David Bromberg Parses Britney, Parker, $200,000 Fiddle

David Bromberg
David Bromberg, during a lunch at Bloomberg world headquarters in New York, gave a short performance of Scott Joplin's “Maple Leaf Rag.” Photographer: Philip Lewis/Bloomberg

A new documentary on David Bromberg opens with the musician shown as an animated line drawing being told to move along by a policeman. Then he morphs into the flesh-and-blood fellow walking in Wilmington, Delaware.

Bromberg, 66, a gifted guitarist with a roots-music archive at his fingertips, has undergone several transformations since his youth in Tarrytown, New York.

The biggest came when he quit regular performing in 1980, slipping below the public radar while he remained a warm memory for fans and musical partners. He became a collector of U.S.- made violins and a trader in top fiddles of all types.

In 2002 he set up a violin shop in Wilmington and began playing in weekly jam sessions as part of the city’s urban-renewal efforts. A few years later he returned to the recording studio and performing. He’ll be at Manhattan’s City Winery with his Big Band this week.

It was during this latest phase that Bromberg impressed Beth Toni Kruvant, producer and director of the documentary, “David Bromberg: Unsung Treasure.” It opens the Woodstock Film Festival in upstate New York in October.

“I saw David perform and he was fabulous. I wondered where he had been all these years,” wrote Kruvant by e-mail from Israel, where she is working on a new project about African refugees in that country.

‘Burnt Out’

In a conversation at Bloomberg world headquarters in New York last week, Bromberg said he quit performing 32 years ago because “I was burnt out.” He studied luthiery and “played three violins I made in three successive years at Carnegie Hall.”

He quickly warmed as collector and vendor to the subject of violins.

“People talk about the secret of Stradivari,” Bromberg said. “He had a secret. He knew what to do with the wood. That was it. All this nonsense you hear about his varnish is truly nonsense.” He explained that everyone had the same materials to work with under Italy’s guild system.

Bromberg has amassed the largest collection of vintage American-made violins in the world. They aren’t for sale. The most expensive violin in the Wilmington shop at the moment is a $200,000 instrument by “a great Milanese maker named Paolo Antonio Testori, and it’s arguably one of the very best he ever made.”

At one point he takes note of where he is, cautions against the idea of buying a fine fiddle as an investment and segues to a story:

No Sale

“When I opened my shop, among the first visitors were a couple of commodities traders. I showed them my vault, which I was very proud of, my walk-in vault. One of them said, ‘OK, which of these would be the best investment, because maybe I’ll buy one for investment.’ And I said, ‘If I knew that, I wouldn’t sell it to you.’”

His musical tastes remain as eclectic as when his concert sets bounced from folk to blues, jazz to bluegrass. He singled out a Brooklyn group called Balkan Beat Box, the Abyssinian Baptist Choir and a 1960s septet of Bronx housewives known as the Pennywhistlers. He’s listening to a lot of Eastern European vocal music.

The talk jumped around from the ossification of classical music to the rebirth of bluegrass, from Nicolo Amati to Jack White, Charlie Parker to Britney Spears -- yes, the “Oops” girl.

“People will use Britney Spears as a curse, as an example of something terrible,” Bromberg said. “Well, it’s not what I like, but I know enough about how music works and how the music business works to know that she must be doing something right. She appeals to a certain audience to whom her music will be like the Beatles are to my generation.”

Someone cries “Plastic!”

Joplin Rag

“This is a different time,” Bromberg said. “My generation didn’t have computers. The current generation doesn’t know life without them. So you say it’s plastic, but to them it’s the most natural thing in the world.”

A few moments later, Bromberg did what to him is the most natural thing in the world, pulled his Martin acoustic from its gig bag and played his own clearly unossified arrangement of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.”

(David Bromberg Big Band is at City Winery, 155 Varick St., Aug. 30 and 31 and Sept. 1; information: +1-212-608-0555 or http://www.citywinery.com/newyork/. The Woodstock Film Festival runs Oct. 10-14; information: +1-845-810-0131 or http://www.woodstockfilmfestival.com/. Information for the Bromberg documentary and Beth Toni Kruvant’s other film work is here: http://www.goodfootageproductions.com/.)

(Jeffrey Burke is an editor with Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. The interview material was adapted from a longer conversation.)

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