Tarras, born Dovid Tarraschuk in Ternivka, (a village in Teplytskyi Raion, Vinnytsia Oblast, Ukraine), was the son of a klezmer trombonist and Badkhn. He grew up playing a variety of instruments and surrounded by the music. He was conscripted into the tsar's army in 1915, but his talents as a musician kept him out of the trenches. In 1921 he emigrated to New York City, where worked in a garment factory for a time.
Eventually he found he could make money as a musician, and worked as a clarinetist in many of New York's klezmer ensembles. In addition to Jewish music, he also recorded Greek, Polish and Russian tunes. His ability to play different styles was further masked by the use of pseudonyms on his recordings for Columbia Records. It is conservatively estimated that he participated in 500 recordings during his career.
His skill and reliability enabled him to play for many years longer than the other klezmer pioneers of his day (Naftule Brandwein, for example) had retired or left the business. Tarras' experience playing in the czarist military band, his ability to read music, and his excellent command of the Yiddish style made him a favorite among bandleaders. After klezmer music fell out of fashion following World War II, Tarras remained one of the few musicians to still record and play actively. His style has been characterized as smooth and dignified, with deliberate and rhythmical phrasing. His personal repertoire came from his Bessarabian roots and the influences of Jewish and Gypsy (Roma) music. Zev Feldman has credited Tarras with not only "Bessarabianizing" Jewish dance music, but also with replacing what had been the dominant tune style of the freylekh with the Bulgar.
Tarras' most enduring recording, Tanz! (1956) was the brainchild of his son-in-law, clarinetist and saxophonist Sam Musiker. The album, which successfully combines jazz and klezmer idioms, was not well received in its day, but remains central to the canon of present-day revivalists.
- Feldman, Walter Zev. "Bulgărească/Bulgarish/Bulgar: The Transformation of a Klezmer Dance Genre." In American Klezmer: Its Roots and Offshoots, edited by Mark Slobin, 84-126. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002.
- Larkin, Colin. The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 3rd edition, Macmillan, 1998.
- Netsky, Hankus. "American Klezmer: A Brief History," in American Klezmer: Its Roots and Offshoots, edited by Mark Slobin, 52-72. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002.
- Sadie, Stanley; Hitchcock, H. Wiley (Ed.). The New Grove Dictionary of American Music. Grove's Dictionaries of Music, 1986.
- Sapoznik, Henry. Klezmer! Jewish Music from Old World to Our World. New York: Schirmer Trade Books, 2006.
- Strom, Yale. The Book of Klezmer. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, 2002.
- new york times 1989/02/14
- Sapoznik, Henry (2006). Klezmer! Jewish Music from Old World to Our World. New York: Schirmer Trade Books. pp. 11, 108–11.
- Strom, Yale (2002). The Book of Klezmer. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated. pp. 160–61.
- Feldman, Zev (2002). Mark Slobin, ed. American Klezmer: Its Roots and Offshoots. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. pp. 101–08.
- Sapoznik, Henry (2006). Klezmer! Jewish Music from Old World to Our World. New York: Schirmer Trade Books. pp. 145–46, 156–60.
- Netsky, Hankus (2002). Mark Slobin, ed. American Klezmer: Its Roots and Offshoots. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. p. 21.
- Obituary in The New York Times, February 14, 1989 (retrieved January 25, 2010)
- National Fellowship Heritage 1984