New York klezmer legend Frank London is gearing up to fight for his life. But first, one more show

It was the eve of one of the biggest days of his life, but Frank London was trying to stay in the moment.

The klezmer music legend had convened an all-star lineup of Jewish musicians at a synagogue in suburban New York City on Wednesday night, and the group was preparing to tackle an intimidating feat: They would be recording seven new songs — ones that London hoped would become contemporary classics of Jewish liturgy — without ever having played together before.

Ordinarily, a project of this magnitude would involve numerous rehearsals ahead of time. Certainly, an effort would be made to have the music and words nailed down in advance. But London and his collaborators didn’t have that kind of time: London’s oncologist had ordered him to report to the hospital to start a grueling regimen of medical treatments meant to cure the cancer that had exploded in his blood.

“Hopefully, hopefully, hopefully, it’ll work. Hopefully it will cure me,” London, 66, said on Wednesday evening. “But it’s going to be a very unpleasant next phase of my life.”

The six months of planned treatment, which will include a bone marrow transplant, will mark the longest hiatus in London’s storied career as a composer, performer and convener of Jewish music. The urgency of his doctor’s orders means he’ll miss a career-retrospective concert taking place June 3 in Brooklyn. London already knew that he would be unable to curate this year’s Yiddish New York festival in December and would have to scrap plans for a concert featuring his new music this fall at Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle.

Festival klezmer 2013, Safed (credit: DR)

So London and his collaborators instead decided to film a video featuring the new music, seven compositions using the traditional Jewish psalms for the days of the week, meant to be sung on the fall holiday of Simchat Torah when congregations circle their sanctuaries seven times while dancing with Torah scrolls.

“Sometimes I can get pretty out there,” London said. “But for this particular thing, I really worked hard, with their help, to write really singable, really traditional-sounding melodies.”

Though the evening came together quickly, the project was actually years in the making. Jack Klebanow, who runs Beth El’s Shoresh Halev Center for Jewish Music, routinely recruits world-class Jewish musicians to create new compositions meant for use in spiritual settings. But London, whom he has known for years, had been elusive, with a schedule too crammed to accommodate Klebanow’s vision for a Simchat Torah collaboration.

A quirk of the Jewish calendar

This year, a quirk of the Jewish calendar means that the High Holidays do not begin until October — meaning that there would be time for a kickoff concert after the summer’s end but before the holidays kicked into gear. So last fall, Klebanow and London committed to working together on the project.

Then, this spring, London’s doctors told him that myelofibrosis, a rare and aggressive cancer that had been detected in his blood back in 2020, had become active. He would need intensive treatment to reverse its progress and restore his health.

“When he got this news he basically said, ‘Let’s hurry. I’m not going to make it in September so you’re on your own, but let’s at least get the tunes done,’” Klebanow recalled.

The duo accelerated their plans, hustling to compose songs that would break new ground musically but also be easy to imagine as new Jewish classics, sung alongside mainstays by Shlomo Carlebach and Debbie Friedman.

They grappled with the fact that on this Simchat Torah, worshippers will mark one year on the Jewish calendar since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Ultimately, they decided to marry a plaintive tune for Wednesday’s psalm focusing on retribution with a more joyful melody. And they put out a call for collaborators that received a resounding reception.

Among those who cleared their schedule to be present was Don Godwin, one of the most in-demand sound engineers in the Jewish music world, who came from Washington, D.C., for the night. “Once you get word that Frank’s not doing well, your priorities change,” he said.

The musicians began arriving in the late afternoon soon after London and his wife, the artist Tine Kindermann, arrived from Manhattan. Lorin Sklamberg and Lisa Gutkin, London’s bandmates in The Klezmatics, rolled in, as did Basya Schechter, the founder of the group Pharaoh’s Daughter who until recently was a hazzan at Romemu, the Renewal congregation. A cadre of musicians made their way from Brooklyn’s “klezmer shtetl,” including Yoshie Fruchter and Éléonore Weill. Rabbi Yosef Goldman, who blends Ashkenazi and Sephardic sacred music, came up from Maryland, fresh off a gig for Jewish American Heritage Month at the Kennedy Center in Washington where London also performed.

London presided from the head of a large table that had been set with candlesticks, goblets and colorful runners. Mics dangled and videographers circled, but he was focused wholly on the music and musicians in front of him.

The group would work their way through each song, pausing to mark where a note sounded off or the tempo needed to change. London might ask one singer to tweak his intonation, or strengthen her voice in the mix. At least once, he asked for more energy before resuming a run-through. And then, when London concluded that all of the elements had fallen into place, the energy in the room would settle as the official recording commenced.

“It felt kind of monumental,” Aaron Bendich, a Yiddish record label operator, said Thursday morning. Bendich was one of a handful of guests who were invited to watch from banquet chairs lined up against the wall of the room.

“It was an evening of Frank doing what he does absolutely best … I think it would have been special regardless of what the material he was recording was, but all of us who were there knew that the actual material was really good,” said Bendich, who is assuming the curation of the Yiddish New York festival while London is undergoing treatment. “I don’t think any of us could really know the extent of how good it was until everyone was performing it together.”

Finally, a little after midnight, the recording was complete. Soon, while a skeleton crew broke down the set, London would head home to Manhattan — and, hours later, to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. He said he had grand plans to listen to and learn about all kinds of music while he is isolated and in treatment, but he said he understood that he might end up accomplishing nothing at all. He also said the energy from the recording session would help him during the grueling months ahead.

“It’s kind of like a gift to me as I go into this next phase,” London said. “I’m banking all the pleasant interactions as much as I can, because I’m going to have to have something to draw from.”

But first, the group sang and danced together a little while longer, hugging before they parted.

“We romped, we whispered, we prayed, we pounded and we celebrated every note and every phrase,” Klebanow wrote to the group on Friday morning. “I think the heavens opened just a tad and our music went straight up. … What a great sendoff — chazak chazak — for strength and healing.”