Cart 0

If It's Worth Doing, It's Worth Doing Well

David Berger



At my first trumpet lesson with Jimmy Maxwell, he asked me why I wanted to play the trumpet.  "I want to play jazz," I told him.  He then said, "Good, because I've spent my career trying to make bad music sound good, and you're too smart for that."  On the other hand, his advice to his son, David, before he left for college was, "The world is full of shit.  If you develop a taste for it, you'll never go hungry."  David became a Russian scholar and beloved college president.  


My lessons with Jimmy were 90 minutes per week.  The first 45 minutes consisted of him telling me anecdotes about all my jazz heroes and show biz celebrities whom he knew and worked with.  There was a picture of Kim Novak kissing him, hanging on the wall in his studio.  Now, that was some inspiration to practice.  


Often his stories centered on the bandleaders he worked for: how Benny Goodman hired Cootie Williams away from Ellington and also offered Artie Shaw a job playing second alto.  I also liked the one where they were rehearsing with a small group at Benny's house in Connecticut, and Martha Tilton said, "Benny, it's getting a bit chilly in here."  To which Benny replied, "Oh, do you think so?" Benny turned and left the room, only to return wearing a sweater.  


At a rehearsal with Perry Como, Jimmy ended a chart with a screaming high G.  After Mitchell Ayres cut the band off, Perry looked up at Jimmy and asked, "Jim, are you going to be able to do that on the show tonight?  To which Jimmy replied, "I was until now."  


There were thousands of these anecdotes.  I can't tell you how many times I told him that he should write a book.  He would tell me to write it.  A few years later, when Steven Bernstein was studying with him, he started to tell a story, but couldn't remember the ending.  He told Steven, "Call Dave Berger.  He knows all the stories." 


One of my favorite characters was Abe Lyman.  Abe was an old time leader and a very practical man.  He would say to the band, "we need a chord at the end of the tune.  There are 12 notes. Divvy them up."  At one recording session, there was a bunch of new faces.  Abe asked for a show of hands as to which guys were also arrangers. About half the band enthusiastically raised their hands.  Abe nodded his head.  "Good, if you've got a wrong note, keep your mouth shut and fix it."  


Abe once asked for some suggestions for a musician to be hired for an upcoming gig.  One guy recommended a friend and added, "You'll love him.  He's a genius."  To which Abe responded, "A genius is a man with a job."


Then there was the date with Raymond Scott, who was a control freak.  He exhorted, "At letter G, I want you guys to really swing."  Bob Brookmeyer turned around to the trumpets and said, "Please don't."


I suppose the point of this (if there is one) is that for every record date with Quincy Jones, Al Cohn, or Oliver Nelson, there were 20 with Mitch Miller and other cynical producers and their corny incompetent arrangers.  Mitch would say to the band before a take, "Make it stink."  


But we didn't get into music to make it stink.  Our job was always to make the music sound as good as possible, even if the arranger, leader and singer didn't deserve it.  It was a matter of pride and also a challenge.


I can't say that I've always succeeded in making every tune I played, arranged, or conducted a masterpiece, but it wasn't for lack of trying.  I approach everything I do in life that way--how I dress, cook a meal, decorate my apartment, everything.  It's a good habit, and it makes life more enjoyable for me.  When I hire musicians, I expect them to have this same work ethic.  If they don't, the band and I won't want them back.  Music depends on this kind of integrity.  

Older Post Newer Post

  • Brian Priestley on

    I too loved all the anecdotes. Given Jimmy Maxwell’s generation, he may be right that the Goodman “chilly” comment came from Martha Tilton but, as you probably know, it’s been attributed to Peggy Lee – and lots of other singers as well

  • Ed Strauman on

    David –
    Thanks for sharing these great, great stories. I’m laughing to tears. Your lessons with Maxwell reminded me of my lessons with you in two regards: 1. your eagerness to openly and graciously share your knowledge; and 2. your demand for excellence, which speaks highly of your integrity. Those were fantastic times for me!

  • River Bergstrom on

    Hi David: Another great blog post! Reminds me of my time on the TDO with Buddy Morrow. He hired his old friend, trombonist Sonny Russo to come out with us for awhile. Sonny and I became instant friends and he would tell me many stories about working in the studios in NYC, the original Tonight Show, etc. One day we had an early morning rehearsal with some singers…and you know how popular that is with the guys. And the charts were not written well at all. Once, when we stopped, I felt something poking me in the back. I turned around to see Sonny poking me with his slide. He had something to say to me, I could tell…so I leaned in, as he did also. He said to me: “Ya know…these are the kind of charts that your body rejects!” I had to stifle my laughter, but he was so right on. A lot of great stories and times. Thanks for those great stories!

Leave a comment