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Song for my Father

David Berger



Every year on December 7th I can’t help but think about my father. It was the singular day in his life that he participated in an event that changed the course of world history. He had a minor role, but he was in the midst of it. He was an ordinary man placed in an extraordinary circumstance.


In 1941, he was only 22 years old—a poor kid from the Bronx who got drafted. He hardly ever spoke of his time in the army. He loved our country and felt it was the least he could do to help defend it. It was his duty, that’s all.


My dad was many things, but he was not someone to brag. His time in service was sacred to him. It changed his life. He entered as a wet-behind-the-ears kid and came out a man. He confronted death and saw many horrors both in the Pacific and in Europe, taking all that to the grave with him.


I’ve never done this before, but I’m going to reprint a blog below that I wrote two years ago, because anniversaries bring up a lot of the same thoughts and feelings year after year. This same piece appears in my book Life in Db, A Jazz Journal.


I had a dream the other night in which I told my father off in no uncertain terms for his constant negative criticism and lack of positive encouragement. This made me feel really good. I never could do that in the 51 years I knew him. And then I woke up and felt terrible for days.


The truth is my father taught me the world the best he could. As a child, I loved him more than anyone on this earth. He always brought us kids presents from his travels all over the world. He took me to my first ballgame to root for our beloved Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field. I gave him all the power he wanted and then some.


As a teenager, I began to see and understand his shortcomings. I still wanted to love him, but he made it very difficult. It took many years, but I finally forgave him for not being perfect. His last five years were spent in his own private hell of abject senility.


He suffered from depression for most of his life, but this end was beyond cruel punishment. My sister thinks that something happened during the war that he couldn’t talk about that led to his depression. I think that is very possible.


In some kind of cosmic payback, my daughter is a nurse and works for the Veteran’s Administration treating our former soldiers for the physical and psychic wounds they suffered in service to our great nation. I’m very proud of her. In a way it’s like she’s treating my dad and giving him the help he desperately needed but could never ask for.



Make America Great Again

If You Can Remember What Great Was 


This week we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which the media is now calling the most important event in American history. When we were attacked, we were a minor world power with a small military. 75 years ago this week we embarked on the road to world domination. You don’t believe me? Think about this: we currently have 800 military bases in over 70 countries. How many foreign countries have military bases in the US? I’ll give you a hint. It’s less than one.


Because of the war in Europe, our government foresaw the possibility of the US being dragged into the war, and instituted a draft in 1940. My father was drafted that year, and after basic training was sent to Schofield Barracks, Pearl Harbor, on the island of Oahu.


If you’ve ever read the novel or seen the movie, From Here To Eternity, that’s where those soldiers were stationed. Actually, the characters were based on real-life people. My dad knew them. When I saw the movie and asked him if that is what really happened, he said that they got it right.


Some years ago those steadfast Americans who grew up in the Great Depression, fought and won World War II, and then built the strongest middle class economy in the history of the world, were labeled The Greatest Generation.


I just watched a documentary on the History Channel about Pearl Harbor. Minutes after the attack, the leader of America First, an isolationist group that opposed our entry into the war, gave his usual anti-Roosevelt speech at a rally. That was to be the last of America First.


When FDR got on the radio and told America that he wanted Congress to declare war on Japan, the entire country got behind him. The vote in the Senate was unanimous. There was one lone dissenter in the House. Within days Hitler declared war on the US, and we were fully committed.


Immediately, America was 100% in the war effort. Our auto industry ceased making cars and converted automobile factories into factories for manufacturing airplanes, tanks, jeeps and other military vehicles. Since the men of military service age were drafted into the armed services, many women went to work in the factories and enlisted as nurses. Rosie the Riveter was no joke.


It took a few years, but with the help of our Russian allies on the Eastern Front, we won the war through our ability to out-manufacture our enemies. Near the end of the war in Europe, my dad liberated town after town from France into Germany. The Germans were impressed by how well equipped and well fed our GI’s were.


My father never spoke of the horrors of war. At dinner he would tell us kids to not waste any food because there were starving children in Europe. Until this moment, it never occurred to me that he saw thousands and thousands of those starving children and their parents first-hand.


As a young man, one of the copyists I worked with told me about his experience as a GI liberating a concentration camp. I wondered if any of my mother’s cousins died in that camp. Who knows? There were thousands of camps across Germany and Poland.


After the war, the soldiers returned home. They got jobs and started families. The auto industry resumed manufacturing cars and everyone bought one. Families like mine moved out of the city to the suburbs. It was a mass post-war migration made possible by the automobile.


Just as the army was racially segregated, so was housing in the cities and now the suburbs. The returning Black soldiers were more committed than ever to ending segregation. They fought and some died for our country, and they deserved full citizenship. It would take 20 years to come to a head, but the seeds were planted and the hard and dangerous work was steadily done.


In 1960 John F. Kennedy was elected president. He fought in the Pacific and was the embodiment of the youthful, optimistic forward-looking leader of the Greatest Generation. Three years later he was murdered and things have been downhill ever since.


Although Lyndon Johnson passed Kennedy’s Civil Rights Legislation (exposing the racial divide in this country), his entanglement in the Viet Nam War ushered in the Baby Boomers’ anti-war activism. We have been a divided country ever since.  


I know you don’t read my blogs to learn American history and are wondering what all this has to do with music. It has everything to do with music.


For all their faults, and there were many, I remain a great admirer of my parents’ generation. I grew up learning the world from them. I learned music from them. My mom played piano in our living room in the afternoons. That was the beginning of my love of music.


One afternoon when I was at home not feeling well, I was lying on the couch in our den watching a quiz show on TV. My mom was ironing and watching along with me. The game consisted of the house band playing the first three notes of a song and the contestant would have ten seconds to name the title. If he or she got it wrong or didn’t know it, the orchestra would play the first four notes. And so on.


So they play the first three notes, and Mom immediately says, “Stardust.” Then the next song, “Body And Soul.” It went on like that for the next five or six songs before I asked her, “You know all the songs. Why don’t you go on the show?” Her answer has stuck with me all these 60 years, “Everyone my age knows all the songs.”


Do you want to know how we came through the Depression and WWII and then built our economy? Everyone knew all the songs. That generation was united by George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Harry Warren, and the swing music of not only Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, but also Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong. America sang those songs and danced to them. The movie stars sang them. Not just the song and dance performers, but just about all the stars—Marilyn Monroe, Irene Dunne—and they were really good.


The music of that era was very sophisticated, and yet it was the music of the people. It was created by professionals, but the public loved the songs. They sang them and they learned to dance to them. Swing dancing is not easy, but kids all over America were doing it, and doing it well. Those songs taught us about romance, love, and American values. We identified with the words and the music. Those songs taught us who we were.


As every jazz lover knows, when the soldiers got back from the war, they got married and stopped going out dancing. Before the war, my dad worked for a dry cleaner in Times Square where the Black bands had their uniforms cleaned. At that time Ray Bauduc was the straw boss of Lucky Millinder’s band and was a customer. They got friendly, and Ray would give my dad passes to see Millinder’s band up in Harlem.


Five years later my parents went to a night club to dance to Charlie Spivak’s band on their first date. Aside from the three or four times my folks came to see me perform, I don’t think they ever went to hear jazz for their entire 55-year marriage.


Record companies turned away from jazz thanks to Mitch Miller selling them on producing crap (before a take, Mitch would tell the band to “make it stink”) and Madison Avenue convincing them that there was a generation gap—kids don’t want jazz—that is their parents’ music; they want rock and roll—that is Baby Boomer kids’ music.


It’s not surprising that this generation gap concept could be sold to Americans. After all, we are a nation of immigrants. Our ancestors came to our shores with their old-country ways. By the next generation, those languages and customs were practically gone, and a generation later—completely forgotten. I’m just as guilty as everyone else on this one.


My father’s parents came from Ukraine and Georgia. They spoke Yiddish, Ukrainian and Russian (my grandfather was a soldier in the Czar’s army). My dad understood Yiddish pretty much but couldn’t say more than a few sentences. I might know a couple hundred Yiddish words at best. I never felt an affinity for European Jewish culture. I grew up an American—a Brooklyn Dodger fan just like my dad. Then jazz became my religion.


We all continue this practice—every American generation resists the tribal lore of the previous generation. If this isn’t enough to destroy our culture (or what’s left of it), we are a migratory population. How many of us live in the town where we were born? Actually I live 13 blocks from our apartment house, but don’t mind me. I’m not like most people. I had a different reaction to the generation gap.


I wanted to learn my parents’ world and improve on it. I was never a revolutionary. I’ve always loved the past, and I don’t want to lose it. On the other hand, I like pushing boundaries and seeing where that can lead.


When I was a kid, one of my favorite TV shows was Twilight Zone. It was written and produced by Rod Serling. In college, I took a film course with Rod. He asked us what genre Twilight Zone was. One kid said, “Sci-fi.” Rod said, “No, it’s fantasy.” Interesting.


One of my favorite episodes is about passengers on a plane in 1960 and when they go to land at LaGuardia, they look out the window, and there are dinosaurs. Somehow they went through a time barrier. So the pilot takes the plane up and tries to land again. This time when they look out the window they can see the 1939 World’s Fair. They don’t want to land in 1939, so they try again, etc.


My reaction was that I would love to land in 1939. I could put a great band together and write swinging arrangements and be popular and rich and date movie stars. The drawback is that in 1939 nobody but Charlie Parker is playing bebop. How am I going to get my music played the way I hear it? So much for time travel.


I love Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. The past looks so appealing, but only in our rear view mirrors. We are all here in our time for a reason—many reasons. I don’t know if I (or anyone) can make America great again, but I’m trying my darnedest to make jazz great again. By that, I mean to celebrate the tradition and make it relevant to our lives now, or as they used to say about bebop, “Evolution, not revolution.”

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  • Nancy Valentine on

    David, I like when you write about your family and younger years. No matter what the circumstances, it has a warm ring to it. There are many small groups coming up now hoping to bring the music of the 20s and 30s forth to the public. I think they’re doing a nice job. The great thing about it is they’re treating it respectfully new. I like that, people are even dressing in that period and most of all…dancing. There are some people and organizations treating it like a museum piece. It was thrilling to hear your arrangements and jazz orchestra at Dizzy’s recently. Keeping it moving forward keeps the times alive and current.

  • Neil Rosengarden on

    Thank you for posting this. You nailed it in so many ways…

  • Terry TOmpson on

    Very well written and most interesting. We share a lot of feelings about the golden age of popular, music, the swing era and so many of the greats of that incredible period in American popular music history(totally anything like the present day).

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