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Shelly Berg: New Moon Over Miami

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Shelly BergThis title refers to the radical changes that are about to occur in music education, now that Shelton G. (Shelly) Berg has become dean of Miami University's school of music.

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 impressive—and inspiring—is 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.

Shelly BergAll 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].

AAJ: Cars?

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 [2007], 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 record—also 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?

Shelly BergSB: 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 career—he always had a business—but 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 Thompson—all 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 them—he 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.

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