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Richie Beirach: Indelible Memories and Thought-Provoking Reflections on a Life in Jazz, Part 1

Victor L. Schermer By

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Part 1 | Part 2

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. Beirach is a wonderful conversationalist, so relax and enjoy this extensive autobiographical excursion by a jazz master.

PART 1: COMING UP IN NEW YORK AND WORKING WITH DAVE LIEBMAN

All About Jazz: Let's get started with the desert island question. What would be the recordings that you would take there?

Richie Beirach: I would take Kind of Blue, Bill Evans' Portrait in Jazz, Miles Davis' Milestones , John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, Miles' Nefertiti, Evans' Waltz for Debbie and Sunday at the Village Vanguard, Lennie Tristano's record that has the tune "Lineup" on it (Lennie Tristano, Atlantic, 1956), and Paul Bley's Footloose, with Steve Swallow on bass and Pete La Roca on drums. I would definitely take Trane's Crescent, Monk's Piano Solo (Disques Vogue, 1954), Chick Corea's Sundance record with the tune "The Brain" on it. I would take Artur Rubinstein's recording of Chopin's Nocturnes, Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations, especially the first and last. I would take Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra. Scriabin's Late Preludes, Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, the Beethoven "Pathetique Sonata," and Morton Feldman's orchestral piece, Coptic Light. Ligeti's Atmospheres for Orchestra, Lux Eterna, and Etudes for Piano. I would take one of my own CDs, probably Hubris or Elm. I would take the duo record I just finished with Dave Liebman called Empathy (Jazzline, 2020).

AAJ: Your taste is very eclectic. And your love of Bill Evans is obvious.

RB: Evans, Miles and Trane. And of course McCoy Tyner and his Passion Dance. I forgot that one. And The Real McCoy is classic, and of course Wayne Shorter, Speak No Evil. But I left out a lot, all the funk, James Brown. I like a lot of different kinds of music.

Emergence: From "Chopsticks" Onward

AAJ: I myself, and I assume a lot of readers, don't know a lot about your coming up, before you hooked up with Dave Liebman and those guys. When you were a kid, how did you get interested in music, the piano, and jazz? And what turned you on about all of it?

RB: OK. Let me go back to the very beginning. Here's the story. I'm five years old, and I'm with my parents who are vacationing in a bungalow colony in the Catskill Mountains. One day, I'm walking with my parents, my mother's got my left hand and my father's got my right hand, and we're walking by a gymnasium, and there's a sixteen year old kid, a camp counselor, playing "Chopsticks" on an old upright piano. It was the first time I ever heard a piano! And I let go of my parents and started walking towards the sound of the piano. I walk in, and the kid looks at me, and I said, "What is that?" And he said, "It's a piano." And I kept repeating the word "piano." And the kid picks me up, and puts my fingers down on the first two notes of "Chopsticks." F and G. So he's teaching me to play "Chopsticks," and my father walks in and has no idea what's going on. I'm sitting this guy's lap, and my father was a badass who was a combat medic in WWII, where he landed in Normandy in the second wave. And he looks at this kid suspiciously, and says "What's going on with my son?" So the kid kind of apologizes to him. But I go, "Daddy! Piano! Piano!" So he sees that the kid is cool, and I keep saying the word piano a hundred times.

The summer is over, and we get back to our home in Brooklyn, and the first thing I say is "I want a piano!" So to shut me up they bought me a shitty little white spinet piano, not even an upright. But it was fine for me. So then I need lessons, and they take me to the local music teacher on McDonald Avenue. Her name is Mrs. Schindleheimer. She's German or Austrian, came over on the boat. She's six feet tall, she's got a bun on top of her head with pencils in it. She has a vaccination mark on her shoulder that looks like a basketball. So she starts teaching me, but she can't read music! She gives me this book called "Teaching Little Fingers to Play." It's her music school, but she can't teach a thing!

Luckily, the next Saturday, a real teacher comes, a 60 year old guy with a beautiful suit and a white shirt, an Italian guy from Palermo. He's there to teach the advanced students from the music school, one of whom is Mrs. Schindleheimer's daughter who looks exactly like Olive Oyl from the Popeye comics. So, I go up to the Italian guy and I say, "I don't like her! Would you teach me?" I'm a little kid and I have the biggest chutzpah balls in the world! And he starts laughing, and said, "No, I'm sorry." But my father, who is very sensitive to my needs, gets this teacher, whose name was James Palmieri, and says "Listen, my son wants to study with you. Here's twenty bucks," which in 1953 was a lot of cash. So Palmieri takes me upstairs to his private studio that was like a European drawing room with a small Steinway with books and music and a nice rug and a globe of the world.

So I come into the studio, and Palmieri says, "OK. Play something." And I say, "I can't play, please teach me." And he says, "I don't teach beginners." So I begged him and I said, "I will do anything that you say. Please teach me." I don't know how I got this way -I was only five years old. And he said, "OK." And that was the beginning. It changed my life. He started teaching me how to read music, and I'm rabid, listening, memorizing. I run home, I started practicing, learning. To make a long story short, I stayed with him from age five until I was eighteen. He was James Palmieri, a concert pianist who had a terrible tragedy with his wife and son who died in the sinking of the Andrea Doria ocean liner.

Palmieri had a great concert career. He was friends with Rubenstein, Michaelangeli, Horowitz. He lived on 46th Street on Restaurant Row in Manhattan above the Vesuvio Italian Restaurant. Eventually I went on the E Train to his studio in Manhattan. He taught me everything about the piano: reading, interpretation, technique, sound. I have a very good sound, but his sound was ten times as big, and broad, and subtle. And I virtually became his son, who died, and my father was working twelve hours a day, so I needed a father figure. So eventually I had two or three lessons a week with Palmieri. He taught me more than music. He taught me about life, girls. I could tell it was good for him too. He had no friends, no women in his life. After his wife died, he decided that getting close to anybody was too hard -he was in total grief.

AAJ: Did you have any interest in jazz at the time?

RB: When I was twelve, I heard the Milestones record, and specifically the tune "Billy Boy" with Red Garland on piano. I didn't realize it then, but in retrospect I see how Miles was so generous, giving his rhythm section a whole tune: Garland, Philly Joe Jones, and Paul Chambers. I heard it by accident in a record store or something, and I had that moment of ephiphany, like "Yes! That's what I want!" I do love classical music, but I didn't like the atmosphere around it. People were stiff and formal. But I quickly found I had a feeling for jazz and loved the sound of it. So I started to study and buy records. I had an older friend, Cliff, who took me to Birdland and the Village Vanguard when I was under-age. And I heard Miles and Trane and Bill Evans in my face. I'd sit in the peanut gallery at Birdland, because I was too young to buy a drink, and that was it!

I was OK at classical music, but there were kids who could play circles around me, and they loved to play it. But something was missing for me, and then I figured out that the problem is that it's always the same. There's no improvisation. It's all about the composer, which is fantastic if you're the composer. And I suddenly realized that improvisation was the way for me. And I was all ready prepared in an instrument, the piano, and my technique and sight reading were really good. However, my teacher, Palmieri, didn't teach me anything about theory, harmony, and composition. To improvise well, unless you have an unbelievable ear, most of us have to know theory, harmony, and how the music is put together.

Palmieri died when I was 18. I went to Berklee for a year, which in retrospect was a terrible mistake because I didn't get what I needed there, but I did learn some very important things. I learned to survive on my own for the first time. I met Harvey Mason, Miroslav Vitous, John Abercrombie, Keith Jarrett, Bob Brookmeyer, and a lot of other great players. But the school wasn't satisfying to me, and I also went hungry. My parents wouldn't support me because they didn't want me to be a musician. So I went there defiantly, with no money.
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