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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.


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