There is no missing Peter Wertheimer. The 67-year-old jazz saxophonist, flutist and clarinet player cuts an instantly recognizable figure, with his flowing gray locks and impressive goatee. Since making aliya from Romania in 1977, Wertheimer has become a fixture in the local entertainment industry, playing on all kinds of TV shows and at state events, as well as numerous jazz gigs.
Wertheimer’s sterling work will be saluted at the Enav Center in Tel Aviv on June 14 (9 p.m.) when a stellar jazz-heavy multidisciplinary lineup takes the stage for a concert entitled To Peter with Love. The show will feature jazz veterans such as Red Sea Jazz Festival founder and pianist Danny Gottfried and fellow septuagenarian drummer Areleh Kaminsky; bassist Eli Magen; and jazz-oriented pop-rock bass guitarist and vocalist Alon Olearchik. Current Red Sea Jazz Festival artistic director saxophonist Eli Degibri is also in the Wertheimer tribute mix as is Gottfried contemporary reedman Albert Piamenta and the iconic vocal ensemble The Givatron.
Veteran radio show host Dori Ben Zeev will also be there to keep the show wheels turning smoothly.
I first caught sight, and sound, of Wertheimer around 35 years ago at a basement joint called Teatron Hamadregot on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv. There were around 40 or 50 of us crammed into the modestly appointed venue, but we were treated to a fine jazz show. Wertheimer’s cohorts included Gottfried, Kaminsky and Magen, as well as late Russian-born saxophonist and flutist Roman Kunsman.
Wertheimer, who was born in Satu Mare in Transylvania, has been surrounded by music all his life. His father was a celebrated violinist and conductor, and the youngster started out on violin at the age of five. But the time he was nine, he expressed an interest in playing the flute.
“My dad told me I should try the piccolo saxophone because I wasn’t big enough to manage with a flute,” Wertheimer recalls, and his path to wind instrument prowess duly began. “Mind you, my father insisted that I carry on with the violin,” he adds. “I could have taken up any other instrument I wanted, but I could not stop with the violin.”
Back then, it was almost impossible to get hold of jazz records, but Wertheimer managed to surreptitiously listen to numbers played on legendary jazz presenter Willis Conover’s show on Voice of America radio.
“My father and I would get under the bedclothes and listen to the show,” says the reedman. “I remember the light the radio gave off. It was magical.”
Genetic head start notwithstanding, for inhabitants of Communist-ruled countries, jazz was not something that was talked about in polite – or politically correct – circles. It was the music of America and, as such, was generally considered to be a degenerate art form. Over the years, I have been regaled by tales of all kinds of shenanigans that Communist bloc-born jazz artists had to get up to in order to be able to play the music they loved.
Wertheimer says the members of the Romanian jazz community were a little cleverer.
“When the authorities said we couldn’t play jazz because it was American music, we told them we could play jazz even better than the Americans and that we would show them up,” he recalls with a chuckle. “That made it OK.”
Official sanctioning notwithstanding, Wertheimer did not have life too easy as he took his first steps as a professional jazz musician. When he was 16, his parents submitted a request to make aliya.
“The Romanians didn’t call this country Israel. They said we wanted to move to Palestine,” says Wertheimer. “Things got bad after that.”
Wertheimer’s dad lost his position as conductor of the local opera house, the teenager was kicked out of school, and the family struggled to make ends meet.
The teenager’s response to the downturn in the family’s fortunes was to adopt the going-get-tough-tough- get-going ethos, and he promptly pulled up stakes and set off for the streets of Bucharest.
“I don’t really know why I left,” says Wertheimer. “Things were hard for my parents, and I guess I didn’t want to be a financial burden to them.”
Brave or foolhardy, the youth did not exactly strike gold when he got to the capital.
“I had a bag with some clothes, my saxophone and schoolbooks, and nothing else,” he says.
The runaway also had to register for school in Bucharest which, he says, required a modicum of improvisation.
“When I gave them by name, I told them I was of German origin.” Transylvania had a large proportion of people of Hungarian and German stock. “If I’d said I was Jewish, they wouldn’t have accepted me.”
While his formal studies went on more or less unabated, Wertheimer still didn’t have a roof over his head.
“I’d ride the all-night tram that had a circular route around Bucharest,” he recalls. “I’d do my homework on the tram.”
He also slept rough and scraped together a meager living playing jazz gigs. The latter included a frequent slot at the Ambassador Hotel in the city, which turned out to be a lucky break.
“The man who ran the restaurant at the hotel took care of jazz musicians,” explains Wertheimer. “He took one look at me and said I looked like a kid whose dad had thrown him out of the house.”
The kindly manager promptly took the youngster to his office and made sure he was fed.
“He brought me two steaks, and I gobbled them down,” says Wertheimer. “After that, he asked me if I had nylon shirts, which don’t need ironing. I only had nylon shirts. He told me that after everyone left, I should go down to the kitchen, wash the shirts in the sink and hang them up to dry over the oven.
They dried really quickly, and then I let myself out of the building, making sure there were no police around.”
Gradually, Wertheimer began to make his way in the Romanian jazz community and played on a wide range of recordings, including a 1966 free jazz album, and was fully primed to join the growing musical community here in the late 1970s.
Above all, Wertheimer has always been an entertainer, regardless of the particular kind of music he is performing.
“If I see someone leave in the middle of a show, even if it’s only to the bathroom, or someone looking sad or disinterested, it hurts me,” he declares.
“People leave their homes to come to a show in order to get something for their hearts. That’s what I try to give them.”
Sunday at 9 p.m. at the Enav Center in Tel Aviv. For tickets: (03) 574-5005