need to do and want to do even though people are pushing against you and saying no,” she said.

“She didn’t quit. She went to another open door,” she continued. “That’s what I hope her legacy teaches other women, is to walk away from the closed door and open another door. Open a door for yourself. Don’t quit because it’s closed, find the open door.”

She is looking forward to the performance and providing a space to pay tribute to Watts, who had received numerous esteemed grants and awards, from a Pew Fellowship in the Arts to a a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Leeway Foundation Transformation Award.

Watts was also the subject of Eatala: A Life in Klezmer, a documentary film made about her life by the Philadelphia Folklore Project.

In terms of cost for the concert, Lankin-Watts noted the suggested $10 to $20 donations will benefit the musicians as well as The Community Klezmer Initiative, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that supports cultural continuity and innovation and new klezmer culture.

“I’m looking forward to playing with these musicians and hearing them,” she said, “and I am looking forward to coming together with people that loved my mother, were her fans, were her family, were her friends and remembering her and celebrating her and having a musical afternoon just filled with good feelings and warmth for what a spark my mother was.”

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