When he was young, Hankus Netsky, the founder of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, had a feeling he would be playing music someday.
Growing up the grandson, nephew, and grand-nephew of professional musicians, it may have been a given that Nesky would have at least a passing interest in music.
Who would have known, however, that the young multi-instrumentalist from Philadelphia – who took advantage of his grandfather’s extensive instrument collection to learn piano, saxophone, and oboe – would go on to lead not only one of the longest-running klezmer ensembles, but also rejuvenate the entire musical genre?
“I always assumed I would become a musician,” Netsky said. And though he explored the worlds of rock and blues in high school, “by the time I was a senior, [I] was directing and arranging music for my high school’s marching band and jazz big band, which I started.”
It was also in high school where Netsky fell in love with Broadway musicals.
“The overtures were always my favorite part,” he recalled, citing Jewish horn master Herb Alpert and legendary bandleaders like Fats Waller and Count Basie as inspirations as well.
Starting his college studies at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, Netsky transferred to Boston’s famed New England Conservatory after his freshman year.
Thus began a musical legacy that has lasted over four decades and will be celebrated in the new film, “40 Years in Yiddishland: The Yiddish Book Center celebrates the Klezmer Conservatory Band,” which will stream live on Facebook at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 24.
At NEC, Netsky became enamored with the legendary composer Gunther Schuller.
“He wanted to tear down the superficial walls between musical genres,” Netsky said.
It was also at NEC that the Klezmer Conservatory Band took form.
“The KCB grew out of klezmer listening and jam sessions that I organized at NEC,” Netsky recalled, noting that he modeled his mostly Jewish sessions after the famed Irish music gatherings that revivalist Mick Maloney had organized in Philadelphia. “I had picked up the music from my uncles in the mid-1970s and simply put a poster up inviting anyone who wanted to come to a jam.”
Right off the bat, Netsky’s fellow students showed a great deal of interest. In fact, the band’s first concert was just weeks after the then 15-piece group had assembled.
“People were starving to hear new, creative approaches to Jewish music,” Netsky said, “especially if young musicians were involved.”
Though the music was perhaps considered old-fashioned, the energy and elements that the band brought to it gave it new life and was soon attracting new audiences around the world.
Among the young icons who helped reshape and revive klezmer as part of the band were Grammy-nominated clarinetist Don Byron; Yiddish music scion Judy Bressler; and famed klezmer trumpeter Frank London.
Netsky, who now serves as the cochair of the New England Conservatory’s Contemporary Improvisation Department, said “It seemed like a natural extension of everything else that the school was teaching … in order to be a truly successful musician, you always need to keep your ears open to diverse genres and figure out how they work.”
In addition to working with the Klezmer Conservatory Band, Netsky also has collaborated with Itzhak Perlman, Theodore Bikel, and fellow Jewish music lover Aaron Lansky, who founded the Yiddish Book Center, for which Netsky served as vice president for education.
“It’s really a natural pairing,” Netsky said of the partnership between the band and the book center, which is also celebrating 40 years and is featured in the film. “Since both challenged the mainstream Jewish community 40 years ago to seriously reexamine the extraordinary literary and musical cultures that had evolved in Eastern Europe.”
Four decades later, Netsky and Lansky continue to collaborate and support each other while striving to share and spread the beautiful richness of European Jewish heritage through story and song.
“The Klezmer Conservatory Band has never been stronger and Eastern European Jewish culture in general has never been stronger,” Netsky said. “The music has really taken its place alongside other important world music traditions and, at this point … it certainly seems to be here to stay.”
To register for the free hour-long event, visit www.facebook.com/YiddishBookCenter.