Passings: Alice Babs, Dick Berk


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Alice Babs, the Swedish singer whom Duke Ellington once called “probably the most unique artist I know,” died today in her native Sweden. She was 90. Her breakthrough came in 1940 in the Swedishfilm Swing it magistern (Swing It, Teacher!) She went on to make her name in stage, motion picture and television work, singing in several genres and collaborating with violinist Svend Asmussen and other Scandinavian jazz artists. Her pure soprano voice and rhythmic ability brought her to Ellington’s attention in the early 1960s. She appeared with his band frequently, recorded with it and sang in his second and third sacred concerts. In 1972 King Gustav VI Adolf of Sweden departed from the tradition of appointing opera singers and honored Ms. Babs by naming her the Royal Court singer.

Here, she is featured with clarinetist Russell Procope in Ellington’s second sacred concert

Largely inactive in her later years, Ms. Babs had been under care for Alzheimer’s disease.

Dick Berk, a drummer admired as a developer of young talent and as a colleague of dozens of major jazz artists, died last Saturday at the age of 74. Berk had been undergoing dialysis treatment for some time in Portland, Oregon, his home in recent years. In his late teens he was Billie Holiday’s drummer, recording with her at the 1958 Monterey Jazz Festival. In 1960 he went from the Berklee School of Music to New York City, where he played with Charles Mingus, Freddie Hubbard, Monty Alexander and the Ted Curson-Bill Barron group, among others. His Los Angeles years in the late 1960s and early ‘70s saw him working and recording with a range of musicians including Cal Tjader, Ray Brown, Milt Jackson, Blue Mitchell, Georgie Auld, Nat Adderley and Phineas Newborn, Jr.

Berk’s own band, the Jazz Adoption Agency, nurtured such young talents as baritone saxophonist Nick Brignola, tenor saxophonist Jay Collins and trombonists Andy Martin and Mike Fahn. During his two long residencies in Portland, he gigged and recorded with pianist Jessica Williams and bassist Leroy Vinnegar and continued to encourage developing young players. As a sideline, he had acting roles in films, including Idiot’s Delight with Jack Lemon, and in the television shows Hogan’s Heroes, It Takes a Thief and Emergency.

From Berk’s L.A. period, let’s listen to him with Nick Brignola’s quintet: Brignola, baritone; Bill Watrous, trombone; Dwight Dickerson, piano; John Heard, bass. The piece is Horace Silver’s “Quicksilver.” Berk’s time throughout, the vigor of his solo and the strategic placement of his cymbal splashes give us an idea why so many superior players loved having him on the bandstand.

Dick Berk, RIP

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