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The Cleopatra Record

by Joe Maneri, Udi Hrant, and Friends



Ideas of the Near East in the general American popular imagination during the first half of the 20th century were mostly limited to Bible stories, sideshow “hoochie coochie” bellydancers, or the cigarette pack images of camels and pyramids. Then a handful of popular books appeared by Armenian and Syrian immigrant writers in the 1940s and nightly news broadcasts of the Second Arab-Israeli war in the 1950s superimposed a new set of images. In the early ’60s, the movies Never on Sunday (1960), America America (1963), and Zorba the Greek (1964) crystalized a growing interest in the Eastern Mediterranean. The B-movie Dark Odyssey (1961), depicting a Greek sailor on shore leave in Manhattan, included a scene shot in Port Said, one of the small “Oriental” nightclubs along Manhattan’s 8th Ave. with nightly live music during the ’40s and ’50s catering to a primarily Greek and Armenian immigrant clientele where Turkish was lingua franca.

The film that most people saw, though, was the gaudiest and most fantastically Orientalist of them — Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor, released June 1963. That’s the one that the housewife, the salaryman, and the dumb kid alike were all most likely to have seen. For Chevrolet-driving, Crest-toothpaste America, that’s the one that solidified the notion of a world of gauze-covered women shielded from a bright desert sun by palm fronds. And that’s the one that a small independent record label of schlockmeisters who produced generic music sold directly through supermarkets and dime stores latched on to as their marketing strategy for a tape of about a half hour of material recorded around 1962 by a group of Brooklyn wedding band musicians.

The recording session was arranged by a trumpet player and teacher named Michael Hartophilis (b. 1930 New York City; d. 1993 Northvale NJ) whose parents were Greek (his mother having been born in Turkey). He brought together a band of creative, brainy no-name, down-at-the-heels players who were eking out livings by playing ethnic weddings for Jews, Armenians, and Greeks. He added a blind oudist from Turkey who didn’t speak English, and the ad hoc band blasted out a Middle Eastern-jazz hybrid record in three hours at the studio in the Hotel Edison on 47th St between 7th and 8th Avenues in Manhattan.

The group met in a bar before the session, where Hartophilis showed them tunes scrawled on a stained cocktail napkin. The bassist John Beal recalled the recording session as “chaotic” and said that a kanun player who attended refused to play unless his photo was guaranteed to be on the album cover. He might have been Mehmet Emin Gündüz (b. 1925; d. 2014) who does not appear on the record (unless he’s the unknown percussionist). They recorded songs drawn from repertoires of ethnic material that they knew in common, along with a tango in the style of “Miserlou,” a pop standard composed by the Greek-American Nick Roubanis and popularized by singer and music publisher Tetos Demetriades. Joe Maneri told his son Abe decades later that Hartophilis got too drunk during the recording and split three quarters of the way through the studio time. The last couple songs were done without him or the bongo guy.

Somehow that tape wound up in the hands of a short-lived cheapo record label, who issued it with no artist credits, “exotica” titles for the songs, a drawing of Elizabeth Taylor on the cover, and the word CLEOPATRA in big letters on the front — a deceptive cash-grab on the popularity of the movie and its soundtrack. We guess that Hartophilis sold them the tape to recoup the money he’d paid out-of-pocket for the recording session. Poorly pressed, sloppily packaged, hastily recorded, it was made to be disposable. And disposed of, it was. One for the junk heap.

Among the jobbing musicians who banged out this proto-World Music flotsam were two extraordinarily gifted players whose esteem and notoriety have grown over the decades that followed and several heavy players are less renowned. But one day in 1962, they all needed the fifty bucks and took the gig. Among them was a Sicilian-American clarinetist and composer Joe Maneri, who was then 35 years old. Another was the oudist Hrant Kenklulian, who was 61.

Udi Hrant, as he is usually called, was an Armenian, born blind in northwestern Turkey in 1901. He and his family survived the Armenian genocide in Konya, where he began studying oud as a teenager. Through the 1920s and ’30s, he lived in poverty, supporting himself by playing in nightclubs and in the process earning a reputation as a performer of exceptional depth and soulfulness. Many of the recordings that he made in Istanbul during that period were released in the U.S. for the immigrant population. When a wealthy Greek paid his fare to the U.S. in 1950 to have a procedure that might give him eyesight, there was already a waiting public of Armenians who knew his music. He spent more than a decade touring the Armenian communities of the U.S. — Boston, Fresno, Los Angeles, Detroit, Washington, DC, and New York — performing in concert halls and house parties alike, teaching a budding generation of Armenian oudists, and recording for small, independent labels — Aris, Smyrnaphone, Oriental Moods, and Near East. The latter of those labels was a short-lived subsidiary of Orrin Keepnews’s Prestige Records, and the resulting LP, originally issued as Eastern Standard Time in 1962 and subsequently reissued as Turkish Delights, included several tracks with jazz saxophonist Johnny Griffin. Prestige had been dabbling in Near Eastern music, issuing several LPs of Greek clarinetist Spero Spyros, and in 1963 released the third Arab-jazz hybrid LP by the Brooklyn-born bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik. (Griffin had played on the first two Abdul Malik LPs along with Lee Morgan, Benny Golson, and the Syrian-born Brooklyn violinist Naim Karacand.) Hrant was in his early 60s when he gamely attended the session that resulted in the Cleopatra LP. John Beal recalled that he brought his violin in a paper bag. That same year, he went back on tour overseas. He died in 1978 and is buried in Istanbul. His recordings have mostly been anthologized, notably by Harold Hagopian (son of one of Hrant’s primary disciples, Richard Hagopian) on his Traditional Crossroads label.

Joe Maneri was born in Brooklyn in 1927, the only child of a second-generation Sicilian-American carpenter and immigrant mother. Raised in Williamsburg during the Depression, he learned clarinet from an Italian neighbor. A dreamer and lifelong devotee of Lester Young, he played in jazz groups in neighborhood bars in the ’40s. He struggled to find work through the ’50s but hooked up with a cadre of “far out” musicians who introduced him to the German composer and conductor Joseph Schmid, a student of Alban Berg’s and an exponent of the Second Viennese School of serial twelve-tone composition. Maneri plodded devotedly through a course of study of serialism with Schmid while pursuing musicians’ union jobs. He played a lot of Greek and Jewish weddings, where drinking was part of the gig. In 1963, a band including most of the musicians on the Cleopatra record recorded a demo of seven original songs that incorporated elements of all of his experiences — modernist atonalism, ethnic Brooklyn, and a freedom-loving style of improvised jazz not far removed from the parallel post-bop innovations of Ornette Coleman — in hopes that Istanbul-born Ahmet Ertegun’s Atlantic Records would be interested in making an album. Atlantic declined. The composer Gunther Schuller, meanwhile, supported Maneri with periodic gigs and commissions through the 1960s while Maneri delved deeply into a personal form of Christianity. Schuller ultimately hired Maneri to teach at the New England Conservatory, where he spent the 1970s and ’80s theorizing and teaching microtonal music, co-authoring a book on the subject in 1986. His knowledge of klezmer repertoire and technique influenced a generation of younger performers that sprouted up in the 1980s, and his improvising synthesized his complex composition, his down-home working-class musical life, and his personal spiritual journey. Like Hrant, his music spoke plainly and from the heart with an outrageously sophisticated vocabulary and technique. From the late 1980s until his death in 2009, he performed and recorded prolifically. Among his recordings was one he called “Gardenias for Gardenis,” in tribute to the Greek clarinetist Costas Gadenis, who performed and recorded in the 1940s, billed as “the Greek Benny Goodman” at the “oriental” nightclubs around 8th Avenue where Hrant also performed.

This album represents the earliest recording session of Joe Maneri and among the last of Udi Hrant’s. The drummer, pianist, and bassist on the session were the same group on the 1964 demo session for Atlantic. That material was eventually issued on CD in Japan in 1998 under the title Paniots 9. The title tune wound up on the soundtrack of the movie American Splendor about the writer Harvey Pekar who was an advocate of Maneri’s music. Coincidentally, the bassist John Beal also performed in the orchestral score for that movie. Beal remembers meeting Maneri only at the Cleopatra and Paniots 9 sessions and recalls him as “opinionated.” (When Maneri heard Beal practicing whole-tone scales, Maneri scoffed, “man, you’re still doing that??”)

The session’s bassist John Beal (b. 1938) was not simply a wedding player. He moved from his native Washington D.C. to New York in 1958 to attend Julliard. He toured and recorded with Woody Herman’s band. Having met the Armenian drummer John Yalenezian and the Greek clarinetist Gus Vali, he played a string of gigs in the Armenian-Greek resort hotels in Asbury Park, New Jersey, leading him to meet drummer Peter Dolger, who raved about his close friend Joe Maneri. Among Beal’s 1962 recording sessions were a jazz-folk hybrid LP by Meg Welles for RCA Victor and a Paul Desmond & Gerry Mulligan LP for Columbia produced by George Avakian. He has subsequently had an extremely productive career playing as the first bassist for three years in the American Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski and played on hundreds of albums by musicians including Bill Evans, Nina Simone, Leonard Bernstein, Art Cohn, John Lennon, Art Farmer, Stevie Nicks, Philip Glass, Gavin Bryars, Barbara Streisand, a who’s who of Broadway (having played in the orchestra for Phantom of the Opera for 11 years), and many others. Similarly the pianist Don Burns had a successful career and notably played on two 1950s LPs by the jazz singer Chris Connor as an accordionist before he relocated to Florida.

The drummer Pete Dolger was a lynchpin of the session. Little is known about him. He was born in 1928 to a Greek immigrant father from Pergamon, Turkey. The Atlantic demo session and a 24-minute free improv live duo performance with Maneri recorded in front of an audience of about eight people (ca. 1963-64, issued on CD in 2008 as the Peace Concert), and an appearance on a 1962 Hartophilis LP for MGM (also including Don Burns, John Beal, and Udi Hrant) called Night Life of the Greeks are the only other issued recordings of his playing. "He was an amazing drummer," Maneri told Harvey Pekar in 2000, but like Maneri, Dolger suffered from insecurities as a musician. "I taught him for a while, and he encouraged me tremendously to develop along jazz lines. If you know you're good, but nobody else tells you that, it can really hurt your confidence. Dolger encouraged me to go on." John Beal recalled that the living room of Dolger’s apartment between 6th and 7th Avenues included both a bowl of marijuana on the coffee table and an Orgone energy accumulator box. Dolger continued to perform in New York into the early 1970 while coping with narcotics addiction. He died in the late ‘70s. He and Maneri were dear friends but parted ways as collaborators in the early ‘60s when Maneri stopped playing wedding gigs.

“We were wedding players, full time,” Maneri told Stu Vandermark in 2006; “That was our real job, so to speak. […] We weren’t in the ‘jazz scene.’ We respected jazz for jazz. We knew about Coltrane. […] I wasn’t really ‘knowing’ Coltrane’s music. Cause I was the type that didn’t buy records and never listened to anything. Early on, when I was 18, 19, 20, 21, I started to get the feeling that there was no chance that in a lifetime I would ever be in a jazz circle. So, I just turned it off, so to speak, and didn’t listen to anything. Just like that.”

Maneri himself heard of the release of the Cleopatra record around 1963 through a friend who happened across it. He bought a copy for himself and loaned it to a student who didn’t return it. Joe’s son Abe tracked down a copy and played it for him again in the late ‘90. When he listened to it, he welled up with emotion about Hrant’s abilities (“He kicked our asses!”) and remarked, “if I knew it was going to be listened to 40 years later, I would have played better!”


released April 5, 2020

clarinet: Joe Maneri 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 10
brass: Michael Hartophilis 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10
oud: Hrant Kenkulian 1, 3, 6, 7, 9, 10 (violin on track 2)
drum set: Pete Dolger 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
bass: John Beal 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
piano: Don Burns 4, 5
bongos / zils: untraced 1, 2, 6,7, 9, 10

Bonus tracks 11 & 12:
oud & vocal (12): Hrant Kenklulian
bass: John Beal
clarinet: Nick Rassias or Tassos Halkias
kanun: Emin Gundus
dumbek: Tarik Bulut or John Yalenezian

Track 13 interview recorded in Maneri's living room in Framingham, MA by Ian Nagoski

Titles given in parentheses are those assigned by the record company on its original release. Some copies were issued with their labels swapped. Because the original LP was issued with five tracks on each side, one might encounter copies with differring song titles from those given here.

Transfers, restoration, and notes by Ian Nagoski
Production and research by Michael Sliwkowski
Copy editing by Heather McCabe
Song identification by Joe Graziosi, Harry Kezelian, and Ian Nagoski
Special thanks to Abe and Mat Maneri for their memories and assistance.
Thanks also to Harout Arakelian, Adam Good, and Dan Blacksberg


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Canary Records Baltimore, Maryland

early 20th century masterpieces (mostly) in languages other than English.

An hour in clamor and a quarter in rheum.

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