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David Berkman: Anecdotes

By Published: October 15, 2013
On the one hand, teaching does take a lot of energy but there are a lot of rewards. First of all, it's a cliché but I learn a lot from students. I learn from them by watching their mistakes and trying to explain my own learning process, and I learn from them because they cause me to go back and re-examine things in my own playing that I haven't thought about in a while. And of course, I learn from them because some of them are amazing players with different strengths and weaknesses than I have, so they show me things and sometimes there is that kind of exchange as well. Also, the fact is, that when I was coming up in Cleveland a lot of older players helped me and tried to guide me to becoming a better player so I feel like that's an appropriate job for a pianist in his 50s to have.

Also, University folk get a lot of time off. I can take time to tour and do gigs both during the year (if necessary, although there has to be a balance there) and in summers and winters. Recently, I've been booking a lot of gigs in Japan, Korea, and Europe during January and the summer months when school is out of session.

But there are some dues to be paid here occasionally. Moving between periods of intense playing and less playing, more teaching/practicing is always challenging. You always want to use your time as well as you can, but we're human. Still, I am grateful that I have a good situation that really suits me.

GC: What is your philosophy of jazz education? What do you think about people like Phil Woods saying things like " We're producing too many people with jazz degrees and not enough listeners"?

DB: I don't want to diss anyone's perspective, but I have to confess I am a little tired of musicians dissing jazz schools. The reason why there are so many jazz schools is because a lot of people want to study and play jazz. Period. If students would stop attending jazz schools, they'd all close. We haven't sold students a bill of goods here; they come of their own free will. It would be great if there were more jazz listeners, but the world is changing and the situation for live performance of all music. But particularly jazz, is somewhat precarious. I wasn't exactly encouraged to be a jazz musician when I was younger, but I chose it anyway. That's the thing about making the direction of your life— you get to pick. I have even less sympathy for students who go to jazz schools and then complain when they get out that they are having a hard time making a living. Come on, how naive do you have to be? If you go into the arts, money might be a problem. If you are reading this blog and haven't heard this idea before, I am really glad I can break the news to you.

But, if you are an idealistic person and want to try to dedicate yourself to doing something that you think you will love even though you probably won't get rich doing it, okay, go for it. It is too bad though, that the kind of learning I had, coming up in a town learning from older players, is less available to young musicians today. Still, we try to simulate some of that experience in Universities and sometimes, something of that feeling of transmission does occur.

GC: You've written two books. Can you tell us about them and what motivated you to write them?

DB: Actually, I wrote a third one called Jazz Harmony due out in the fall or winter this year. My favorite of the three is the first one because that one was the most personal. It's called The Jazz Musician's Guide to Creative Practicing. I have always liked to write—I thought about becoming a novelist when I first went to college—and I was on a plane one day and just started writing. I was flying back from Holland—actually it was the week when you and I were involved in that teaching week in Groningen, Netherlands. I'd taught about four master classes and the topic in many of them was how to organize your practicing: what to practice, how to practice, how to get rid of stress, how to break down big hard problems into small solvable ones, how to make practicing fun and explorative. I think that many students don't think intelligently about how to practice. Anyway, I started writing that book and it was very enjoyable. I tried to put in a lot of jokes and anecdotes because I like those sorts of things, and I told stories about what kind of experiences I had coming up playing with older players, things they told me and experiences that meant a lot to me. And I tried to write practice sessions into the book—"Giant Steps," spelling changes better, playing melodies, [and] working on your ears. So that was that book.

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