The Day the Music Died

Roman Kunsman was a star in his native Soviet Union. He performed with Israel's top musicians and at the prestigious Newport Jazz Festival - but until he passed away last month, few of his neighbors had any idea how famous he really was

Three weeks ago on Shabbat, shortly after 5 P.M., the Talmud lesson in the synagogue at Moshav Beit Gamliel ended. The participants went out to the square in front of the synagogue and stood around chatting for a few minutes. Roman Kunsman, who had lived on the religious moshav a little over a year, left his friends and started walking home. Shlomo Salomon, 21, son of Eliahu Salomon, the rabbi of the community, joined Kunsman, and together they walked for a while and talked. Next to Kunsman's rented house, Salomon parted from him with the words "shavua tov" ["have a good week"]. Kunsman, a talented musician who was divorced and lived alone, entered his house and locked the door behind him. From then on, apparently, nobody saw him again.

Shlomo Salomon, as far as is known, was the last to see Kunsman alive. "Shlomo had a very good relationship with Roman," says his father, Rabbi Salomon. "He loved him very much, liked to talk to him. There was something fascinating and unusual about him, and Shlomo was attracted to that world."

Early Friday morning before that Shabbat, Kunsman phoned his 80-year-old mother, Haya, who lives in a senior citizens' home in Givatayim. "I asked him, `Why are you calling so early?' and he said that he was expecting students," she says. "I told him that I was fine, and then he said: `In that case, be well, and have a good Shabbat.' Those were his last words, and suddenly they called me on Wednesday and told me that Roman was dead. He was never sick. He didn't know what a fever was."

On Tuesday evening, the daughter of musician Musa (Moshe) Berlin, Kunsman's best friend in recent years, got married in Jerusalem. Kunsman, who was supposed to be a guest of honor at the wedding, had been asked to perform. Reuven Ben Hanan of Jerusalem, a violinist who plays jazz and Hasidic music, was invited to the same wedding, like Kunsman, as a guest and a musician.

"I phoned him on Friday and we spoke about computers. Thanks to him, I started to get involved in adaptations of music on computers," says Ben Hanan. "Later I wanted to speak to him on Saturday night. I called at 9 P.M., I called his mobile phone, too, and there was no answer."

Ben Hanan called again on Sunday and on Monday. "I thought it was strange, maybe he was sick and they had taken him to hospital. On Tuesday at the wedding, Musa asked, `Where's Roman?' Then I said I had been phoning for several days and there was no answer. Musa picked up a phone and left him a message. On Wednesday, at 3 P.M., Musa called and said: `Don't look for Roman.' I asked `What's with him?' and he said: `He died.'"

Berlin: "The last words I heard from Roman on Thursday, when we spoke on the phone, were `See you at the wedding.' On the way to the wedding, I said to my wife that it was strange that Roman hadn't called to ask how to get to the hall - he would always call and ask for directions, how to get to all kinds of places, so I called him and left him instructions on the phone how to get there. The day after the wedding, my wife called Roman's neighbor, Mrs. Shtricker."

Hemda Shtricker lives in the house opposite Kunsman: "Musa Berlin's wife called me on Wednesday to say that he wasn't answering the phone and hadn't come to the wedding. I ran to see what had happened to him, because his car was standing outside. I knocked on the door and there was no answer. I looked through the window and already understood that something had apparently happened to him. I ran to call the security officer of the moshav. I had a key, but I didn't want to go in. I asked him to go in, but he couldn't because the door was locked and the key was in the door on the other side, so he entered through the window and told me to call Magen David Adom and the police. And that's the end of the sad story."

Rise to fame

At midnight the following Wednesday, Roman Kunsman was buried at Har Hamenuhot in Jerusalem. "Who goes to a cemetery at such hours?" wonders his mother, Haya Kunsman. "I was very frightened. But they told me that he's a tzaddik [a righteous person] and a tzaddik has to be buried immediately, and in Jerusalem."

Yehuda, Kunsman's eldest son, decided to bury his father in Jerusalem. "Because he lived in Beit Gamliel, they told us he could be buried in Rehovot, but what do we have to do with Rehovot? The Admor [leader of a Hasidic dynasty] Ashlag, whom Father admired greatly, is buried in Jerusalem, and when the dead are resurrected, he'll be nearby."

Kunsman, who died at the age of 61, was born in Kuybyshev, the city where his mother found refuge after fleeing Poland at the outbreak of World War II. There she met Kunsman's father, Shura, and they got married, but divorced right after the war. Haya and little Roman moved to Leningrad, where his mother remarried.

"Roman was a musician from God," says his mother. "Already as a little boy he showed an interest in music, he played for seven to eight hours a day, and I thought I would go crazy.

"Near our house there was a conservatory. I worked as a manicurist - evenings, too - and Roman would hang around there all the time. One day two girls who studied at the conservatory came to the house, and told me: `You have a son who has to study music. He sits with us all the time and plays piano.'

"So I bought him a little violin, and he traveled on the tram with the little violin to a private teacher I found him. Afterward my brother, who lived in America at the time, sent me a saxophone, and everyone said, `Kunsman has a golden saxophone.' Afterward they discovered that he had a good voice, and he sang on the radio. Here in Israel he used to tell his friends, the musicians: Do you think I'm so talented? No at all, were it not for my mother, I wouldn't have come so far."

He studied with private teachers that his mother hired for him, and a little at the music academy, but mainly he improvised by himself on instruments that were in the house - a piano, a violin, a saxophone, a clarinet and later a flute as well - and started to compose music, mainly jazz, to perform in concerts in various ensembles. He became well known.

Avraham Felder, a trumpeter from Netanya, came to Israel from the Ukraine in 1976, and says: "He was a major talent. Already in the Ukraine I heard his name mentioned as one of the great musicians in the Soviet Union. His music was of international caliber, they played it everywhere over the radio, but the moment he immigrated to Israel, they stopped playing him, took his name out of all the books and erased him from the recordings. Only in the mid-1990s did they return him to the history books of Russian music and begin again to play him on the radio."

At the end of 1970, Kunsman immigrated to Israel with his mother, his stepfather and his two children from a previous marriage, and the family settled in Kiryat Sharett in Holon. "We came only because of him," says his mother. "We waited eight years until they allowed us to leave Russia."

Israel was not the object of Kunsman's desire. His Jewishness was a dry fact that had been printed in his mother's passport, a dim memory of distant times. After the death of Stalin, the rumor circulated that the Jews had poisoned him, and a small wave of anti-Semitism swept the Soviet Union, and even reached the school where Kunsman was studying. One of the students gave him a slap in the name of Stalin. That was the first time he really felt Jewish. "But a month after Stalin's death," said Kunsman in an interview in the now-defunct newspaper Al Hamishmar, 20 years ago, "they instructed us to tear out the pages about the period of Stalin's regime from the history books, and to throw them into the garbage."

`Elderly Russian uncle'

Israel was chosen by chance as the destination for immigration, said Kunsman in that interview. His mother had family here, and although he knew nothing about Israel, it seemed a paradise to him compared to the situation in the Soviet Union. During those years, a Soviet citizen had no chance of emigrating unless he could prove that his goal was "family reunification," a claim that was helpful primarily to Jews.

In Israel of the 1970s, nobody had heard of Kunsman. One day Jaroslav Jakubovic, a saxophonist and a new immigrant from Czechoslovakia, brought him to the jazz club in Jerusalem, where Areleh Kaminsky and Danny Gottfried performed.

"He was dressed strangely and looked like an elderly Russian uncle," says Kaminsky. "But after he took out his saxophone and started to play, suddenly I felt in heaven. It was a quality and a spirit I hadn't heard before in Israel. I immediately said that `this is a man with whom to form a band.'"

Kaminsky found work for Kunsman in Yehoram Gaon's orchestra.

"But then Arik Einstein approached me, asked to set up a back-up band, he wanted to replace the Churchills, and that was a golden opportunity for me. Using ingenious schemes, we took Roman away from Yehoram Gaon; Tzvi Shissel took care of it. We promised them another Russian player instead of him, but we couldn't give him Roman's suit, because Roman was small and he was large.

"Finally, it worked out somehow and we established the Platina band. Originally it included Yitzhak Klepter (of the Churchills), Paul Silver, Roman, who was the musical director and who wrote most of the material, and me. We performed with Arik Einstein. Afterward, we continued to perform all over the country, we made recordings and we performed with other artists, such as Hava Alberstein, Esther Ofarim and Tiki Dayan. And once in a while, we did things we were ashamed of in order to survive - a lot of commercial recordings without using our names, such as music for the children's television show `Rega Im Dudley,' for the film `Azit the Paratrooper Dog,' for El-Al, recordings of background music entitled `Magic Guitar.' People bought it and didn't know it was Platina."

Platina's high point came in 1974, when the band went to the Newport Jazz Festival, the most prestigious jazz festival in the world at the time, which accepted almost no foreign artists. "The world recognized us," says Kaminsky. "I have a Voice of America recording of our performance at the festival, and one from Radio Denmark broadcasting a Platina performance. At the festival, we played with other musicians and performed before Charlie Mingus, one of the most important jazz musicians of the time. At the end of the session he got up, went to Roman and said: `You play great,' and left."

Platina broke up in 1976. "After the murder of the sportsmen in Munich," explains Kaminsky, "it was a big problem to invite Israelis to festivals abroad, because they had to pay for security people, and that made it difficult for us to make a breakthrough outside Israel."

Spiritual personality

In 1973, Kunsman married his girlfriend, Miki. They met at a cafeteria run by her parents at Beit Hamoreh in Tel Aviv, where Kunsman had performed. The big wave of the return to religion after the Yom Kippur War also swept the Kunsmans up. His friends recall today that he was always a spiritual person, and say that becoming religious was perfectly natural for him. His mother claims that his wife, Miki, was the one who dragged him to religion.

"For us, it was a catastrophe," says his mother. "I love Miki very much - she calls me every day now and asks how I am - but it all began because of her. Suddenly, she had this bug in her brain, and she started to go to the mikveh [ritual bath]. I asked her, `What's this, don't you have a bathtub in the house?' It was wrong, I should have let them do what they wanted. Had I known what would happen, I wouldn't have come to Israel. I didn't believe that Roman would be like that, too. Somebody told him that I came from a very religious home and that influenced him. He wanted me to become religious, too."

In 1976, Kunsman and his wife went to try their luck in New York. There he became close to the Chabad Hasidim, studied Judaism, and continued to compose music and to play in various ensembles, including with famous artists. In order to make a living, he played at weddings. Pinhas Chernovsky, a teacher who today lives in Jerusalem, took him under his wing in New York.

"He had no idea," says Chernovsky. "He came to me with only a small spark, and I had the privilege of lighting a large bonfire in him. For a year or more, we sat for many hours each week, and I taught him as a friend and as a teacher of Judaism. It was a challenge for me. I saw in him a new Jew who was born at a late age. He had a thirst that couldn't be slaked. He studied, bought books, read, took an interest, asked questions. I remember how he hated Hasidic music, because it was so simple compared to jazz."

Reuven Ben Hanan, 35, who is also a musician who became religious, heard about Kunsman even before he came to Israel in 1990: "They told me in Russia that in Israel there was a very famous jazz musician from Leningrad, who had become a rabbi and had stopped playing, and that I should call him. I called, and Roman said that there was a performance in the Pargod Theater in Jerusalem. I came, and it turned out that he hadn't stopped playing - but I had no idea in what style he was playing. What can I say, when he started to play the saxophone, at that moment I understood that he was a great star. He had such a unique style that it's indescribable.

"Afterward, we weren't in contact, and when I started to play in Musa Berlin's band, we met. Since then I can say that he was one of the closest friends I have ever had. We had a spiritual connection. Thanks to him, I continued playing because I had thought about stopping and studying Torah, and he said that one can be a religious man and play modern music - that it's not a contradiction, and on the contrary, it even helps. At the first meeting at the Pargod, he told me that with the help of music, he touches the strings of nonreligious people, and that brings him and them closer to God."

`Like everyone else'

Nahum Perferkovich, 57, a pianist, formerly a member of Platina, came to Israel from Riga in 1971, and immediately went to meet Kunsman. "He was already very, very famous among jazz musicians in the Soviet Union, and in the Eastern bloc in general. I came to his house, I played something for him, and then he said: `We have a band, come to the Bar Barim Club,' and that's how I stayed with them until 1975. At the Newport Jazz Festival, they expected us to perform with some exotic sounds from the desert, and we proved that we can play jazz like everyone else."

Kunsman, as Perferkovich remembers before he became religious, was a cynical and razor-sharp person, who laughed at himself and at the whole world. On the one hand, he was a tireless teller of jokes; on the other, he was nervous and very worried about earning a living.

"His life was hard," says Perferkovich, "running from one studio to another, from one recording to another. In religious society, things are entirely different. For him it was an excellent solution. In the religious world he calmed down, because he knew they wouldn't let him die of hunger. At first, because the band had signed commitments, he received permission from the rabbi to perform on Friday night. In America, being religious opened doors for him. Religion was good for him. It changed him very significantly. He became softer, less sarcastic."

Danny Gottfried, the artistic director of the Red Sea Jazz Festival, remembers meeting Kunsman at a jazz club in Jerusalem. "He played exceptionally well, and later we heard that he was a real musician. Since then, I played with him a lot. He had a unique combination of Lithuanian sharpness and spirituality. His music always sounded like some Jewish cry, like prayer. He was not a compromiser; he wouldn't play for the audience. He always played his own interpretations, which were very extreme, but when one hears someone doing it out of real depth and with internal conviction, it works.

"When we performed on kibbutzim he would say, `Let's play what we like,' and I would try to change his mind, to explain that the audience wouldn't like it, that the older people would flee, but he would insist and say: `You'll see that it will work,' and he was right. He managed to transmit his feelings. Artistically speaking, he was a complete artist - always fascinating and with his own statement - on the highest possible international standard, and he could match any great artist in the world. A great musician. The reason he was not an international star is that he chose to live in Israel. We have lost a person and an artist, a jazz giant."

Back to the homeland

Musa Berlin met Kunsman 22 years ago and ever since, they performed together at weddings and religious celebrations, and were best friends.

"I had a drummer who played with me, and from time to time, he would go to Bar Barim to hear jazz, and he told me that there was some Russian virtuoso there," says Berlin. "I remembered that when I was looking for a musician, they got me his telephone number and I invited him to play. He asked for 50 liras for a performance, and that's how we started. The truth is that his mother felt that all that was beneath his dignity - an artist of large audiences suddenly performing at weddings."

Haya Kunsman confirms this: "In Russia, only amateurs play at weddings, and I was very embarrassed, but he said that otherwise he wouldn't make a living, and that they paid him well for it."

Berlin, a clarinetist, didn't like jazz, and Kunsman didn't like Hasidic music very much, but the encounter between them and Kunsman's talent for improvisation gave rise to jazz with Jewish influences - and, mainly, a living. They founded the Sulam band, and performed at festivals, weddings and events in Israel and abroad. At the beginning of the 1990s, they toured the length and breadth of the disintegrating Soviet Union. For Kunsman, it was his first visit back to the old homeland.

"He had emotional meetings with former friends, and that's how I learned how well known he was. In Leningrad I met a friend of his, a Jewish musician, a jazz musician who had become an important priest. There Roman told me that if he hadn't become Orthodox, he might also be a priest today," recalls Berlin.

Half a year ago, Kunsman went with musicians from Israel to a large jazz festival in Moscow and St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad). Avraham Felder, a close friend, was one of those who accompanied him.

"I had the privilege of being with him in Russia," he says. "We met for the first time when he returned from America, in 1980, and we performed together a lot. In 1984 we went on a performance tour for a month in America with the Israel Defense Forces Chaplaincy Corps Choir, and became very good friends. I am not observant, but I am active in Hasidic music, because it's very hard to make a living from jazz, not only in Israel. I have a Dixieland ensemble.

"Had you seen the welcome he received when we arrived in St. Petersburg, you would understand how great he was. They reported about him in the papers, on radio and television. All his friends came to see him. Two of them have become observant Catholics. One is an important priest named George Friedman, a saxophonist from their band in the Leningrad Big Band orchestra."

Felder also thinks Kunsman was a great musician. "Every instrument he played had such a unique sound that it can't be described. He practiced for three hours every day. One day on the flute, and one day on the saxophone. He made a lot of recordings, now when we were in Moscow, he played a work that he had composed and I was very enthusiastic, so he gave me the score as a present. I also looked for him on Saturday night [three weeks ago]. I called him in order to invite him to a jazz festival in Rehovot that will take place in December. And then I got the bad news."

Successful absorption

Kunsman's marriage ran into difficulties, and two and a half years ago the couple divorced. "It's better to walk barefoot than in a tight shoe," said Kunsman often, referring to his married life. The couple has four children: Yehuda, 24; Raheli Hausman, 23, married with two children; Avraham, 18; and Yehoshua, 13 and a half. After his divorce, Kunsman went to live in a rented house on the religious Moshav Beit Gamliel, near Yavne.

The moshav gave Kunsman an opportunity to live a calm and peaceful life. One room in his house was turned into a professional recording studio; in another, he had a place for working out, where he lifted weights and did push-ups every day. Most of the members of the moshav had no idea who Roman Kunsman was, and what he had done before joining them. Gradually a give-and-take relationship developed. The neighbors brought him home-made cakes, invited him to family meals on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, and showed an interest in his music. Kunsman gave out tapes as presents, and was happy to play at local celebrations.

After a year in the moshav, it appeared that the "absorption" was successful. "We didn't know that he was of such international stature," says Rabbi Salomon. "Here in the moshav they didn't know. Roman was accepted after being screened by a committee, as is customary, and [after I expressed] my opinion as the rabbi of the moshav, he started living here. His absorption was highly successful, despite the fact that he is alone and only couples live here. He participated enthusiastically in the Talmud lesson on Shabbat afternoon in the synagogue, although he wasn't one of those fanatic newly religious people. He didn't leave his former world at all.

"I asked him once why he had chosen jazz, and he said that for the musician it is the height of music to express and develop his personal musical ability. We had a big happening here when we concluded the reading of the six books of the Mishna - which happens once every seven years. I asked him very delicately if he could play a few musical selections, and he said `gladly' and brought his son, Yehuda, who accompanied him. He played Jewish music, and selections from famous classical music."

Rivka Salomon, the rabbi's wife, says that when Kunsman played, he and his instrument created a "whole": "For me it was a unique experience to see his movement, how he put his entire soul into the music. His entire being played. His entire being was a flute. When he died I said, `The flute has fallen silent.' During one of his first visits to our house, I told him that I love choral music, and I saw his eyes light up, and he began to flood me with tapes, with literature about music. He told me that this was the way the Levites used to sing and play in the Temple. It's very similar to church music."

"I still sit and wait for him to come in," mourns Kunsman's good friend, Avi Yitzhakov, from Ramle, who owns the grocery store in Beit Gamliel. The two developed a relationship of refugees. One a new immigrant, and one a veteran one. Yitzhakov came to Israel in the 1990s from Tashkent, and they would exchange opinions about Mother Russia. Yitzhakov thought it was a shame that Kunsman didn't get to live in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, and Kunsman thought it was a good thing that he didn't get to do so.

"I didn't know that he was so famous," says Yitzhakov. "By chance I have a cousin who also plays, and when I showed him Roman's tapes, he asked: `Where did you get these? He's a very famous man, one of the most famous in Israel.' But I loved Roman more as a person. He used to come to me at least three times a week. He had to buy ice cream. Every day he ate an ice cream cone, and bought apples for his mother in the senior citizens' home. He had a good relationship with his mother. He went to visit her several times a week, and told me a lot about her. I loved him very much. He always had something to say that lifted my spirits. When he didn't come for a few days, I thought he was traveling, and not that anything like this could happen to him. Such a famous man, and he died alone." n