Shelly Berg: New Moon Over Miami
Although Berg is widely considered one of the most eloquent, swinging, and accomplished pianists in jazz, to date he's more famous as an educator. Berg was President of the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) from 1996-98; he spent eight years chairing the department of jazz studies at the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music, during which he raised its profile to one of the top programs in the country. He was the McCoy/Sample Endowed Professor of Jazz Studies at USC until the spring of 2007, when he became dean of the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami.
Berg is also very busy backstage, as an arranger, composer, and accompanist who's worked with artists as disparate as KISS, Bonnie Raitt, the Basie band, and the Royal Philharmonic. (For example, if you caught the 2006 PBS Great Performances tribute to Ella Fitzgerald with Nancy Wilson and Natalie Cole, among others, you saw Berg directing things from the piano.) He's written for movies and TV and has won seven ADDY awards for his jingles. Much in demand for his workshops and clinics, he's just beginning to step forward as a lead performer, and in 2008 is about to launch Follow the Sun, his second release for Concord Records.
Berg has also published eight books on jazz theory and improvisation, including the innovative Jazz Improvisation: The Goal-Note Method (Lou Fischer Music Publishing, 1992) and the popular Chop Monster series for beginners on each jazz instrument.
Berg's remarkably versatile career began at age six, when he entered the gifted program at the Cleveland Institute of Music. What makes his story even more impressiveand inspiringis that he's accomplished all that he has despite the constant distraction of having Tourette Syndrome, a lifelong neurological disorder.
On a recent jazz cruise, All About Jazz's Dr. Judith Schlesinger sat down with the busy Berg to discuss this challenge, his career path and philosophy of jazz education, and his exciting plans for the new gig in Miami.
All About Jazz: Outside of jazz education circles, youïre one of the most under-famous people I know.
Shelly Berg: About ten years ago, the All Music Guide called me "the best jazz pianist you never heard of." But the last time it came out, I was "one of the best pianists around playing mainstream jazz." So at least I've moved up from nobody ever hearing of me.
AAJ: And now your new job in Miami is pretty high-profile.
SB: Ten years ago, had I taken a job as dean at a major music school, people would say,"Oh, this is perfect for you." Now what I'm hearing is, "How's this going to affect your playing career?" So I think there's been some traction.
AAJ: As far as I know, you've only had two CDs under your own name.
SB: Actually, I've had three. The first one was on DMP Records (1996), and it's called The Joy"The Joy" being the song I wrote for my three children when they were little. Then there's The Will: A Tribute to Oscar Peterson , on the short-lived Cars record label [Cars Productions, 1997].
SB: Yes, Cars. It was an L.A. label. I think they put out several CDs before they went out of business. That one actually made the top ten of jazz radio [for eight weeks]. Then there's the one you're probably referring to, Blackbird (2005), which, being on Concord Records, has really enhanced my profile as an artist. I'm getting ready to do the second recording for them, as we speak.
AAJ: With another Beatles title.
SB: That's right: I'll Follow the Sun.
AAJ: Could you describe that one a bit?
SB: I'll be recording it in December , so it should come out seven, eight months down the road. You know how long these things can take. It's going to be the same trio: Gregg Field on drums, co-producer with me, and Chuck Berghofer on bass. And this time, with probably six vocalists, as well as some instrumentalists. I'm dedicating it to my father, who passed away about a year ago; he was a great jazz trumpet player, and my teacher and mentor: "Some day you'll look/to see I've gone/but tomorrow may rain so/I'll follow the sun."
AAJ: Didn't you say you were going to have Steve Miller on it?
SB: Yes, Steve Miller's going to sing on the recordalso Tierney Sutton, Kurt Elling, Patti Austin, and Monica Mancini. We're hoping for a couple of others, but we're not putting that out there just yet.
AAJ: Were you raised in a musical family?
SB: My dad and I were musical; my three siblings and my mother, not really. My dad was an interesting guy. He was the principal French horn in the Marine band at Camp Pendleton during World War II, a gig he gave up 'cause he had an urge to fight. So he went over to Guam and got hit by a grenade, and ended up sitting out the war on his back. He was a great French horn player, but always played jazz trumpet. He was in the Marines with Buddy Rich during Buddy's short time in the Marines, and they played together. There were a lot of great guys at Camp Pendleton at that time, as you can imagine.
After the service, he moved to New York and met [saxophonist] Sonny Stitt, who taught him to go from being a Harry James trumpet player to a bebop trumpet player. He got to play with Charlie Parker and all those guys. [Clarinetist] Tony Scott and my dad were good friends, and in fact they played on Carmen McCrae's first record. By the time I was born, my dad had long given up music as a careerhe always had a businessbut he practiced and played all the time. When I came home from school he was there with his trumpet in a corner, practicing tunes. By the time I was eleven, he was grooming me to be his live-in accompanist.
It was great. He had hundreds and hundreds of records. He had the Charlie Parker 78s, the Savoy and Dial sessions, [saxophonist] Lucky Thompsonall that stuff. He was hipping me to Oscar Peterson when I was seven, eight years old. I'd be practicing my classical music, twelve or thirteen years old, and he'd come in and say, "Let's play." "But Dad, I've got the Beethoven!"
He would teach me tunes by playing them on the horn and arpeggiating the changes. I had to hear themhe wouldn't play them on the piano so I could watch them. He was training my ear all the time. He never taught me a tune by telling me a change, he taught me every tune by ear. He taught me hundreds of tunes that way.
So we played together all through life, even did a couple of albums together, one of which I actually put out [Buried Treasure, 1994]. If you think nobody's ever heard of me, my dad was really a buried treasure! Nobody played more beautiful lines than my dad. I spent years playing with [trombonist] Bill Watrous, and whenever my dad was around, Bill always wanted him on the stand. He just loved the way my dad played.
The last time my dad and I played together was a month before he died. He sounded terrific. It was the last time I saw him, and it was the perfect last day with my dad.
AAJ: 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 thingsI'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 knowa rebellious streak or somethingI 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!
AAJ: 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.
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 favoritethe two dominant sharp elevenwhich 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 doit 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 thiswhich 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.
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 accomplishmaybe 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 playwhich I think it always possiblethen 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 methere'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 ropeyou 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 inthen 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."
AAJ: They're also using a different part of their brainthe clickety-clackety partthat can get in the way of flow. And speaking of psychology, since we seem to be focusing there..
SB: Sure. It fascinates both of us.
AAJ: Endlessly! I wanted to ask you about how having Tourette Syndrome relates to all this accomplishment.
SB: It's a very enigmatic condition. The best they know is that it comes from the same kind of dopamine area as Parkinson's, but it's not debilitating.
[Note: for clear, reliable information about Tourette, see the Tourette Syndrome Association website.]
AAJ: It's not a wasting disease?
SB: No. It waxes and wanes throughout life, but it doesn't get worse as you get older. And there are different manifestations of it. Yelling obscenities is called coprolalia, and if you donït have coprolalia, you never will. I don't have itwhen I'm swearing, I mean it! But I knew someone who got into trouble because of it. He was playing for Nell Carter's show. One night she came out in a bright yellow dress, and he yelled, "Who ordered the taxi?"
AAJ: And that was the end of that gig.
SB: Unfortunately, yes. With coprolalia you say the thing that you would dread saying, that you don't meanyour heart's in another place. It's very bizarre. The best way I can describe Tourette is that it's a continuing tension seeking release, and the release is the tic, or the grunt, or the utterance.
AAJ: So the nervous system is on high all the time.
SB: Yeah, and yet I can feel completely relaxed and still have Tourette. It's a tension that's different from the tension of how calm you are.
<AAJ: It's detached from what's actually happening in your life?
SB: Yes. It's a neurological tension, not a psychological tension.
AAJ: Does it get exacerbated if you're under stress?
SB: Very much so.
AAJ: Like any weakness that any of us has, I suppose.
SB: Yeah. And it's hard to describe what it feels like to live every waking moment with an urge to twitch. It's very, very annoying.
AAJ: It sounds like having to pee all the time.
SB: Yes, but only doing it in spurts.
AAJ: Never getting relief.
SB: No, there's no relief, because you're spurting all the time. The twitch can move aroundsometimes it'll be in my mouth, and then after awhile it moves to my back. I tried medication once, hated it.
AAJ: What kind of medication?
SB: A blood pressure medication, a patch. The thing about medication is that what I do requires a kind of hyper-sense, this place in your brain and soul that's not easy to access. When you get there, it's really special because it fills everybody up, and they're there with you, and something magical is happening. I worried that, even imperceptibly, taking medication would dull that. And that's a chance I could never take.
AAJ: I've seen some speculation about a connection between Tourette and giftedness.
SB: A lot of people with Tourette are very creative, so there may very well be some relationship. It's kind of like "Love Hangover" by Diana Ross"If there's a cure for this, I don't want it!" I know I can get to that place where it's almost telepathic with the audience, and if Tourette is part of that, I don't want to mess with it.
AAJ: When were you diagnosed?
SB: Well, the onset of it was probably at eleven years old or so. It was interesting, because I also have an autoimmune disorder [severe chronic neutropenia] in which my body kills my own white blood cellsI have to give myself a shot of neupogen every few days to grow my blood cells, or I'll die. There may also be some relationship between the immune thing and Tourette.
Anyway, when I was about eleven or twelve, my parents took me to some specialist who hooked up some EEGs, with electrodes all over me. But in the end, they came to no conclusion.
AAJ: They probably had no conclusion to come to, forty years ago.
SB: They tried to put me on muscle relaxers, tranquilizers, things like that. They were trying to knock down the tic, but something in me said no, I'm not going to take this stuff. The great irony is that I was finally diagnosed at thirty-six years old, long after I went through a lot of anger at myself.
Because the thing about Tourette is that, if I were to sit here and focus all of my energy on not ticcing, I could do it. I could sit here, just breathe, and not do it. I couldn't do it forever, but because you can do it at all it's easy to believe that it's your own faultyou're just nervous.
AAJ: And you could control it if you really wanted to.
SB: Yeah. Don't tell my colleagues at USC, but I went to UCLA's Neurology Clinic because that's where Oliver Sacks had beenit was just the place [well-known for their Movement Disorders Clinic]. The doctor meets me in the waiting room, shakes my hand, and says, "Nice to meet you." We walk down a short hallway to the examining roomabout 15-20 feet. I sit down, and he says, "So, wanna know what you've got? You have Tourette syndrome. Let me tell you how I know." And he listed all the stuff. He was describing me! It was the most liberating moment of my life: "You mean it's not my fault?"
AAJ: That's a big guilt to walk around with all those yearsa good reason to go into therapy.
SB: I never have. I got this screwed up on my own! No, I've never had therapy about it. Fortunately I'm about the most optimistic person I know. You can't tell me things are going to hell, I'm not going to believe it. People who describe my playing usually say it's full of joy.
AAJ: It is exuberant.
SB: I've even had a reviewer use that disparagingly: "Oh, he's one of those exuberant types."
AAJ: I remember talking to Monty Alexander about thishe was very bitter about the critics who put him down for having so much fun.
SB: Another one of those exuberant types.
AAJ: We certainly need less of those!
SB: Yeah, don't bore me with emotion. Anyway, I never had any therapy about Tourette.
AAJ: Maybe the music provided a place where you could be free of thinking about it, and immerse yourself in wonderfulness.
SB: That's the thing. When I'm playing, I'm immersed in wonderfulnessyou said itand most people don't know how to get there.
AAJ: And you can't teach themyou can show them the door, but they may or may not be able to go through it.
SB: As you know in your business, if somebody is sad, you can't just say "be happy." They don't know where the door to happiness is.
AAJ: Some people can even get very uncomfortable with it, simply because it's not what they're used to. They'd rather be miserable, because at least that's familiar, they know the terrain. But you're an artist: you're not supposed to be happy, you're supposed to be all messed up and miserable and clenched and pessimistic and suicidalwhat's wrong with you, Shel?
SB: Well, I've had plenty of heartache. But even the expression of that, to me, is beautiful. Anything you can really get to and express, there's great beauty in that for me, and it's very cathartic. You started by saying that I'm under-known. I had a moment about fifteen or twenty years ago, teaching at community college, and playing receptions on the weekend. I supported my family very well with my casual band. I remember thinking, I could be the next Leonard Bernstein, but it's never going to happen, because I'm not on a path where that's possible. The choices that I made, it hit me like a ton of bricks. Cause I don't know how much time I have. You can't run away from that.
There's no kind of music I can't dowrite a movie score, a symphonyand I've done a lot of things since then. Besides, be careful what you wish forI got to meet Bernstein after that, and he was about the most miserable guy I ever met.
AAJ: So much for wanting to walk in his shoes.
SB: Yeah. So I know about disappointment, but I look at myself now, having people I love who love me, being able to express music in the way that I get to express it, being respected for who I am. That's enough for anybody.
AAJ: Amen! So let's talk about your new gig.
SB: I have the humble agenda of reinventing what a music school is.
AAJ: Wow, tabula rasa! That's a rare opportunity.
SB: I had a good life in L.A. I never thought I would leave. But music schools were dumb when I went to music school, and they're no smarter now. We sat there as undergraduates, twelve or thirteen classes every semester, while people were going to business school and becoming lawyers with four classes a semester. Why does it take thirteen classes to teach a music student, but only four to teach a future CEO?
AAJ: Good question.
SB: So the biggest complaint music majors have is that they have no time to practice. Ninety percent of the people who go for a classical degreeI donït care if it's Julliard or Dade County Community Collegedon't even learn the things that they're being taught. For instance, you take ear training for two years, but most students who go through a music degree can't hear anything. You're lucky if they can hear a perfect fifth.
But if you're playing in an orchestra, isn't it helpful to know that's going on? You need to know the notes that created it; it informs the way you play. People take ear training but they're not able to hear; they take theory and composition but they don't know composing, and history is a romp through"OK, it's time for our ten minutes on Monteverdi."
So, why are we doing this fifty, sixty, seventy years later, the same thing that wasn't working then? Why are we wasting people's time?
I've never known somebody who was a creator of music to get jaded to musicif you're a creator, itïs reborn in you all the time. But we're teaching and manufacturing a lot of replicators of music.
AAJ: Sounds almost robotic.
SB: It is. People love music, but something can get dulled so quickly. They play it, but it's not inside, they don't understand.
As a result, you get symphony orchestras that all sound the same. We have two people on our faculty at Miami who were principal players, first-chair players, in the Chicago Symphony, in their thirties. They had the greatest job in the country for what they did, for life. In their thirties! And they quit. Because they were going to hate music, since the people around them were so jadedpacking up their instruments during the standing ovations because they couldn't wait to get off the stage. And so no wonder we have a hard time with great music finding an audience: because something's dead inside of so many musicians. Yo Yo Ma doesn't have a hard time getting an audience, because it's life-altering to hear Yo Yo Ma.
AAJ: And he also has good hair.
SB: Lest we forget!! Actually, that's the furthest thing from my mind. Anyway, what we're going to do is chop the degree down into far fewer courses. If you took four or five, plus playing with a symphony and taking private lessonsnow you're like other students.
All of our students get eight hours of chamber music a week. Fifty chamber music groups meet at the same time, all of them freshmen and sophomores, because from your string quartet you can get your ear training, your composing, your history, your chords and analysis. Say you're a classical major. We're going to look at a certain classical period for this entire semester: we're going to play Mozart, we're going to compose in that style, we're going to ear train, we're going to learn about Mozart.
AAJ: Do jazz people get this, too?
SB: For jazz people, it's going to be six weeks of Horace Silver. Weïre going to improvise in that style, compose and analyze in that style, perform in that style.
AAJ: That does sound radical.
SB: And weïre going to use technology. Your e-mail arrives, and there might be an MP3 track. It's in four parts, and your thing is to get the second part from the bottom, by ear: sing it, learn it, write it down in notation, then e-mail the file to the next person in the group. They get their part, they bring it to class, and now we have a score to analyze. What did we just hear? What's going on with the harmony? How does it fit into the style that we're studying? Let's play it; now, let's compose in that style. This is going to change everything.
So people will be sent out who are inside the music, as we talked about earlier, rather than outside. You don't want to watch an actor who doesn't really understand what he's saying. It's like you want me to act a play in Russian when I donït know what any of the words mean, but you say, "Say this word louder, youïre supposed to be mad here."
AAJ: That would be pretty shallow and meaningless.
SB: Well, too often that's how we're playing music. The actor you really want to see is the one who seems to have just thought of that line, because of the situation. I want to play with musicians who sound like they just thought of that noteit was inevitable because of all they've played before. And the only way to do that is to train musicians in a different way.
We're going to have a first year that's all skills training, to make sure that we're all on the same playing field. Everybody plays piano for the first year, they get basic knowledge of all the harmony. The second year is going to be heavy technology: everybody will hard-disk record, take a score and sequence it so they can realize it with synth sounds, or take a score and rotate it and put it out. We're going to have a year of entrepreneurship.
AAJ: Sounds very practical.
SB: When I went to college, there were pools of opportunity: you could go to Vegas. That was a big pool. You could go on the road. You could play in symphonies or studios. Those things are smaller and more fragmented. So now you have puddles of opportunity.
SB: Yes. But in other ways there's more opportunity than ever. How many people had a transistor radio when I was growing up? A lot, but not everybody. How many people have an iPod now? Every college kid has one. And how much music is on them? Thousands of songs.
AAJ: But there's such an element of greed in all those gigabytes; it seems like kids don't relish or repeat the songs, they just want to collect them.
<SB: My only hope is that we'll train musicians who will stop and go, "Oh, my God. The Rudolph Serkin recording of the Brahms 'Second Piano Concerto,' with Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra: the moment that it goes from the scherzo to the trio? I wore that record out." That moment was so beautiful that I just kept taking the needle off the record and playing it back. I just had to live that moment over and over and over again. That's one of the great tension and release momentsit goes from minor to major, the scherzo's in minor(sings)it's trying the cables of this minor keythat moment when it gets to major, I gotta tell you...
AAJ: I've got goosebumps, and I don't even know the piece.
SB: So we have to develop musicians who realize that one such moment can define or change your life in some way. There may be fewer jazz clubs, but there are more jazz festivals than there were, and thus exponentially more opportunities. If we can teach our students to be entrepreneurial, really entrepreneurial, in this chamber music model, by the time they get to be seniors, they can make a living.
For example: You have two jazz majors and a music business major. You ask them, "What would you put together, to go get a gig?" And your assignment is to do just that. I want to train musicians to think about how they're going to create their own niche, and give them the artistic and business and technology tools to do that. I also want to train arts presenters.
AAJ: You want to grow a crop of George Weins...
SB: At Miami we had the first business music department in the country, and it's still the best. We also have a six-week long music festivalno other college has anything like iteverything from three famous opera singers doing Haydn's "Creation" to the Ramsey Lewis Trio to the Nosso trio doing Brazilian music to Maria Schneider and her big band. It's an unbelievable festival.
I want to have a cadre of music business students who are arts presenter majors, and say to them: "OK, we have a 600-seat house. I want to see 600 butts in those seats, and that's your assignment. How do you market it? Whatïs the niche for this? Is there an educational component you could put on there?" That way, when they go out and work in the performing arts centers all over the country, they've learned how to present good music profitably.
AAJ: That's the Holy Grail, right there.
SB: I think this school can change the world.
AAJ: Sounds like it to me! One more thing: I wanted to ask you about something else you said yesterday, that you think society tends to trivialize music. Could you riff on that a bit?
SB: Music is trivialized in a few different ways. One of course is by the sheer ubiquity of it. A hundred years ago, music was a rare commodity: you had to travel far and even sacrifice to go hear great music, or you had to play it yourself. Now, movies have too much music, so that it loses its power, and it's in every shopping mall. I went to a pizza parlor, and they had [John Coltrane's] A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964) on and really, really soft, like Muzak.
That's wrong on every level. Plus, if youïre trying to create a vibe in your pizza parlor, A Love Supreme played really soft would be like Chinese water torture: people would probably be getting anxious, and not knowing why. So music is trivialized because it's so available, we don't see its value.
AAJ: It's diluted.
SB: Very. Also, education tells us that other things are more important: we're losing the science race with India, everything else is crucial, while music is just a prop or a frill.
AAJ: It's the first thing to get cut in schools.
SB: Yes. It's cheaper to have a pencil than a tuba! In truth, music is what allows humanity to not become inhuman. Appreciating and experiencing beautyespecially in the real time of musicis a critical element to humanity.
AAJ: And yet music is dangerous to a lot of people: they donït want to feel that much. They're too busy, they don't have time to be distracted.
SB: And what are the repercussions of that?
AAJ: Um...we're going to hell in a hand-basket?
SB: Yeah, and that's too bad, since, regardless of your race, your economic station, or your political or religious views, music is that one thing that can bring us all together, feeling the same thing at the same moment. It helps us understand that we are all together in this world. I'm hoping that I can affect music in a good way.
AAJ: I think you already have, Shel.
Shelly Berg, Follow the Sun (Concord, 2008)
Various Artists, Forever Ray Charles (MCTS, 2007)
Shelly Berg/Frank Potenza, First Takes (Azica, 2006)
Shelly Berg, Blackbird (Concord, 2005)
Various Artists, Ultimate Mancini (Concord, 2004)
Carmen Bradford/Shelly Berg, Home With You (Azica, 2004)
Ron McCurdy Quartet, Once Again for the First Time (Innova, 2002)
Jeff Jarvis, Following Footsteps (Amherst, 1998)
Shelly Berg, The Will: A Tribute to Oscar Peterson (Cars, 1997)
Bill Watrous, Space Available (Double-Time, 1997)
Shelly Berg, The Joy (DMP, 1996)
Bill Watrous, Bone-Ified (GNP, 1992)
All Photos Courtesy of Shelly Berg/Open Door Management