Jerry Bergonzi: Eternal Student

Marta Ramon By

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Everybody is creative...A person can be creative in music, and another in fixing a car, another cooking food, dealing with children... Everybody is creative.
Jerry Bergonzi is regarded as one of the most important saxophonists in the world. Equally, he continues to make significant contributions in the world of jazz education. He is the author of Inside Improvisations Series (Jazzwise Publications), a manual developed in seven volumes—his eighth book is due to come out soon—that has become essential for jazz students around the world.

The only element that speaks to time is his white hair, because his enthusiasm hasn't changed since recently deceased pianist Dave Brubeck hired him to tour with his quartet. Thirty years of success have passed since then: Bergonzi has played with the some of the most important jazz musicians on the international scene, has recorded nearly two hundred albums, and created his own teaching method.

Even Bergonzi considers himself a blue-blooded jazz saxophonist ; he loves to listen to classical music and can surprise by playing Bach's Inventions during a sound check. This jazz educator is constantly creating his own non-stop musical life. When he is not on the road, he teaches at New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, and when he is touring, he plays at the most important festivals he provides special master classes. He devotes his hotel nights to writing tunes because, he says, it is fun for him. He recently wrapped up a European tour with his inseparable bassist Dave Santoro and drummer Andrea Michelutti, in a new quartet that also features young pianist Carl Whinter. In Spain, the Jerry Bergonzi Quartet took part in Valencia's Jimmy Glass International Jazz Festival.

All About Jazz: You are known as one of the greatest jazz educators of the moment...

Jerry Bergonzi [Coughs] Oh, ok! [Laughs]

AAJ: And that's maybe because you are considered as a pedagogical innovator, what do you think?

JB: Well, you know, I always tell people that I am an eternal student; I'm always thinking in new things to practice, new things to play, and in new sounds that I hear. So that's maybe why people like to study with me, because we study together. I think music is the master and we all are the students.

AAJ: You are an eternal student, but do you feel any difference in learning new things now as opposed to when you were at the beginning of your career?

JB: I don't feel any different right now than when I was learning this music. The reason why people love this music is because it puts you in the present tense. You have all the experiences being here, spirituality, emotionally, mentally, physically. And all of them settle your body in the present tense; because of that. I now have the same feeling that when I did when I was learning. It doesn't matter how good you are: to be in the present, even if you are a beginner; it's the present tense.

AAJ: So forever young.

JB: [Laughs] Or forever old, whatever.

AAJ: You have created your own method in your Inside Improvisation series, and it looks like you have prepared the material you would like to have had when you started studying jazz.

JB: Yes, I would really have liked people to have shown me all these things that I teach, but I don't consider anything mine. I consider knowledge just part of the universe and nobody owns it. So everybody put it together and we all have a special function.

AAJ: You have developed a theory about improvisation, but you are all passion on a stage. When you are improvising it looks like you don't think about numbers and you just let yourself go with the music.

Jerry Bergonzi—Shifting GearsJB: [Smiles] Yeah, while I'm playing I'm not thinking. I am not in the conscious mind; I am in the creating mind, which is intuition. It's really quick, like lighting. But when I am in my practice room, then I think, "let's try this," then, "Let's try that," then "Let's try this." But when I'm on a bandstand or playing, I'm not like that at all; I try to be all heart.

AAJ: So your balance is not about the moment, it's about the conjugation between the practice time before, which is mental, and the "heart time" during your improvisations on a stage.

JB: Sure, practicing at home keeps my facility together; my interest together in learning tunes, rhythm, concepts. You know, I always think people are four elements: fire is spirit, water is emotion, air is intellect, and earth is grounded groove time. Everybody has all four but in different percentages, but when I hear people playing I can hear all those elements.

AAJ: Can creativity be taught?

JB: Yes, I think everything can be taught, creativity can be taught. Everybody is creative. People don't have the license to tell someone if he is creative or not. A person can be creative in music, and another in fixing a car, another cooking food, dealing with children... Everybody is creative.

AAJ: What has been your greatest jazz school?

JB: My best school has been listening. Listening to my favorite players. Listening, listening, listening. Transcribing. If I listen, I transcribe. So you learn things, you learn from the masters. You play your favorite players and that's school. School is Charlie Parker, school is John Coltrane, school is Wayne Shorter, school is Joe Henderson... Everybody has a voice, everybody is a star in the universe. So you have to find your voice and develop it.

AAJ: Dave Brubeck is always mentioned as one of your most important influences, and nobody talks about your special connection with drummer Elvin Jones.

JB: Brubeck was probably the most famous person who hired me, but he is not my passion. You know, I love Dave as a person but his music wasn't my direction. When I was young I went to the record shop and I always bought the records where Elvin Jones was on because they were the ones I really loved, it didn't matter who the leader was. I just loved those records. So yes, he has been the biggest influence on me.

AAJ: So you chose the earth element.

JB: Yes, yes! The groove element: earth, Earth Jones.

AAJ: Many critics have said that your latest album, Shifting Gears (Savant, 2012), is a look at the '60s.

JB: No. I know people say that, people that reviewed the album said that about the '60s. If, for them, it is a back to the '60s, fine. But to me I am in the present tense, I am developing music and playing some new conceptions there that we do and to me it's completely different. But if it is the way that somebody hears it that's ok too.

AAJ: So what, then, is Shifting Gears ?

JB: Shifting Gears is a lot of improvisation. There's a lot of improvisation that not only has the regular eighth and sixteenth notes, but different quintuplets, septuplets, and things like that; polyrhythms that go on in a linear line that, to me, has an impact on my music.

AAJ: Why did you choose trumpeter Phil Grenadier for the date?

JB: This is the first time in a long time that I did a record with another horn player, a trumpet player. And, maybe, in that way, it is going back to the '60s: a tenor and a trumpet in the frontline. Philip is a good friend of mine, we play gigs together all the time. He's a fantastic trumpet player, I love the way he plays. We really kind of vibrate in the same direction.

AAJ: And what's your future direction?

JB: I just think about the music and I say to myself, "Wow, we are going to play the drums right now," or the piano. Just to have fun. That keeps me in the present. I don't know why, but I love to do it and I can't imagine myself doing anything else.

Selected Discography
Jerry Bergonzi, Shifting Gears (Savant, 2012)
Jerry Bergonzi, Tenor Talk (Savant, 2008)
Jerry Bergonzi, Tenorist (Savant, 2007)
Jerry Bergonzi, Tenor of the Times (Savant, 2006)
Jerry Bergonzi, Live Gonz! I (Double-Time, 2003)
Jerry Bergonzi, Dreaming Out Loud (Whaling City, 2003)

Photo Credit

Christian Ducasse

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