David Berkman: Anecdotes

George Colligan BY

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[ Editor's Note: The following interview is reprinted from George Colligan's blog, Jazztruth]

David Berkman is a jazz pianist who in the past few decades has played with many of the major names in jazz, including Tom Harrell, Cecil McBee, and the Vanguard Orchestra. He has released a number of CDs on the Palmetto Label, although his latest, Live At Smoke, is on Challenge Records. Berkman has developed a great reputation as an educator; he recently joined the faculty of Queens College, and has two critically acclaimed educational books available. I was fortunate to study composition with Berkman, and I consider him a friend; I have regarded him as a good source of advice over the years. Berkman has a lot to say and is very articulate, but he's also quite down to earth. I had a few questions for him, and he answered them with expected aplomb.

George Colligan: What are your earliest memories of music?

David Berkman: When I was about three years old I had a little toy record player. It was red. I'd play little kid type of records on it—a lot of Britten I think. No, that's not true—it was your usual little kid stuff about buses and the wheels that propel them. But my dad had a lot of 45s because he was a big jazz fan and an amateur pianist and I remember he gave me one that I would put on all the time and laugh. It just sounded so crazy to me with all these wild horns playing really fast. Nutty! I can still picture the cover of the recording, which had geometric shapes, diamonds on it. Years later, I saw the cover somewhere and found out it was a Dizzy Gillespie record. I'd like to say that I was so hip as a two and three-year old that I was way into Dizzy but that really would be stretching things.

Jazz was always present in my life. My dad used to encourage me to become a bassist—because he wanted someone to play with—and when I was very little I thought that sounded like a good idea. But after a while I got the sense that the bass would be in the background supporting the pianist in the duo. I'm not dissing bassists here, just saying how it seemed to a little kid who was being steered toward the bass by his father the pianist. After all, my dad was always listening to Oscar Peterson, Tommy Flanagan, Bill Evans, Hank Jones, Wynton Kelly. It was pianists that seemed to be the center of attention, so I figured that I would prefer to be a pianist.

My father had 112 Oscar Peterson records and a good stereo with a multiple record changer on it, and he'd stack records on it so that from the time he got home until the time he went to bed, Ray Brown—or someone else—was walking. Except when the records would occasionally fall wrong and there would just be a screeching noise and a kind of repeated rumbling. Ah, Nostalgia!

Actually, the music went later into the night than that. When my father went to bed he'd put on WCUY—a commercial radio station that lasted until I was in high school before going country—and the jazz would continue all night long.

I also heard a lot of classical music. I was born in Cleveland and the Cleveland Orchestra is a very important cultural institution there. What's the difference between Cleveland and the Titanic? Cleveland has a better orchestra... From an early age I heard concerts of orchestral and chamber music and my father was a lawyer for the orchestra members when they went on strike so we had a lot of connections to them.

GC: Do you consider yourself self-taught, trained, or both?

DB: I had some training but I was never very serious about it when I was young. I started playing jazz early, 11 or so, [and] I'd been playing piano since I was eight with a great teacher and player named Hugh Thompson. But he moved to Toronto and then I went back to studying classical music in a not very disciplined way. When I was a youngster, I didn't have teachers that I really liked and that never really clicked for me. Also, I've always preferred learning things by ear and classical teachers didn't have much use for that back then. So I dabbled and moved between both worlds. By the time I was in high school, I was playing some gigs. To give me a dose of the life a musician could look forward to, my father always insisted that I should take any gig that I was called for (polkas, weddings, piano bars on New Year's eve when the guy who had been playing and singing there for the last 10 years got sick at the last minute.) I definitely got myself into a lot of rocky situations. Still, on balance that wasn't a bad attitude to have. I occasionally have students now who are really afraid of getting out and gigging and that always surprises me. What's the worse that can happen? I've probably already had that experience.

Still, at a certain point I got more serious. I went to Berklee for a few semesters when I was about 20. I had always been the best jazz pianist my age at least that I knew (or one of the best) but when I got to Berklee I realized I had a lot to learn. I studied with a teacher there who was kind of a jerk, but I worked hard. And I heard students like Dave Kikoski and many others and I started to measure myself against a much higher standard. Also, I was very fortunate to have Bob Mover, the great alto player, as an ensemble leader. He took me around to sessions and just hung out with me. Actually, it was after a Bob Mover gig that I finally decided to become a full time jazz pianist (I was an exchange student at Berklee and I was still going for an English Literature degree at the University of Michigan at the same time.) I had just heard Bob play with pianist Albert Dailey and I was walking home at 3 in the morning and I said to myself: I could just keep doing this—practicing, playing, and hearing music. I'd always assumed that at some point I'd have to stop and get a real job. That was a kind of epiphany for me.

One last thing; in addition to the jazz teachers that I was studying with at Berklee, I began studying classical piano technique a lot more seriously and that continued for the next 12 years or so.

GC: How important was moving to New York City to your musical development?

DB: Extremely. I had always thought I'd move to New York. I liked all of it—the urban-ness, being able to hear all of your musical heroes any time, Brooklyn, the vibe, the all-night hanging out. I think there was a lot more of that in NYC in the past, but it might be I am aging out of the all-night hanging club. I was living in Cleveland and playing gigs from age 21 or 22 to 25 or so. I got to work with older players there that showed me a lot of things, people like Jamey Haddad, Greg Bandy, Bill DeArango, and Willie Smith—a fine alto player, but not the more famous Willie Smith. A lot of those musicians were amazing, but the bands never really sounded right, or I should say, they often didn't. There weren't enough strong players on every instrument. There might be a great swinging bassist, but he might not want to read, or the drummer that you hook up with really well couldn't make the gig and you only had a few other choices. I was really into bebop back then, trying to play like Bud Powell and then later Wynton, but maybe the drummer was more of a funk guy and there was an electric bassist on the gig and you are trying to play "Bouncing with Bud" or something.

When I got to New York, I was suddenly part of a rich jazz community. There were people my age, older and younger that would come over and play sessions and there were people into exactly what I was into musically. And as I moved through that community, I found people that I felt more and more connections with. First players like Rich Perry, Andy Watson, Eliot Zigmund, and Tony Scherr, and later Joel Frahm, Matt Wilson, Chris Cheek, Brian Blade, Ugonna Okegwo, Dick Oatts, and on and on. I formed bands with people, wrote music and played other people's music and of course still do all that. The names keep changing, but the wonderful thing about living in NY is that almost every time you go to play a gig or a jam session, you might meet someone that could become a close musical partner down the line. The next person that will show you something that you need to pursue on your own musical path. That doesn't happen as much in other places, I don't think.

GC: How do you juggle your career as an educator and a performer?

DB: Well, I am glad that I wasn't an educator for a substantial period of my life in New York. I was lucky to be here and play and struggle and it helped that I had a cheap apartment and I didn't really mind about not having any money. I started teaching more about 10 years ago and I was willing to sacrifice some of my practice and playing time to worry less about money. And I do really enjoy teaching and helping younger players get clearer about how to grow as musicians. But I was already over 40 then, so it felt like a good exchange. I am also very fortunate to be teaching in a great place, at Queens College in Flushing with Antonio Hart and Michael Philip Mossman. I've been here for two years and really like the program and the faculty.

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.

The second book, The Jazz Singer's Guidebook came out of my experience teaching singers at Queens and in the Netherlands. I felt that many singers aren't really prepared well for the demands that jazz schools place on them, but if they had a more systematic approach to working on playing the piano, hearing and singing over chord changes, they could develop a more consistent and instrumental approach to jazz study. That book has [fewer] jokes in it, but that might be because the whole book was lost on a defective hard drive and I had to start over, which I did, re-writing it in about 10 days. But I am a kind of obsessive writer once I get at it.

I hope that is a useful book for singers and I've heard from some that say it is, but there are a lot of singers who are not willing or not interested in doing that level of work. They'd rather be intuitive or they are not that interested in improvising over chord changes. That's fine—I don't really care whether anyone takes it on or not—I just felt that if I was going to teach vocalists about jazz and improvisation, I should help them find a method that was geared to their needs as vocalists. That's what that book is.

The new one, Jazz Harmony came out of a trend I was seeing in piano students. Whenever you see a video of an older pianist demonstrating the changes of a tune, whether it's Bill Evans in the video interview with his brother or Hank Jones on Youtube, to cite two things I've seen recently, they play a lot of variations, passing chords, tritone substitutes, diminished chords or diminished passing notes. When you see a young student play changes, they often play the changes they learned from a Real Book. These same students might be comfortable playing in 13/4, but their harmony can be a bit static. So, this book is about a living sense of harmony that you hear in standard playing of people like Cedar Walton, Mulgrew Miller, Oscar Peterson. In the second half of the book I talk more about non-functional harmonic approaches that you hear in some of these players but also in people like Richie Beirach and Herbie Hancock. I've always been fascinated by harmonic color so and I teach a two course series on Jazz Harmony at Queens so this is my take on that.

I'm thinking this book is going to be a big hit and I'm already seeing George Clooney playing me in the movie version, but I may be kidding myself there.

GC: Do you think the "traditional" jazz press is still relevant? Why or why not?

DB: Wow, that's a toughie. I think we have to do what we have to do. Hmmm... maybe that's a little lame as an answer but I don't have a very dynamic relationship to jazz press. I am not much of a consumer of it. It's necessary to try to get your projects publicized—it helps you book more gigs. There are some good writers out there and it's always nice when someone seems to get what you were going for, so reviews can certainly be positive things. I like many of the jazz writers I know, like Neil Tesser, Bill Milkowski, Jim Macnie, Ben Ratliff, David Adler, your good friend Thomas Conrad, Nate Chinen, and Richard Kamins (now you guys have to all write great reviews of my next record!)

However, there's a lot less traditional jazz press than there was. There used to be more articles in newspapers and now there's a lot more on the web. And the presence of blogs like yours and Ethan Iverson are amazing. To have players on your level writing consistently about jazz is truly a great thing. The problem with new media in general is that the reader has to be more active. You have to go out and get it and that can take up a lot of your time, so I am not consistent in reading everything that's out there. I even occasionally miss an installment of Jazztruth I am embarrassed to admit.

Also, with traditional press, a review in Downbeat or the New York Times (or even better, NPR or Entertainment Weekly or something beyond the jazz world) there is a certain status that attaches to that review. I mean, do people still care about that? I'm not sure, but I think the New York Times still has a certain weight in your press kit. So I guess it matters, a little.

GC: Any upcoming projects you want us to know about?

DB: Yes! I will have another David Berkman Quartet record, Live at Smoke 2: Judgment Day coming out next year. I'm not dead set on the subtitle, but it does have a nice action movie feel. There should be some gigs with that band in the Midwest next spring. Also, I have a trio and a solo record in the works and some touring planned around those as well.

I'm playing with a collaborative band called the New York Standards Quartet that just released its second CD, this one on Challenge Records. That band features Tim Armacost on sax and flute, Gene Jackson on drums, and Yosuke Inoue on bass. All the music is based on standards, but the writing is sometimes fairly extreme. We do arrangements based on standards and compositions that are in some way drawn from a particular standard. That band is doing some touring in the US next spring as well as tours in Japan and Spain.

And whatever else comes up. I've been playing with some great players and we're all looking around to see what happens next. I'm cautiously optimistic...

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