In Memoriam: Elaine Hoffman Watts, Klezmer Musician and Pew Fellow

29 Sep 2017

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Elaine Hoffman Watts in concert. Photo by James Wasserman.

We are saddened by the news that Elaine Hoffman Watts, 2000 Pew Fellow, passed away on September 25, 2017. A celebrated percussionist and treasured mentor, Watts was known for bringing an authentic and refined approach to klezmer, a centuries-old form of Eastern European Jewish folk music.

Trained in klezmer by family members and other traditional musicians, Watts was the first female percussionist to graduate from the Curtis Institute of Music in 1954.

“She lived for music and her family, and anybody that ever met her never forgot her,” Watts’ relatives said in a tribute in The Philadelphia Inquirer. “They felt the touch and had the experience.”

An advocate for women’s representation in klezmer music, Watts performed with the New Orleans Symphony and Delaware Symphony, before returning to the Philadelphia area to build a sixty-year career as an instructor, klezmer timpanist, and classical drummer.

In 2007, Watts received the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the nation’s most coveted award in folk and traditional arts. In announcing the fellowship, the NEA described Watts as an important role model for younger generations of musicians who “would have no clue that women were indeed a part of traditional Yiddish music.”

Watts frequently performed with her daughter Susan Lankin-Watts, a klezmer singer, trumpet player, and 2015 Pew Fellow. In 2004, the duo released the album I Remember Klezmer: The Art of Klezmer Drumming, which was lauded by All About Jazz for masterfully showcasing a “delightfully contemporary family affair.”

Watts was honored with a Leeway Foundation Transformation Award in 2007. The documentary film Eatala: A Life in Klezmer (2009), produced by Philadelphia Folklore Project, chronicles Watts’ career and family legacy with dynamic concert recordings, interviews, and personal footage.

Services were held September 26. Memorial contributions may be made to Jewish Braille, New York or the Philadelphia Folklore Project, Philadelphia. Read Watts’ obituary in The Philadelphia Inquirer>>