David Berkman: Well, I started playing around on the piano when I was just a little kid, but I started taking lessons when I was 8. My father was an amateur pianist and a lawyer, so he introduced me to music and jazz. And it was something I always did all through high school, I studied with some different local piano players, some classical players, some jazz players, in Cleveland, which is where I’m from. And when I got to school, I still hadn’t decided whether I was going to do it full-time—I went to a liberal arts school studying English and Classics. And about halfway through, I ended up taking a couple of semesters as a transfer student at Berklee College music, and then after a semester-and-a-half there, I had enough credits to transfer back to the liberal arts school and graduate with a music degree, so I did that, and then I went back to Cleveland and started playing professionally. I mean, I had always been playing little gigs and stuff, but in music school I started getting more serious.
Not just dabbling, but becoming serious about practicing and trying to address things that I needed to improve and work on, aspects of my playing that were weak. Before that, I had always been pretty good for my age, and had been playing a little bit on the scene in Cleveland—In High School and College, but when I got to Berklee, I realized that people could be a lot more serious than I had been. They were on another level and that made me realize I had to get serious and I decided to really work on it.
VOJ: Can you tell me a little bit about your experience at Berklee back then?
David Berkman: Well, it was ’79-80, and there was a generation of players who were there then, people like Tommy Campbell and Dave Kikoski. Branford Marsalis, I think was a year or two after me. At any rate, I played with different players there. I was only just starting out, so it wasn’t that I was playing with so many people in Boston, but I had a really great teacher at school, Bob Mover, the alto sax player, who took me to jam sessions and we hung out a lot, and I think I was watching Bob play one night with Albert Dailey, a great piano player from New York. (He would bring up people from New York all the time to play in Boston). And that’s when I realized—I had always assumed that I would do something else for a living and music was kind of a hobby. As I was watching Bob and Albert Daily play I realized that if I wanted to get really good at this, I would probably have to devote more time—I realized that there weren’t too many people who were dabbling in this field that were my musical heroes. So that’s when I broke out of my own conception of what I was likely to do for my life’s work and decided to be a full-time musician.
VOJ: That’s an interesting story. So when you moved back to Cleveland, who were some of the people that you started playing with?
David Berkman: Well, Joe Lovano was in and out of town back then. A lot of great players you probably don’t know, but there were a lot of older players—local guys—on the scene there. People like Willie Smith (alto) Ace Carter (piano) and Lamar Gaines (bass). There was a great guitar player named Bill De Arango, who played in New York in the 80s with Kenny Werner, and Joe and some of those people. He was a guy who had come up on the scene in New York and he had been a 1947 Metronome All-Star, which was a big honor because all the past years’ All-Stars vote for the next group, so people like Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie voted for Bill as a rising star on guitar in 1947. He played on some Dizzy Gillespie records and he also played for a year on 52nd Street with Ben Webster. He was sort of in and out of New York after the early 50s, taking trips back to Cleveland and eventually moving permanently. His playing underwent an evolution in the direction of free electric music, in a way that was similar to Miles Davis’ evolution. He developed a very free approach, and his playing was a weird combination of swing and electric Miles.
And in general, I think people in places like Cleveland very often become eccentric a little bit—because there are a lot of loners there, each person tends to go there own individual way. There’s a guy who plays like that, and there’s a super traditional guy who plays swing music. Kenny Werner, he didn’t live in Cleveland but Jamey Haddad (drummer and friend of Kenny’s) did, and Jamey used to bring in Kenny and Billy Drewes and Joe—they all went to Berklee together. And then a great drummer named Greg Bandy, who played a lot with Gary Bartz in recent years– he used to bring people from New York (like Mulgrew Miller and Pharaoh Sanders) and I remember playing in house bands with Greg and Hank Crawford and Carter Jefferson, and one time Sonny Stitt. So in my early 20s, that was a great place to be learning and playing. I mean there were younger players too that were my age, people like—again, I don’t think you know them—but Ed MacEachen, who is a guitarist who teaches at Mannes (New School in NYC). Kip Reed, an electric bassist, Paul Samuels, a drummer. Anyway, there was a whole scene of people there, and then in ’85, I moved first to Boston for a year to study with Charlie Banacos and then to New York.
VOJ: What prompted you to move to New York?
David Berkman: Well, I had always planned on moving to New York. I mean, the Cleveland scene was very small and had its problems. The first few years I was in New York, I would play sessions and acoustic bass players would come over, and drummers. To get an acoustic bass player on a gig in Cleveland sometimes was pretty difficult. There were only about 3 of them in town. So just the depth of musicians in New York—I had always planned on moving to New York–not to become a world-famous jazz star, more to be part of a more thriving jazz community. So that’s why I moved, and it has been very satisfying for that. I’ve never left. I’ve travelled a lot, but I’ve never lived anywhere else since then, and that was over 30 years ago.
VOJ: The first few years you were there, were you able to sustain yourself just off of playing gigs?
DB: No. Actually, when I was in Boston, I got tendonitis, so when I moved to New York, I was really struggling. I was dealing with some tendonitis issues, I had day gigs, I was a telemarketer for an arts magazine for a while, and then after that, I played club dates, I did everything. And back then it was a lot cheaper to live in New York, so getting by was easier. I had pretty cheap rent. About 2 or 3 years later, I went on the road with the Woody Herman Big Band, that was in ’88, and when I came back my goal to not do anything but jazz gigs, be able to support myself on those. And I always pretty much did after that. So I guess I’d been in town for 3 years and that’s when I started to see things improve. But I would have to say there were definitely a lot of lean years at different times, especially when I started to travel more, because I would go out on the road, and make okay money, and then come back and have nothing. So that was a difficult period as well.
VOJ: So as a pianist, how aware you in the moment of the specific harmonic and maybe rhythmic choices that you’re making at any given time?
David Berkman: That’s a good question. It’s hard to analyze that. I guess I think the goal is to be aware of things without being too intensely conscious of them. I think a lot of times people think that harmonic choices are the opposite of unanalysed intuition, and they aren’t. They aren’t really opposites. If you know a lot of harmony, a V of a ii- chord or something, or an altered dominant, or a hexatonic scale—all those things sound analytical when you put them into words, but in the moment, it’s a choice, and it’s like I would know that I’m playing a certain scale very often, or I might be visualizing a certain scale, but I’m also, at the same time, not thinking, “I have to play a diminished scale.” I think those things exist in your mind as a frame, you’re sort of unconscious of it but you know it’s there. If somebody asks you, maybe half the time, you could say what it was. Of course, sometimes you couldn’t describe what you played in harmonic terms at all, so that awareness comes and goes, but I do think there are moments where I find myself somewhat aware of what I’m doing harmonically, but I’m not pre-thinking all the harmony before I play a note.
I think actually, a lot of times, I think it’s more analogous to playing, like a little kid playing. You take something out, you look at one end of it, and you blow through it, you put it on top of another thing and then add something else. So you have an interval and then you turn it upside down or enlarge it, and you play a note to lead to that same interval, or you transpose the interval or something like that. And I don’t have in my mind, “I am transposing an interval.” You’re just kind of poking around with it.
And what you practice when you’re working on jazz, I think, is to have as intimate a connection as you can with your instrument so that those kind of things feel like the same as moving your arm. It’s like when you move your arm, you’re not thinking, “I’m moving my arm,” and when you play the scale, you’re not necessarily thinking, “I’m playing the notes of the scale.” You’re just hearing something or playing something or feeling something or having an idea that you are developing somehow.
VOJ: Do you feel as though what’s going on inside your brain is a form of thinking, or is it just more of a reaction?
David Berkman: I think a lot of different things go on in your head when you’re playing. I don’t think it’s just one thing. Years ago I studied with Kenny Werner, 20 years ago, before he was the ‘Effortless Mastery’ guru that he is now—although he was teaching essentially the same thing—he hadn’t written that book yet. One of the points he makes is that playing is about being passive, more “receiving” than consciously” sending”. When you play, you’re trying to play in such a way that you’re getting into a flow and not interrupting it. That kind of playing is almost consciously selfless or to put it another way, less self conscious. That’s a valid view on what playing is. But there’s more. It’s like if somebody asks you, “What do you think about when you’re having a conversation with someone?” You think about a lot of different things. If the person said that you really hurt them, then maybe you’re reviewing your past, you’re thinking about what you said, all that kind of stuff, thinking about your relationship with the person—it can be kind of complicated, it can have a lot of subtext. And the music can have that too. You’re interacting with people so sometimes you’re thinking, “No, this way,” or sometimes you’re thinking nothing, and sometimes you’re thinking—a lot of times I think there is a flow you’re trying to achieve where you’re not directing quite so much—I agree with Kenny that a lot of our best playing comes from there. I don’t want to be telling myself what to play and I usually want to be more—I don’t want to say meditative exactly, but you can think of it as a meditative state. You can play in a tinkering, kind of playful way—all those things that are available to you when you’re having a conversation, those same parts of your personality should be available to you when you’re playing music, I think.
VOJ: Absolutely. In terms of just the scene in New York, how do you feel that work for musicians has changed since you first moved there?
David Berkman: That’s a lot. I think it’s always hard for people to evaluate entirely, because I’m not a 25-year-old person moving to New York to play music any longer. So part of the change in my musical life is that I’m a 58-year-old guy that’s lived here for 31 years. It’s pretty common that older people talk about how much better it was in the past, and that’s true of every discipline, not just music, but I think in many respects, it was easier in the past, and the reason why I think that is because the rents have just gone nuts. My students, I see where they’re living, and they’re paying 800 bucks and living with four people in a small apartment somewhere way out. And the apartment I lived in when I moved to town was $450 in south Park Slope and I split it with another guy. I never paid more than $300 for the first 12, 13, 14 years I was in New York. I was pretty lucky and I was usually living with people or I had some kind of deal managing the building, but my point is that students, or young players in New York, struggle to make enough money to pay for their exorbitant rent. I do think there were more places to play in the past as well. But having said all that, again, I think I’m probably cut off from a certain segment of gigs that are the gigs that those young players get in the early years when they move to town. I don’t play that often at Fat Cat for example, and I don’t do late night gigs at Smalls very often. So I do think there’s a scene that supports younger musicians that I’m somewhat cut off from. But my impression is, even with that caveat, is there was more work in the past.
Another thing that has changed a lot is the function of playing standards in jazz. It used to be that there were a lot of gigs where you would just go and play– you didn’t have rehearsals, you would just go and play. Now, it seems more and more that when people have one gig, even a gig that doesn’t pay much people will send their whole book of music for you to learn for the gig. It’s like, “These are my tunes; learn these for that gig next Thursday” or whatever. And that happened less in the past. There was more of a common language of standards and people would just play tunes together. And in some respects, there were advantages to that. One of which being that not everybody’s writing is equally interesting. And standards were more flexible, like you could re-harmonize them and play over them however you like, whereas people’s music tends to actually be more rigid in forms, not to mention the fact of having to learn music for every gig that you do. People’s level of reading is definitely higher, I’d say, and forms are often more complex today. For example, when I was in my 20s and 30s—it sort of started happening in my 30s—when I was first coming up, it was pretty rare that you go on a gig and play odd or mixed-meter, and now it’s the norm. First of all, everybody’s better at it, so it has gotten easier, but still, the complexity of forms usually necessitates a lot more rehearsal time, or practice time, instead of just walking to a gig and having somebody call a Cedar Walton tune that everybody knows. So that’s a big difference.
You would go hear whoever, Richard Davis–I remember going to hear him at Fat Tuesday or Sweet Basil’s, and Jaki Byard was the piano player—it was a band of well-known players. I think Gary Bartz, I forget who. Anyway, the whole set was all standards, just playing tunes. You would hear that at top level clubs. You could go to the Vanguard and hear people play only standards with no rehearsal and head arrangements. The thing that was nice about that is you could immediately, as a student, kind of compare yourself to those players since you knew the tunes and chord progressions. One of the great things about standards is if somebody’s playing it, you know the form, and you can see exactly what the individual player is bringing to it. But in the mid-80s or so, 90s maybe, that really started to change and everybody started playing all original music. Which, again, some of that is great, and I play mostly original music on my gigs, but at any rate, I feel like a large segment of students got cut off from that standard experience, and I think that a lot of students coming up are less in the standards world, and also, the clubs where you could hear older players got very expensive so students stopped going to them—I mean, when I moved to New York, there was Bradley’s and it was free, no cover. The first month I was in town, I think I heard Kenny Barron there 10 times. So hearing people who were really masters of a sort of traditional mainstream approach to playing the piano, playing jazz, was very available for me, and I felt like I was part of that tradition. I felt like I was on the more modern side, but still part of it. My favorite piano player to hear back then was probably Kenny Kirkland. But I heard all of them: Mulgrew Miller, Barry Harris, Ronnie Matthews, Fred Hersch, Kenny Barron, Walter Davis—I could name 25 piano players that were part of that jazz mainstream world and I could hear them at what were mostly fairly inexpensive clubs. Younger players were going to hear those people all the time.
And what started to happen in the ’90s and 2000s was that those clubs got more expensive or went out of business, and the cheaper clubs had more modern groups that were doing something else, or little clubs in Brooklyn that only had younger bands, or student bands. The younger players got cut off from that mainstream tradition because it was only happening in places like Lincoln Center and the Vanguard and it started to feel less relevant to them. It wasn’t as easy to hear Kenny Barron and Buster Williams play duo as it had been 10 years before and that was a loss for younger players coming up. If you wanted to hear Kenny Barron or Buster Williams, they’re probably going to be at some place that’s really expensive, like Smoke. That was something that happened that I feel separated the modern end of the spectrum from the more traditional end of the spectrum. When I first moved to New York, it seemed like people could be modern players but they could still probably do a bebop gig or a hard bop gig. I mean, there were people who were doing both. Now, you wouldn’t expect someone who’s playing with Mary Halvorson or whoever, Steve Coleman is probably less likely to play with someone on the more mainstream of the spectrum. Anyway, it just seemed like that whole thing accelerated the division between the modern end of the jazz spectrum and the more mainstream traditional end of the spectrum. (Smalls and Mezzrow are helping to change that, by the way.)
VOJ: Just in terms of developing a unique voice, is that something that you’ve ever put conscious thought into, or did it just kind of evolve naturally?
David Berkman: Oh, yeah, definitely. I’ve thought about it but It wasn’t like I was striving to do exactly that. Some players are more imitative by nature. You probably know people like that who can kind of sound like a lot of different people, like Joel Frahm, who’s a sax player I played with a lot. He can sound like a lot of different players. I never really could do that so effectively, so I feel like I always kind of had a sense that I was going my own way, whatever it was, for better or worse. Also, the move from Cleveland to New York was definitely about finding my own voice because when there’s a lot of different people, when there’s that greater mass of creative people to interact with, you can find the people who play the way you want to play and it’s easier to find yourself. When you’re playing in a scene where there’s only a couple of people, and they have to do everything, or maybe you’re playing with an electric bass player but he’s walking because he likes to do that, and there’s no acoustic bass player—it might be harder for you to play YOUR music. In small scenes you have these sort of mismatched groups where one guy is really thinking about Chick Corea’s electric band and somebody else is thinking about Bud Powell or Mary Halvorson or Lester Young or whomever. But if there are only a few musicians, you have to play together and it never really sounds right because everyone is coming from somewhere different. It’s good for you when you are young– doing everything in a local scene, but it ends up being frustrating. When I lived in Cleveland, I would go play funk gigs and then I would go play bebop gigs. I was trying to do a passable job in all of them, but later on, coming to New York, I was much more able to focus and find the players who played the kind of music I was most interested in. And then eventually, when I was writing a lot, that really reinforced all that and helped shape my own music.
VOJ: Any words of advice for a young musician who may be trying to pursue a career in New York?
David Berkman: I think in general, there’s a lot of ways to connect to the scene here. Nowadays, I think jam sessions at clubs loom larger than when I first moved to town. I definitely did those, and I played in house bands that played in clubs, but it seems like now, young musicians go to Smalls or Fat Cat every night and they stay out all night, meeting people and jamming, and all that kind of stuff. Again, I did all that, but more on gigs—there was a club called Augie’s where I played for years and years– less at sessions at clubs. I played sessions at my house during the day. But I’m not putting it down– it’s a structure—something that you can do to connect with other players. It’s hard. I used to find those clubs sessions very unsatisfying because you’d get to play on one tune and maybe it was after all the players you wanted to play with got up and left. Jam sessions aren’t always fun, but you have to make the connections–you have to connect to other musicians on the scene. There are a lot of great players in New York still, and it’s a very exciting environment. I frequently play with young players that I enjoy playing with, and I’m still here because a lot of great young musicians come here and I’m happy to be part of that community. If you’re trying to be part of the jazz community it’s easy to connect with, just get out and go hear everybody, and try to take advantage of everything. It seems like most young players look for some teaching opportunities as well, at least doing some teaching to support themselves. So that may be in your future also.
But in general, what Mike Mossman at Queens always tells people is to do as many things as you can. You don’t know if it will be helpful for you to arrange or compose or play commercial music, or whatever, so try to be able to do all of it, or as much as you are interested in. There are a lot of different directions you can go. How to make enough to get by is crucial because I do think it’s important for jazz players to spend time in New York. There’s no substitute for that. There are great musicians all over the world, and I’ve been fortunate enough to go a lot of places and play with and hear a lot of them. You don’t have to live in New York to be a great jazz musician but this is the most interesting musical community of improvising musicians that I know of. If you’re new here, I wish you a lot of luck. If you can bring some money, that would help. Try to find a relatively cheap place to live. Or if you go to a school, if you’re able to afford being in school, then that gives you ready access to a community, and I do see, as the Director of the Jazz Department at Queens College, I see young players finding each other and finding their musical communities. Wherever you end up, I think it’s just common sense that you have to figure out. “What are the rules of living here? How are other people doing it? How are they managing? How are they getting by?” Sometimes certain people come to New York who set the place on fire, players who really do get caught up and join the scene very quickly. And you can sometimes learn from them, but also, you kind of have to find your own way. I’m sure you will, if you come here.
More on David Berkman can be found on his website