Richie Beirach: Indelible Memories and Thought-Provoking Reflections on a Life in Jazz, Part 2

Victor L. Schermer By

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Richie Beirach hovers somewhat mysteriously in the pantheon of the great modern jazz pianists. Some of the others in that category from his generation (coming up in the 1960s/'70s), like Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, and Kenny Barron have greater celebrity, but Beirach easily qualifies alongside them as one of the most accomplished masters. While the aforementioned have developed a signature style, emotional power, and virtuosic technique, Beirach, above and beyond those qualities, has for over a half century immersed himself in a process of uncovering and interpreting the richness in music from both jazz and classical sources, from bebop to cool jazz to fusion, and from the Romantic composers to Bartok to the very modern. A composer- instrumentalist in the best sense of the word, he delves into new and old melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic regions with depth and passion, always looking for creative ways to fulfill the potential of musical expression.

A centerpiece of his career has been an ongoing collaboration with NEA Jazz Master saxophonist, Dave Liebman. Ever since their groundbreaking jazz fusion album, Lookout Farm, they have been working and composing together on a frequent basis, producing a series of duo and ensemble recordings that are unique and original, yet always steeped in the tradition. In addition, Beirach himself has performed and made notable recordings as a soloist and leader, for example, the early Eon (ECM, 1984), Hubris (ECM, 1977), Elm (ECM, 1979), Elegy for Bill Evans (Evidence, 1981), and the more recent Summer Night (Venus, 2007), and Impressions of Tokyo (Outnote, 2010), among many others.

Beirach lived and worked as a prodigious sideman in New York at the height of the 1970s jazz scene through the 1990s. At the start of the New Millennium and in the wake of the 911 terrorist attacks, he shifted his home base from New York to Leipzig Germany, where he taught and mentored young pianists for fifteen years. Today, he continues performing and teaching worldwide while residing in Hessheim, a small town not far from Frankfurt and Mannheim, where he values his privacy and freedom. In the above photograph, Beirach is joined by two members of his current European band, drummer Christian Scheuber and keyboardist Regina Litvinova. Beirach is a wonderful conversationalist, so relax and enjoy this extensive autobiographical excursion by a jazz master.


From New York to Leipzig

AAJ: For the last fifteen years or so, you've been living and teaching in Leipzig, and you've always worked and taught a lot in Europe even before that. What led you to move to Europe, and what did you find there that you didn't get in your long residence in New York?

RB: I came here to Germany in 2001, and here's why and how. After the 911 attack on the World Trade Center, I started to get very weird about living in New York City. I was born in Brooklyn, and had been living in my apartment at Spring and Hudson Streets since 1968, right around the corner from the original Half Note. I came of age there. I loved the music, I had women, we all hung out, parties, rehearsals. I hung out with Randy Brecker, I played gigs with Stan Getz those years, and Chet Baker, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, George Coleman, Liebman, Abercrombie, and all those gigs as a sideman. All that time, I loved travelling and coming back to New York City.

AAJ: It sounds like an ideal situation! Why did you leave for Europe?

RB: I had a small apartment in the Village and loved it. But then, the area started getting built up, all the hippies started moving in, and the lofts were turned into apartments. New York changed in a lot of ways. It became very Republican. Things changed in the jazz scene. Wynton Marsalis took over the Lincoln Center jazz programs. The musicians started putting suits on. The town and the music became conservative. Before all that, I could play all the time whatever I wanted to play. The clubs were full six or seven nights a week. The musicians would come to the shows on weekdays, and the tourists would come out on weekends. Just within Greenwich Village, there were about fifteen clubs actively happening. There were some clubs on the east side and uptown too. And they had jazz every night. But in the 1980s and '90s, all that started going downhill. And after 911 it was really terrible. I was there, at home, when 911 happened. I never liked those World Trade Center skyscrapers, but to see them go down was horrible. After that, people changed. People were scared of another attack. Even if a bus tire blew, people would duck to the ground! It was a strange vibe, and I wasn't happy there after that.

While living in New York all that time, I had been to Europe a thousand times for gigs and workshops and teaching, and I had a lot of connections in a lot of the jazz schools in Berlin, Stuttgart. Everyone had a jazz school at that time. So I thought it would be great to get out of New York, if nothing else just for a change of scene. So I started calling around, and I found out that people were interested in giving me a teaching position. In Berlin, David Friedman, the vibes player, was involved in a jazz program and said, "OK, I can get you a job as a professor," and they offered me a great salary. But it was a state-run school, so I couldn't just be hired on the spot. I had to do an audition, and Germany hit a financial downturn, and they cut the salary quite a bit, so that went down the tubes. Then I got a call from Jean-Claude Jenny-Clarke in Paris, who was running L'Ecole Nationale, a really good jazz school, and he said "Richie, you gotta come and teach here!" But again the salary wasn't enough.

Finally, I got a call from this guy Ralph Schrabbe, a former student of mine from the New School. He said, "I heard you're looking for a job as a professor in Germany." He was running the school in Leipzig. I thought, he's crazy, because I thought it was in East Germany! But he said, "Richie, the Berlin Wall came down! It's one country now! And, man, we have lots of money from the state!" And he offered me a great salary. But he said, "You have to audition." I said, "You mean if Miles or Trane or somebody wanted to teach at your school, they'd have to fuckin' audition?" And he said, "Yes." So on my birthday, May 23, I went there to audition with fifty other piano players.

A professorship there is a very special job. But I figured I was already 54, with an incredible musical background, so I stood a good chance of getting it. I had to play three classical pieces, baroque, contemporary. And then I had to do improvisations, so I played my own piece, "Elm" and a standard, "Round Midnight." Then I had to teach a beginning student and an advanced student. And I did well with that. But then I had to pass a big interview where there was a lot of politics involved. And some of them wanted to hire an East German, not an American. So they said, "Why do you, such a big shot in New York want to come to our little town of Leipzig to teach?" I just said, "Because I have a chance to build something here." They really liked that. Then they asked, "Do you speak German?" And I said, "No." And they said, "This is Germany, and you have to teach the classes in German." I said, "Jazz is American music, and I teach in English. And all these students will have to go to America eventually anyway." And I got the job!

That teaching position lasted fifteen years (2001-2016). It was at the Mendelssohn Hochshule in Leipzig. I was a professor and the head of the jazz piano department. I loved the job—I had the best kids as students. And I was very involved with them. In a few years, you see them grow up. They were the best young pianists from their little towns around the world. And then at around age 18, they came to Leipzig where they got a dose of the real standards of excellence. I'm a very tough teacher, but very kind and very generous—I'd do anything for them. And in four years, they grew up and became men and women with a sense of adult responsibility. It was fantastic working there with them. But unfortunately, there is a lot of age discrimination in Germany, and there is mandatory retirement at age 67, so I had to leave. I was still rolling, but it's a state job, and I had to go. Today, I'm living semi-retired in a smaller town, Hessheim, Germany not far from Mannheim. I have great friends here. One of them is a drummer, Christian. I'm very happy here.

The European Jazz Experience

AAJ: Nevertheless, you still do gigs and teaching, and you come back to the U.S. periodically. What are some of the highlights of your years living, teaching, and doing gigs in Europe?

RB: When I first moved to Leipzig, it was a big adjustment, because I never had a full time job like that. Also, I was lonely, I didn't know anybody. But I made some friends and I really got into teaching. Especially because I could control who came to study with me. I was on the jury for selection of the candidates. So, we eventually had the highest level of young people coming into the school. It wasn't a hard job: 18 hours a week. I had ten private students and two ensembles each week. With lots of holidays, I had time to do a lot of gigs. And a lot of my gigs had already been in Europe anyway, so when I was living here, I got many calls to do festivals and concerts. I'd just jump on a train and go. I did solo piano, duo stuff with violinist Gregor Huebner, quartet stuff. And then occasionally I'd bring in George Mraz and Billy Hart to play trio concerts. I'd do workshops in Stuttgart, Essen, Frankfurt, the Netherlands. It was fun to do, very high level. And they respect education in Europe. It's a 3,000 year old culture, while the U.S. is only 250 or 300 years old. So they understand cultural history.

So at Leipzig, I worked for a long time. I was busy with concerts, recordings, going to Japan, the whole deal. I did more than I did in New York! And I've had a great life of an American in Germany. I'm still an American citizen by the way.

AAJ: What were a few flashpoints of that time in your life?

RB: One of them was a spectacular concert in Stockholm with the Stockholm Symphony Orchestra in 2010 with a Swedish trumpet player named Anders Bergrantz. His wife, Amalena wrote a concerto for piano and trumpet. We performed it for two nights with the Stockholm Symphony. It was unbelievable! Packed house. The music was breakthrough stuff: contemporary music with jazz improvisation. The people loved it. It was very high class, and it was great.

For my sixtieth birthday, they had a big celebration concert for me in Leipzig, and I was able to invite Dave Liebman, Gregor Huebner, and George Mraz, and a lot of my American friends, to come to Liepzig. We had a big concert and a 3-4 day workshop. That was twelve years ago.

The violinist Gregor Huebner is a very important musician in my life. I have had a twenty year working relationship with him. He is one of the most incredible modern contemporary jazz violinists. He began with me as my piano student, and we quickly moved on to a more collaborative relationship. We work all the time in different situations. I love his playing, and he always surprises me.

Those were very important things. And from 2001-2016, I was going back to New York twice a year. In the winters between 2004-2012, there were big requests for a gig at Birdland with me, Liebman, Billy Hart, and Ron McClure. Five great nights in a wonderful atmosphere. We made a recording there. And several summers , around Labor Day, I worked in a band (the Richie Beirach Quintet) with Gregor Huebner, Randy Brecker, Billy Hart, and George Mraz (Live at Birdland New York, ACT Rercords, 2017).

So I'd go to New York twice a year, for a week at a time. And I'd go to Japan, Switizerland, wherever, and people were still buying records and paying for them, so we sold a lot of records. We still had the structure of a record company with its support and promotion. I met wonderful people, had great experiences. On the whole, I would say they were some of the best years of my life. The other special period, of course, was in the 1970s when I was starting out, and I recorded Hubris, and all that stuff with Dave and those folks. That was a golden time.



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