Elaine Hoffman Watts, 85, of Ardmore, a noted percussionist who performed the distinctive eastern European Jewish folk music known as klezmer, died Monday, Sept. 25, of cardiomyopathy at her home.
“She lived for music and her family, and anybody that ever met her never forgot her,” her relatives said in a tribute. “They felt the touch and had the experience.”
A funny extrovert, Mrs. Watts commanded any stage on which she set foot. She and daughter-vocalist-trumpet player Susan Lankin-Watts appeared at public and private events, often with a Philadelphia band called Fabulous Shpielkes, the Yiddish word for the feeling of pins and needles.
Between numbers, Mrs. Watts, who could trace her lineage and musical roots to the army of Russian Czar Nicholas II, bantered with her daughter and talked about klezmer, which has experienced a comeback. Fans flocked to hear her.
“She was a feisty little giant whose determination and humor were a model for so many. She is mourned around the world by those who knew her and sat in with her on countless stages and living rooms,” fan Emily Socolov posted online.
Born in 1932, the 4-foot-10 inch Mrs. Watts grew up in a West Philadelphia house with a drum set and xylophone in the basement. Her father, Jacob Hoffman, a prominent percussionist, started her off on the violin, but she only wanted to play the drums.
She recalled in an oral history on www.wanderingmuse.net that he took her down to the basement and put the drumsticks in her hands. “Do this,’” he said, demonstrating the movements.
“If I didn’t do it right, he would say, ‘Dummy, I showed you how to do it,’” she said in the oral history.
The folk songs she played had accompanied her grandfather, cornetist Joseph Hoffman, when he immigrated to the United States from a village near Odessa, then part of the Russian Empire, in the early 1900s.
The songs formed the core of the unique repertoire handed down in the Hoffman clan. When performed here and elsewhere, they became the staple of weddings and community celebrations for generations of Jewish families.
In 1954, Elaine Hoffman became the first female graduate in percussion from the Curtis Institute of Music, and immediately was hired by the New Orleans Symphony.
After a year there, she returned to a career as a classical timpanist in the Philadelphia area. She played the drums for the Ice Capades, at the Valley Forge Music Fair, and for theatrical and opera performances.
But as a performer, she was shown the door by many klezmer bands because she was a woman. It was only when her father arranged a gig that she got work playing klezmer.
Her break came in the early 1990s, when Mrs. Watts was discovered by folklorists and music experts steeped in klezmer who made her into a performing luminary.
The experts were thrilled to find her, Lankin-Watts said. “Look at this uncovered treasure,” they told one another.
For more than six decades, ending in July, she taught klezmer drumming and traditional drumming to students in her Montgomery County home. Many of her pupils – male and female — have gone on to successful careers as percussionists.
“Mom always, always, always had students in the basement,” Lankin-Watts said in a story in the Inquirer.
“I wasn’t playing golf,” Mrs. Watts shot back.
Mrs. Watts was a sought-after teacher at KlezKanada and KlezKamp, annual gatherings of accomplished and novice klezmer musicians.
Beyond the world of klezmer, Mrs. Watts received adulation and support in developing her music muse.
In 2000, she was awarded a Pew Fellowship in the Arts. In 2007, she received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the nation’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts.
“Elaine is an important role model to young players who otherwise would have no clue that women were indeed a part of traditional Yiddish music,” the program’s officials wrote in announcing the fellowship.
“Because those of us who study traditional Yiddish culture have no homeland in Europe to which we can return, we rely heavily on the 78 rpm recordings that were made during the early years of the 20th century. Most of the musicians on those recordings were men, and Elaine’s presence is critical in redressing this imbalance.”
In 2007, Mrs. Watts also was honored with a Leeway Foundation Transformation Award. Two years later, a documentary film, Eatala: A Life in Klezmer, was made about her life.
Elaine Hoffman married Ernest Watts in 1955. He became her roadie and instrument-repair technician.
Besides her husband and daughter, she is survived by daughters Eileen Siegel and Lorrie Keammerer; five grandsons; and a sister.
Services were Tuesday, Sept. 26.
Memorial contributions may be made to Jewish Braille, 110 E. 30th St., New York, N.Y. 10016, or the Philadelphia Folklore Project, 735 S. 50th St., Philadelphia 19143.