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Shelly Berg: New Moon Over Miami

By Published: January 28, 2008
AAJ: I've seen you teach twice now. On the 2005 cruise, you basically deconstructed your solo—"This is why I'm doing this, this is what I want from that." What struck me again yesterday was how much psychology you use. You were giving real emotional characteristics to chords, like your favorite—the two dominant sharp eleven—which you said "sounds like hope and wonder."

SB: That's right.

AAJ: And it does, for sure, but I bet that isn't the way most teachers would frame it. Or when you say the four chord is "napalm," the seven is "juicy" and the five is "non-committal."

SB: I actually have multiple personalities that come to the fore when I teach.

AAJ: That's good if it keeps you off the street.

SB: It keeps some of me off the street! But I think you hit on something, which is that so much of education is what scale you play over what change, the stuff that we can do. I went to Israel about ten years ago to teach with a guy named Arnie Lawrence, who has since passed away. Arnie used to play with the Tonight Show band in New York and kind of founded the New School jazz band. He went to Israel to have Palestinian kids and Israeli kids play jazz together, and was succeeding.

I think he brought me in because my Goal-Note book was all about the stuff you do—it seems I had become kind of one of the Masters of The Stuff You Do. I spent almost two weeks with Arnie, and he never once talked about a chord change, a scale, a note. I assumed I would be the guy who talked about all this—which I did, copiously.

But in the end, what he did was infinitely more important. He was a Pied Piper. He would play, and kids would imitate; some sixteen-year-old would try out all his hot licks, and he stopped him with: "We're about beauty here." And suddenly, he's a new kid.

Shelly Berg

We played something with a student on bass who didn't know any tunes, and had no fake book, and was playing mostly all the wrong notes. It was driving me crazy, so with my left hand I'm trying to show him the notes on the piano, and Arnie comes over and says, "I expected the bassist to be having some problems. I didn't expect bad comping." So I stopped helping the bassist, and he actually found it more quickly when I stopped. I learned a lot from Arnie. That was a profound experience for me.

The hardest thing about teaching any music, but especially jazz, is finding a way to link up the spiritual with the technical. What I tell students is that we have two wells: one is spiritual, the other technical. A spiritual well is filled up with the things we can know and feel and dream, and the technical well is all The Stuff. You have to understand what that Stuff evokes, so you can unconsciously draw from it.

AAJ: That would requires a lot of self-awareness, I would think.

SB: It does. I've had students say to me, "We're not old enough to do what you're asking. We're just college students."

AAJ: They might not know what's in their spiritual wells yet.

SB: Or, "I haven't allowed myself to feel this, I can't do what you're asking yet." So I challenge them to use what they have experienced. I probably became a lot like Arnie.

AAJ: I liked what you said yesterday: "All songs have a past, present, and future. The past is something crucial needs expressing; the present is the telling of the story; and the future involves what the song will accomplish—maybe delving into sadness to bring about a healing." That's a very different level of analysis from the technical stuff. In fact, from a psychological perspective, it's the real deal.

SB: If someone's going to cry from what you play, they're going to feel in some way healed by what you play—which I think it always possible—then it has to come from that level. Otherwise, they might dig what you play, but that's as far as it goes.

AAJ: That's why drum machines are so anathema to me—there's no human in there, communicating anything, it's just knobs and switches. Could you elaborate on your very human idea of "getting inside the music and letting it happen?"

SB: We can practice The Stuff, and we tend to measure ourselves by that. Can I play that chorus in sixteenth notes? Can I double it up? Can I play "Giant Steps"? Can I make all the changes? We have to practice that stuff. But then the hardest thing is to go totally outside and say, the playing is never about any of this.

The only way to do that is to start in the place where the music is washing over you, in the context of the song. So I'm inside of it, and from in there, what can I start to find and express? What one note expresses where I am inside this music? It's like seeing two kids swinging a jump rope—you don't want to just jump in and start doing back-flips. You watch the rope for awhile, you get in the rhythm of it, you jump in—then you might double and triple up and do the tricks. But that's only after you get in the flow. It's all about being in the flow.

The trouble is that when people play, they have a list of things they have to do. They're not getting into the flow because they're thinking, "OK, I need to use this lick."

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