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Meet Richard Berger

Tessa Souter and Andrea Wolper By

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In today's world, with what's going on politically and socially, I need the music more than ever to keep me steady, to keep me focused, and to keep me, really, alive.
A regular on the New York jazz and avant jazz scenes, Richard Berger is frequently seen about town in the company of his wife, our December Super Fan, Roberta DeNicola. Music has long been Richard's "positive addiction," giving him the best of times and helping him through the worst of times. "Jazz is very much a part of my life," says the avid supporter of live jazz. "I keep it alive and it keeps me alive." Richard's devotion to music may have roots in his relationship with his beloved older brother and with coming of age during the wild and woolly '70s, but his earliest musical memory is of hearing a song that seemed to be speaking directly to him (we think the big band fans here might be able to guess what that song was!).

Tell us a little about yourself.
I'm a native New Yorker. I grew up in a tenement on Delancey and Clinton Streets, not far from where Sonny Rollins used to go up on the Williamsburg Bridge to play. Then when I was a teenager we moved into a project on Pitt St.

I worked in the record business, both retail and wholesale, for maybe five years. I worked at Record Shack, Colony Records, Record People, J&R, and finally Tape King.

But my main job was working for the Post Office for the better part of 30 years. When you're a mailman you're out there in the streets, you're meeting people; you're like a good will ambassador. It was an interesting career. I was in all different neighborhoods. I'd find different record stores, and I used to go in and see what was going on. That's how I found out about the Jazz Gallery: I was driving my truck one day up Hudson Street and I saw this sign for the Jazz Gallery and I went up upstairs. It was when it was just opening, before they had concerts there. I met [founder] Dale Fitzgerald, and my wife, Roberta, and I became members.

What is your earliest memory of music?
The first thing I can remember is hearing this novelty song, "Open the Door, Richard!" My mother and father always had the radio on. They listened to WNEW: Martin Block, Make Believe Ballroom, the great American songbook, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, all the big bands.

And then at the same time, my brother, who was older than I was, was an amateur horn player. He played alto, and he was a huge Charlie Parker fan, as I guess all alto players were. We shared a room, and he always used to play Bird's records, especially his solos, over and over. He'd say, "Listen to this, listen to this!" But I couldn't really hear it the way he did. I didn't get jazz until later on.

Then in the early '60s, when I was a young teenager, Ed Sullivan had all the groups on, and when I heard the Beatles, it was like the sky opened up for me, and I just kind of joined that whole magical mystery tour that they went on.

Following that path, I also got heavily involved with drugs and alcohol, so music was partnered with that for a long time. The reason I bring that up is because I was able to free myself from it, with a lot of help, and since that point, the music has become a kind of positive addiction for me. I threw myself into it even more because I needed to fill the hole inside me that I'd been filling up with drugs and alcohol. And it remains that way for me today. Music keeps me going. And in today's world, with what's going on politically and socially, I need the music more than ever to keep me steady, to keep me focused, and to keep me, really, alive.

What is it about music that does that for you?
I don't have strong religious beliefs. I consider myself more of a spiritual person, and music is kind of my path into spirituality. God, the spirit, the force that I believe created everything and keeps everything going—I feel like music is the universal language that connects me to that force.

What was the first concert you remember?
The Newport Folk Festival. I saw Buffy Sainte-Marie and was mesmerized. I realized at that moment that music could convey more than just the music. She was talking about women, Indians, and political stuff, and I had not heard that before.

Was there one album or experience that was your doorway to jazz? In the '70s I got my first job, at the Record Shack, and that's when I really got my education in jazz. I was reintroduced to all the music my brother had tried to introduce me to and, this time, I was able to hear it better. I listened to John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington. I think Dexter Gordon's Swiss Nights was my intro. His technique really got to my heart.

How long have you been going out to hear live music?
40 years.

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