[10 or 15 years ago, my buddy, bassist and composer Chuck Israels was in
New York for a few days visiting. We discussed writing a book about
jazz. We sat around my coffee table in my living room one afternoon and
turned on a cassette recorder. I’ve divided the conversation into 6
parts to make it less imposing, or as Groucho Marx said, “Just the
right length to take into the bathroom .”]
David Berger: Jazz music makes me move in a way that Americans move. It’s natural to me. When I hear The Rite of Spring, I don’t move that way. I find it invigorating and exciting, but I don’t really want to get up and dance to it. In the same way that if I go to one of my relatives’ bar mitzvahs or weddings, and they all dance a “Hora,” I’m not a person that’s going to get up and do the “Hora.” That’s not my music.
Chuck Israels: No, me either.
David: But if they play a swing tune, I’ll get up and I’ll dance to that because…and I’m not a great dancer by any stretch of the imagination, but it feels natural to do that and not embarrassing.
Chuck: Yes. Well, it is a type of body movement issue.
David: It’s movement. It’s that, and it’s connected with the culture. Europeans are human beings too, but they move in a much more rigid way than we do. What I mean is they sit in a more rigid way, they are more rigid people; it’s just part of their culture. It’s their rules of politeness and emulating the aristocracy. We don’t have an aristocracy here. If anything, we have emulated the lowest rungs of society. Black people in this country were slaves and the way their rhythms and the way that they move is so incredibly beautiful that anyone in America would say, “Man, I wish I could do that.”
Chuck: Well, not anyone, but many of us.
David: Well, anybody who’s sane. You know, I’m gonna rule out racists. Their sanity is questionable at best. But you know, anybody who’s sane and can appreciate beauty. You go to see Alvin Ailey, and you say, “Wow, that’s American dance. That’s beautiful. It’s not ballet, it’s who we are.” When you see Revelations, you say, “That’s as good as any ballet I know.”
Chuck: - Does it contrast with Martha Graham’s work in a way that you feel it’s superior?
David: Well, I’m not gonna put “superior” on it, you know, I don’t really want to say, “Is jazz better than classical music?” I don’t want to say that. I’ll just say that jazz is more American, and it appeals to me as an American, I’m proud to be an American. I had a girlfriend who would say, “When you die, it’ll say on your tombstone, “David Berger: American.” I said, “You got it, that’s what I want on there. If I do have a tombstone.” Because, when I first became aware of jazz, the attraction was that it put me in touch with America and feeling American. And I loved classical music before that, but I didn’t get that feeling of recognition. It was somebody else’s music.
Chuck: To me, there is no American classical music. Jazz is it.
David: Jazz is it. There’s an identity we have in that. When I got involved with jazz, it was my music. There were no wrong notes, because it’s just like there are no wrong words I could say. They may not be the best words, but they’re authentic American speech in progress. And jazz was the same way to me as opposed to when I was a kid and I played classical music, If I played a note that Beethoven didn’t write, even if it was in the chord, my piano teacher would say, “That’s not Beethoven.” I like the freedom of jazz to just be me and to have my individual voice. Even in an ensemble, in a jazz ensemble, you have your note. When I played in the concert band in school, we played classical music, and lots of people had my note. I couldn’t put my perspective on it.
Chuck: Couldn’t put your stamp on it.
David: But in the jazz band, when I played my note, I could play the intonation the way that I heard it, I could play my personality in it and my sound.
Chuck: In our music, the music that we love, there is relatively little doubling. Even in large ensembles. There’s relatively little doubling.
David: We use that as a foil. We use the concerted tutti voicings where you double throughout the band, as a foil to all the great majority of the music that is not doubled. Every once in a while it’s nice to have that, but then you have some music that is very popular like Maria Schneider’s music, where everything is doubled – there’s very little that’s not doubled. It doesn’t have a personality. It lacks individual personality, it’s about an overall ensemble sound.
When I go to a jazz performance, I want to know two things: What do each of these guys sound like by themselves, and what do they sound like altogether? That’s what I want to know. I think that’s what the audience wants to know. And if we’re deprived of either of those, we come away feeling deprived. So, if all the music has everyone just playing together with occasional solos, and when they play together, there’s no individuality, it hasn’t really lived up to my expectations. I want to hear the personality being expressed, whether by an individual or by an ensemble. When the ensemble is playing, there are individual voices within that. It’s just like, you could be in the army, and in the army they they strip you of your personality so that you can march lock-step in a fascist society. That’s the idea – the army is fascism.
Chuck: In miniature.
David: It has to be. How else could you kill another human being, or do all the other cruel things that soldiers are required to do?
Jazz musicians are the opposite of that. In our jazz band we want everybody to have a point of view, and then there are times when we play together. But even when we play together, we want to play from our point of view. We never give up who we are. We never give up our communal sound, our whole perspective on how we hear the music.
Chuck: One could say that that element could exist in a fine string quartet.
David: Yes it can.
Chuck: I’m not saying that that makes the musics equivalent, but what makes jazz unique is the balance of all of these elements, because any single element in it you can find somewhere else.
David: A long time ago, Wynton and I were looking for a definition of jazz. That sounds simple, but it’s a hard thing to define. We both liked Duke’s definition of swing: “When the music seems like it’s getting faster, but it’s really not.” So, Wynton and I came up with four things that must be present for music to be jazz: swing, the blues, grooves, and improvisational interplay. Even in a jazz piece where it’s all written out, there still has to be an element of improvisation.
Chuck: I wrote a jazz piece that you know. Does Skipping Tune have any blues in it?
David: Yes, actually, underlying the melodic and harmonic scheme, although it’s major seventh chords, the underlying choice of pitches is blues-oriented. It has a relationship to the blues.
Chuck: Maybe it does. I don’t know, it’s relatively far from what we normally think of as the blues but it’s a jazz piece, for sure.
David: But, actually, that was the point of writing the piece.
David: Was to see how far away from the blues you could get and still make it sound like jazz.
Chuck: In a way, yes. The point was to write a piece that had forward motion without a third and a seventh that were a tri-tone apart. And there are a few tri-tones in that piece but they don’t exist in the third-seventh relationship. That was what I was going after - no dominant seventh chords, basically.
David: Oh, I know that. And I mean, that’s superficially the rule of most of the feeling of the blues, but I think there’s still an underlying relationship to jazz and the blues. It certainly doesn’t sound like a European piece of music to me.
David: There’s still a relationship to the blues in it that is very subtle but still there.
Chuck: Well, I’m glad it’s there.
David: It’s there in a way that most pieces have it. There are pieces that don’t have much in the way of dominant sevenths. They use major sevenths and still feel like the blues to me.
Chuck: Yes. Pannonica – Pannonica has very little dominant in it.
David: Or The Blues from Black, Brown And Beige. The blues is not just blues scale, it’s not just a twelve bar form, but there’s a feeling of the blues. To paraphrase Joseph Heller: That’s really something, the feeling of the blues—the best there is.
[This is the end of the 6-part series. Hope you've enjoyed reading our conversation.]