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Shelly Berg: New Moon Over Miami

By Published: January 28, 2008
Shelly BergAAJ: Truly. What was your dad's name?

SB: Jay Berg. But sometimes he was known as Jay Bird, for some things he did early on. He's even on some of those Benedetti recordings with Charlie Parker.

AAJ: Well, that would certainly get you jump-started in jazz. Did you ever consider anything else beside music?

SB: I half-jokingly said that the only other thing I ever considered was baseball. I was kind of a baseball nut when I was a kid. I played every day in the summer. But in all seriousness, other than that fantasy, from as early as I can remember, I knew I was a musician. Not that I was going to become a musician, I was a musician. At three years old, I felt that I was a musician. I don't know how you'd describe that.

AAJ: I'm sure I could look it up.

SB: You can find the root of my psychosis?

AAJ: Oh, absolutely.

SB: You're trained for these things—I'm just an amateur.

AAJ: Yep. Don't try this at home! So then you got into academia...

SB: Yeah, I had the weirdest path, because I was playing professionally from the time I was twelve or thirteen, always playing and studying classical music. Probably through high school, I thought I was going to be a concert pianist. Then, I don't know—a rebellious streak or something—I left home at eighteen, got married on my nineteenth birthday, and worked my way through college playing six nights a week.

AAJ: College where?

SB: University of Houston. My family had resettled to Houston from Cleveland when I was in the middle of high school. I had a scholarship offer there, and I could gig every night, so I never thought about going anywhere else. Sometimes on weekends I'd go up to North Texas and sit in with those guys. I worked all the way through my Master's degree at the University of Houston, playing six nights a week, jazz and top 40 and country and salsa. I was in a great band. By the time I had my Master's degree, I also had two children. I was twenty-two years old, with two kids, and I thought, "I don't want to play six nights a week all the time, I'll never see my kids." That's why I started in academia.

AAJ: Sounds like one of the better reasons.

SB: There was a community college that was just opening a new campus, and they were advertising for a band director. I'd done some recording projects for big bands, and had already been teaching: I was a TA [teaching assistant] in college for two years, teaching theory and ear training. So I applied for the job. They must have thought, "We need to hire somebody who has no idea how hard this is." I was hired in July, a month before we had to start school.

I began in the north campus of San Jacinto College. I decided to start with a jazz band, since it's awfully hard to get a concert band going in five weeks. So I called every kid from every high school band around there. My first band had five guitars, a tuba, a kid who could put together a clarinet, two trumpets, and two friends of mine who played great bass and drums and wanted to come back to school. So they came back, and that rhythm section was smokinï.

About six weeks into school, the tuba player came to say he'd gotten a job driving a truck and had to drop out. So I lost the entire low brass department in one day!

Shelly BergAAJ: But you kept to the academic path for the next thirty years.

SB: Yeah, that began the road. I was really in love with teaching. I started with the books that were available for teaching jazz improvisation, which said things like, "Play the Dorian scale." I thought, "I don't play this way, nobody I know plays this way, why are they teaching this way?" So from day one, something wasn't making sense to me.

I remember sitting at the piano for hours, playing and thinking, "What am I doing?" My dad had taught me by ear, but now I started putting together mimeographed sheets of what I was doing.

AAJ: The old dittos?

SB: Yeah, I got so high off of those.

AAJ: Me too. Loved the smell of those things! It's like Play-Doh, it stays with you forever.

SB: I never did any kind of illegal drug, but man, those dittos! Anyway, probably two or three years later, I wrote my first article for the NAJE journal: "Tonal, not Modal." The idea was that standard tunes are tonal, like Mozart, they're not modal, like "So What." It's about changes. That's what allowed me to write Jazz Improvisation: The Goal-Note Method; it's all about notes, and resolution, and scales, and the things you play around the changes, how you play through the chords.

After two years I moved to the central campus of San Jacinto College, and built it into what was probably, at that time, the greatest junior college program in the country. We had a big concert band, and three jazz bands; we were playing at Montreux. We built a big music-business department, we had a state-of-the-art recording studio and 300 recording majors by the time I left there.

It really developed into something great. By the time I left, I was secretary of the IAJE, on my way to becoming President. Then USC came calling. They said, "We've got this opening, would you come talk to us?" So I took the job. For sixteen years. I grew so much there because the students were so terrific.

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