Artist Blog

Kenny Berger: Don’t Block the Rear View Mirror

Let me begin by filling you in on my background, which I assume is somewhat different from that of most of you. First of all I am 75 years old. Not 75 years “young” (an idiotic, condescending phrase that insults everyone’s intelligence), which means I have a certain amount of life experience both in and outside of music. I began playing saxophone at age 10 and started writing in my early 20’s, pursuing both for several years before receiving any formal instruction. Therefore I speak to you as an emissary from an extinct planet very different from the one I find myself living on at the present time: One where someone with absolutely zero interest in or talent for entrepreneurship or personal branding, such as myself, could still achieve success as a musician and where the concept of “paying dues” meant accruing real world experience rather than student debt. So I hope you will cut me some slack if a somewhat curmudgeonly, get-off-my-lawn vibe occasionally sneaks into my message.  I liken it to the way that kids learn and play sports today as opposed to back in the day. When today’s kids play sports it ‘s always in some sort of organized league totally under adult supervision with those adults enforcing the rules, whereas previous generations would hit the street, see who was around and get a pickup game going with the players doing their own officiating. The parallels between this and the way different generations learn jazz should be obvious and I hope would help to explain where I’m coming from so no one takes offense when none is intended.

Secondly I am a born and bred native of The People’s Republic Of Brooklyn, which might explain my somewhat jaded and hard-assed approach to music and life in general. There were no hipsters or trust fund babies in Brooklyn back then.

Growing up in the world capitol of jazz meant that I began going to the Village Vanguard, the Five Spot, Slug’s and other venues from the age of 15 which is also the age at which I played my first gigs.  Among the giants I heard live during my formative years were Coltrane, Sonny Rollins (my all-time favorite player), Monk, Coleman Hawkins, Steve Lacy, Bill Evans, Gil Evans, Oliver Nelson, Jackie McLean, Count Basie, Roland Kirk, Paul Desmond, Ornette, SunRa, Elvin Jones, Max Roach and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band from its very beginnings.

Thelonious Monk once told Steve Lacy “Don’t sound anybody for a gig. Just be on the scene.” That’s basically how my life in jazz unfolded.

I realize that that’s easy for me to say since at the time there was actually a scene to be on.

Third and most important, I am NOT a product of the Jazz Education-Industrial Complex.  This is not a value judgment or a criticism of anyone else’s background. When I entered the jazz scene I was very young and the jazz education movement was barely in its infancy so it never occurred to me to go to college to learn to play jazz when the clubs and lofts of Manhattan were a 30-minute subway ride away. I am an example of a nearly extinct species; the self-taught jazz improviser. Composing was not yet on my radar.  Truth be told, the only reason I attended college was to avoid the Vietnam War draft but attending Mannes College of Music as a bassoon major gave me an in depth exposure to classical music that has proved invaluable to me as a composer. Though many jazz musicians are familiar with the music of people such as Stravinsky, Hindemith, Carter and Messiaen, I have had the privilege and challenge of actually performing some of it. I played 3rd bassoon on the 1967 NY premiere of Messiaen’s “Et Expecto Ressurrectionem Mortuorum” and played baritone with Howard McGhee’s band at the Half Note the next night. Just being on the scene. My study of and interest in contemporary concert music continues to this day.

As with my jazz playing, my training as an arranger came in the real world where, as a baritone saxophone player on the NY scene I ended up playing in more big bands than I care to remember though I’ve always considered myself a jazz improviser first and have always preferred playing in small groups. The only arranging books I had back then were “The Professional Arranger/ Composer” by Russell Garcia and Bill Russo’s “Composing For The Jazz Orchestra”.

All these years later I still use some ideas from those ancient tomes, namely Garcia’s use of rhythmic curves and Russo’s reminder that writing that contains little or no unison is usually too harmonic in nature. I have since come to believe that the latter suggestion should be tattooed on the inside of the eyelids of every aspiring jazz arranger/composer.

The closest I got to formal training in arranging to that point came as a result of my membership in a big band led by David Berger (no relation). I think of David as my secret teacher. Around 1972 I began playing in David’s band in addition to subbing for Pepper Adams in the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band and I started listening to the music I was playing with a writer’s ear. It seemed that whenever I had a question about which techniques Thad or Oliver Nelson or Gary McFarland or most importantly Duke Ellington were using, David always had the answer.

At that time I became aware of the fact that many of my favorite writers including Thad, Gil Evans and Oliver Nelson acknowledged Ellington as their greatest influence so I decided to check out Duke in detail. David and I used to spend entire evenings “Dukeing out” as we called it, which meant listening to Ellington’s music in depth and trying to figure out what he was doing.  David as you probably know became the one who broke the code as far as Ellington’s music is concerned. David always stresses that Ellington’s strongest point is motivic development and I’ve come to believe that concentrating on that aspect of writing is the key to achieving economy of means. Those sessions convinced me that for me as a jazz composer-arranger, Duke was the source and lessons learned from him can be applied to jazz in any style or context. For example just recently I was working on a piece for my 10-piece band. The harmonies in the piece are totally intervallic and most cannot be spelled out in chord symbols. I reached a point at which I felt the need for a contrasting color choice so I wrote a passage with baritone saxophone lead with clarinet and 2 trumpets in cups harmonized above it. The intervallic harmony with baritone lead on the bottom sounded refreshing and appropriately strange. My inspiration for it was Duke’s original recording of “Drop Me Off In Harlem” from 1933 in which Harry Carney states the theme with 3 clarinets voiced above him. I think this illustrates how knowing the history of the music can provide a composer with a reservoir of usable material and relieve one of the burden of having to constantly re-invent the wheel in order to remain original and contemporary. This reminds me of a wonderful quote from conductor-composer Andre Previn who said “Stan Kenton stands before a hundred reeds and brass, makes a dramatic gesture and every studio arranger in the audience knows how it’s done; Duke Ellington lifts his little finger, three horns make a sound-and nobody knows what it is.”

I had yet to write my first big band chart so David encouraged me to bring something in for his band.  In a display of audacity known only to those possessed of flaming youth I decided that my first effort would be a chart on Strayhorn’s U.M.M.G. By that time I had been absorbing so much knowledge from hearing, playing, and studying the music of great writers and asking them questions that I more or less knew what I was doing so the chart worked out well and I was on my way.  Over the years I got to play in NY-based ensembles led by writers such as Manny Albam, David Matthews, Dick Cone, Rick Wald, Gene Roland, Sy Johnson, Duke Pearson, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Julius Hemphill, and Rod Levitt.

My next arranging efforts came in the mid 70’s when in addition to playing baritone I became a staff arranger for Chuck Israels’s National Jazz Ensemble, the forerunner of the many jazz repertory groups that have proliferated since. I wrote charts for guest soloists including Pat Martino, Tommy Flanagan, Gerry Mulligan and Art Farmer.  The NJE played jazz in all styles from the 20’s to the current day and helped broaden my knowledge of jazz history which I feel is the strongest, most distinguishing characteristic of my writing especially in view of how many young composers seem to be entering the field of jazz composition with little or no knowledge of or interest in the jazz tradition.

Keeping in mind Bill Evans’s insightful statement that “Jazz is not a what: It’s a how” one of my goals as a composer has always been to retain the feeling and spirit of jazz in my writing without letting the use of advanced harmonies and orchestral colors kill the jazz content.

I believe the key to this lies primarily in the rhythmic language being used and secondarily in the style of phrasing most appropriate to conveying the message. I do not consider swing 8th notes to be obsolete. My personal feeling is that the basic instrumentation of the jazz orchestra is particularly unique and unsuitable for music outside the jazz idiom and I make it a priority to not write anything for a jazz ensemble of any size that can be played just as well or better by a group of “legit” players. Again this is my personal view and judging by a lot of recent music I hear, many people seem to disagree with me on this but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Around 1989-90 I had hit a sort of compositional dead end. I was writing original material that was through-composed rather than song form and finding intervallic harmonies that were not always translatable into conventional chord symbols which was fine in ensemble passages but presented a problem as to what sort of information to give the soloist and rhythm section in improvised passages. I ran across this problem in writing for small groups as well as big bands. I then heard that Bob Brookmeyer and Manny Albam, two of my favorite writers, were assembling a by-invitation-only jazz composers workshop sponsored by BMI. I already knew Manny so I wrangled an invitation.  It was stated from the outset that the goal was to turn arrangers into composers. From day one Bob’s catch phrase was “Forget about your past”. Please note: He said “your” past, not “the” past.  The pitch module technique they taught was something I found to be truly liberating and Bob’s impatience with rote, autopilot choices was legendary and inspiring. Both Bob and Manny were unstintingly generous with their time and attention and the contrast between Bob’s flinty, somewhat curmudgeonly manner and Manny’s avuncular warmth made them one of the greatest good-cop-bad-cop acts of all time. The second time I used the pitch module technique I had been revisiting the record of Ellington’s score for the movie” Anatomy Of A Murder” and came up with a piece that was basically atonal but included some Dukish touches including a plunger-muted “pep-section” and finger snapping with the rhythm section tacet. Bob who could be hypercritical at times, gave it what I consider to be high praise since it was a Jazz composers workshop when he said it was the Blackest-sounding piece to have come out of the workshop. Another fond memory was when Manny shared his surefire cure for musical writer’s block: Write down a note, any note, then ask yourself “what’s the next note?” Occam’s Razor applied to music!  Bob and Manny continue to inspire me both as musicians and as human beings. Finding out how much I didn’t know about formal composition led me to study privately with Ed Green, a professor at the Manhattan School Of Music who came highly recommended by several excellent musicians and more than lived up to his reputation.

Before I move on to my own music I would like to mention two wonderful writers whom I had the privilege of knowing and playing with and continue to be valuable influences, namely John Carisi and Bill Holman. John’s diverse background included studying with Stefan Wolpe and sitting in at Minton’s during the birth of bebop. His writing is very advanced and totally personal. He had a unique way of using harmonies that stretch the boundaries of tonality but also include blue notes and swing rhythms. It can be hard to find recordings of his work but IMHO it’s worth the effort. Bill Holman’s reputation as “Mr. Line” for his use of counterpoint in a jazz context is well earned but his innovative use of form and motivic development are what stand out for me. Where other writers would, when dealing with standard song forms, write a typical shout chorus based on the exact form of the tune, Bill often writes what I can only describe as development sections which take all kinds of liberties with the form in order to explore motivic ideas, and are sometimes abstract in a way that reminds me of cinematic dream sequences. Occasionally as in his classic chart on “You Go To My Head” he will come up with a counter line that becomes as prominent as the main theme. I had the privilege of playing in his L.A. band for around a year ca. 1980-81. I am amazed and inspired by the way his later work shows him constantly trying new ideas.


The piece I’ve chosen to share with you has some history attached to it, as it was the very first piece performed at the very first concert of music from the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop. We were fortunate to have the Mel Lewis band as our house band but Mel was unable to play due to side effects from his cancer treatments. The great Danny Gottlieb did a fantastic job subbing on short notice. Joe Lovano is the tenor soloist. The entire piece was derived from a 3-note pitch module. I’ve included some notes from a talk I gave at the workshop a few years later. For an in depth explanation of how it works, check out Dave Rivello’s book “Bob Brookmeyer In Conversation”. I found this technique to be very freeing in many ways, as it almost demands that each piece dictate its own rules and obviates the need for baggage such as song form and formula voicings. Once I found a way for some pitches to act as blue notes and worked out some combinations to get a Dukish sound from the reeds, I was good to go. I apologize for the low-tech sound but it was recorded on a portable cassette machine at a front table at the Village Vanguard. Such is life in the real world. Thanks for reading and listening.


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About the Author:

Kenny Berger is a highly regarded, long standing presence on the New York jazz scene in a variety of capacities. Well known as one of New York’s top baritone saxophonists, bass clarinetists, and composer-arrangers, he has a wealth of experience in both small and large ensembles in a variety of jazz styles, and many years of experience as a teacher of arranging, composition, ensembles, saxophone and jazz history at the college and university levels. As a player he has appeared on over two hundred recordings in a wide variety of styles and settings, including with the Thad Jones–Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, Lee Konitz Nonet, National Jazz Ensemble, Julius Hemphill Sextet, Bill Holman Big Band, Gil Evans Orchestra, and many others. He has two recordings out as a co-leader with trumpeter John McNeil: Hip Deep, and Brooklyn Ritual. He is also a jazz historian and journalist with a unique insider’s perspective.

He remains active on the New York jazz scene where he is frequently the only actual Brooklyn native in many groups on that borough’s fertile jazz scene.