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 he 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. He also became the preferred accompanist to many popular stars of Yiddish theater and for some of the great cantors of the time period. 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. Over the course of his career, Tarras was recognized for creating "a new klezmer sound that fused popular American music with recognizable European roots".
Tarras was a recipient of a 1984 National Heritage Fellowship awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts, which is the United States government's highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.
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- Strom, Yale (2010). Dave Tarras: The King of Klezmer. Kfar Sava, Israel: Or-Tav Music Publications. ISBN 9789655050554. OCLC 670428922.