Susan Watts comes from a long line of performers of the Jewish genre of klezmer music: The klezmer dynasty dates to 19th century Ukraine and begins with Watts’ great-grandfather, the musician, composer, cornet player and poet Joseph Hoffman.
Watts is a trumpeter, composer, singer and arranger. Her repertoire is filled with her family’s music created by her great-grandfather and also her grandfather, Jacob Hoffman. The latter left Podolia, Ukraine, in 1905 and settled in West Philadelphia, bringing his music with him. That’s where his daughter Elaine was born and where she first learned how to play the drums.
Being a fourth-generation klezmer musician is something that no other contemporary klezmer player can claim, Watts said. Carrying the mantle of klezmer, keeping it at the forefront of the Jewish cultural experience and keeping it full of life brings her satisfaction, she said.
“It gives me a sense of existential peace to know that I am the result of generations before me and that I have a mantle to carry and that I have a responsibility to speak for them,” said Watts, who has added her compositions to the family canon.
Watts and her family, most notably her mother, have been featured in several televised documentaries. Before she died in 2017, Elaine Hoffman Watts was a klezmer drummer in the Philadelphia-based group, The Fabulous Shpielkehs. Watts often performed with her mother on stage. The film “Eatala: A Life in Klezmer” shares the Ukrainian-Jewish klezmer sounds of mother and daughter.
“When I was a little girl, you couldn’t get out of my house without being a musician in some way, shape or form,” Watts said. “My mother was a musician, and her whole life was dedicated and devoted to music and raising a musician.” Watts has two musically inclined siblings.
On June 4, Watts launches “The Hoffman Book,” a collection of her great-grandfather’s music. Some are originals, and some are common tunes of the day.
“He wrote this book in 1927 for his children who were musicians,” Watts says.
On a Zoom call, players from all over the world will perform a selection from the book, she said.
Watts, 56, of Ardmore, has had plenty of musical opportunities in the past several years, from performing at concerts with noted klezmer musicians from around the world to receiving grants and awards from the Pew Foundation and the Leeway Foundation. She also was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and two Leeway Foundation Grants.
She produced “Soul Songs: Inspiring Women of Klezmer.” The project brings together 12 of the top Klezmer instrumentalists in North America to perform new and modern klezmer compositions all penned by women.
Watts began an organization called the Community Klezmer Initiative that offers cultural programs. “We’ve had really awesome programming — jams, dances, a Yiddish cabaret — really nice get-togethers around Yiddish culture and music. We want people to laugh and have fun and learn and enjoy themselves and other people.”
First and foremost, “klezmer is great music,” Watts said. “It connects to our yichus (Yiddish for lineage). We feel a connection to the people that have come before us. It’s a connector and an enlivener.”
She is a trumpet player, and what she loves about the instrument is its spirituality.
“It happened the first time I picked it up. I was 8 years old. My father played the trumpet in high school and he kept his trumpet in the closet. When I was a little kid, one day I took out my father’s trumpet and I just blew and it was like this revelation. Oh my God, this is my breath, this is my voice. And that was the end of that. I fell in love and have been in love ever since.
“I feel like klezmer music is my language. I feel comfortable with it. I feel at home with it. It spiritually makes me alive.”
Watts grew up in Penn Wynne and went to Saint Louis Conservatory of Music and Temple University School of Music. She returned to school at age 48 and now practices as a clinical social worker.
Watts still belongs to the Conservative synagogue of her youth, Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El.
She is married to Alan Lankin, a visual artist.
Jews will always feel at home with klezmer music, she said. “It’s the music from our temple. It’s the music from our souls and our experiences and our events. We dance to it. We marry to it. We cry to it. We laugh to it. It’s everybody’s, but it’s ours.”
She sees in her future growing as a “composer, as an artist and a trumpet player and a mensch. I constantly want to be looking forward and looking for opportunities to create a really special place in the community for klezmer.”
For an evening of Jewish Eastern European klezmer music, Watts’ new band “Only Schmaltz” performs at 8 p.m. May 27 at The Rotunda in Philadelphia.
Ellen Braunstein is a freelance writer.