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The Beauty of an Artist's Voice

David Berger

When Mercer Ellington sold his father’s artifacts to the Smithsonian Institution they included clothes, newspaper clippings, tapes, films and about 250,000 sheets of music.  Over the next decade Annie Kuebler archived all this material.  I had the great privilege to look at thousands of pages of the music and, over time, I became friends with Annie. 


Besides housing the Ellington archives, the Smithsonian conducted hundreds of oral histories with older jazz musicians.  Each was interviewed on tape for a few hours.  Annie had access to these tapes and listened to all of them.  She enjoyed the stories that they all told, but confided in me that she had to take all of it with a grain of salt.  Either the musicians had faulty memories or they just made stuff up. 


I’ve always thought that I have a great memory—even better than Trump’s.  (That was a joke.)  Several times I’ve come to realize that I remembered things wrong.  For some reason, my memory tricked me.  I enjoy telling anecdotes about myself and others—especially if they are humorous, informative, or both.  I often don’t remember the actual words.  In those cases, I know the gist of what was said, so I can reconstruct what might have been said. 


The point of this is: does the truth matter, or is the artistic mind of the storyteller more important?  How much of Homer was history, and how much was fiction?  The same goes for the Bible.  Archaeologists have proven that the Hebrews never lived in Egypt, but isn’t Exodus still a compelling story?  Astronomers tell us that Jesus was born in June of 6 BC.  Everyone gets it wrong.  As Trummy Young taught us, “’Tain’t What Cha Do, It’s The Way That Cha Do It.”


Someone said that art is life without the boring parts.  Actually, I have no idea who said it.  Maybe I made that up.  Anyway, it’s true.  How we tell the story is more important than what the story is.  God, I wish I knew that when I was young.  But it took me many years to realize that it’s not any one of the notes that I write or play that people like, but it’s how I develop those ideas into a story that the players and audience enjoy following.  They like how it makes them feel. 


When I studied composition with Ludmila Ulehla, I was overly concerned with organic development.  I wanted my music to be perfectly logical, so that when she analyzed it at my lessons, it would make sense.  She knew right away what I was up to and encouraged me to forget all that.  She said, “Just write.  Don’t worry, you have a logical mind.”  See, there I did it again.  Did she really say that, or was it something close to that?  No matter.  It was very close to that.  The point is: imposing logic on art precludes the beauty of our subconscious mind and our natural instinct. 


I love logic as much as the next guy, but if I had led a perfectly logical life, I would never have become a musician, nor would I have fallen in love.  Those were decisions that I felt no control over.   At those moments, I felt like God was smiling down at me, and I was powerless to argue with God.  Neither of those pursuits has been all smooth sailing, but I wouldn’t change a thing.  I did what my soul needed.


In telling a story, writing music, or writing a book or this blog, my process is to be in the moment.  If I have the option to  edit, what comes afterward, at which point my logical, conscious mind can do some trimming.  Knowing that I can edit afterward gives me the freedom to just write—without fear.  As we used to say in my recording days, “We’ll fix it in the mix.”  Actually, we did used to say that.  I didn’t make that one up.


At a certain point, over-editing can tear at the fabric of the original.  An artist must understand the nature of his concept and protect it.  There are Duke Ellington recordings with gross flaws.  For instance on the original studio version of Dance No. 4 of the Liberian Suite, the trumpets play an entire passage a measure off.  Why did Ellington not choose a different take?  His answer to such questions was always that he liked the feeling. 


As artists, we love details.  We spend countless hours perfecting them, but what our audience wants is to hear our authentic voice.  We should never lose sight of that in our art and in our lives. 


A long time ago, Wynton Marsalis said to me something like, “You know all that stuff that you are insecure about and hide from everyone?  Everyone sees through you.  It’s just that we are all too polite to tell you.  It’s not just you.  This is true about everyone.”  And yet we go on pretending like everyone is buying our false self.  We aren’t fooling anyone, and we are making ourselves unhappy. 


The best moments of my life have been when I was able to drop all my defenses and enjoy being my real, true, naked, authentic self.  This has rarely happened with other people, but for some reason, I feel safe enough in music to just be me.  And in those moments, as the poet said, “God’s in his heaven.  All’s right with the world.”  Actually, Robert Browning did write that.  I looked it up.

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  • Monk Rowe/Fillius Jazz Archive on

    Thanks David for this thoughtful writing. As a follow up to “art is life without the boring parts”, a quote from trombonist Benny Powell when he spoke with us in 1999: “I have a contention that no great art is created is ever created by happy people. It’s always adversity that creates art”. I am giving both these quotes some serious thought today.

  • Nancy Valentine on

    I’m very grateful for this particular entry David. I’m basically a ‘feeling’ type of person and performer. I have to be able to ‘love and feel good’ about what I do and the people I work with otherwise it’s just not right and the people know it or it shows up in my work. The project I’ve been working has moved forward, even slowly, because of the ‘feel good love’ I have for the composer/lyricist to guide me through the many obstacles I’ve had to face with whatever tools I have, be they learned or born with. Stepping into this particular composer’s music relied almost solely on ‘feeling my way’ through the many levels of possibilities first trying to feel the intension of the composer without any preconceived notions or rules of approaching his work even though some songs were recorded by others. To me, the music sang itself. I met opposition in several areas, tempo, adding measures, instrumentation, range, dynamics, feel, scatting but I had to stay close to what I was feeling and see it through. I learned what I needed to know and met who I needed to meet along the way as I kept focused on stepping into the next step of the ‘sound good, feel good’. I’m happy I listened to my inner self and came out with a product that makes others ‘feel glad’ every time they listen to it. Thanks David.

  • River Bergstrom on

    I too was thinking about “that quote”, practically while reading through the whole blog today. I wasn’t sure who had said it either, but I think Mr. Israels is correct, and Marilyn, on that famous quote. I’ve thought about that a lot in my ensuing years. "How did I make people feel when I played____________, last night? I always hope, of course, for the best. I’m pretty secure whenever I play “Stars Fell On Alabama”…the audience seems to be enthusiastic about that one, whenever I play it. You, David Berger, brought back a sweet memory for me; I once did a tour for CAMI (Columbia Artists Management Inc.) with a dance troupe from London, “The Jivin’ Lindy Hoppers”. We had a great band, a great MD (John Colianni) and the dance troupe were all such great and lovely people. And we did that tune, using a call and response: “Tain’t What Cha Do, It’s The Way That Cha Do It”…and I would think about Trummy Young, every night. The MD decided one night, not a week into the tour yet, that I should have a clarinet feature…as the dancers needed a longer break than was originally given. We tried a few tunes but the one that seemed to resonate with every audience was “Moonglow”. I didn’t say anything…but I walked out into the spotlight every night, thinking; What would Henry Cuesta, or Pete Fountain do? Every night, as I started the melody I could hear an audible sigh and a little applause from the audience. And then a standing ovation at the end! Every night! I know…I couldn’t believe it! I was questioning my sanity by that point…maybe it was just an episode of “The Twilight Zone”, or something. But we just kept carrying on…bringing the music to the people. After the end of the tour (we all had such great vibes…and still stay in touch with some…) I was doubting the veracity of my own mind! Maybe I just made it all up, I would think. So, one day I called the soundguy/man that we had on tour with us. And I asked him: "did that really happen?…was the audience “sighing” and applauding politely, as I started…And a standing ovation in the middle of the show?…that just couldn’t be possible!!" But he assured me, I was correct in my memory. He said he kept thinking; “How is this clarinet guy gonna react one night when no one applauds, and no stading O at the end?” I confided in him that I, too, had wondered if this was going to continue. Every night I would think…is this gonna be the one where no one recognizes the tune? I had no experience that was similar…getting a standing ovation in the middle of a show? I did other shows for CAMI, for as long as we could. The last one was George Wein’s “50th Anniversary Of The Newport Jazz Festival” tour, in 2004…with Cedar Walton, Moody (James Moody), Peter Washington, Howard Alden, Lewis Nash, Randy Brecker and James Carter. I was contacted to just do the road manager duties…but of course I brought along my alto…ya just never know! And sure enough, they asked me to sit-in one night. From then on, Moody would ask: “Are you gonna sit-in with us tonight?” I’d always just say, out of respect; that’s not up to me…it’s up to you and the other guys…" One day, that I will never forget, Cedar came up to me and said: “Mr. Bergstrom…as far as I’m concerned, you have Carte Blanche…” I never thought that I would get to meet those guys, let alone get to play with them! And you know what? Talk about being “in the moment”…I didn’t have a camera…and I never got any pictures, with anyone. Kinda sad, now…I wish I had a few…but I didn’t even think of it, at the time. Maybe that’s for the best, too. Because it may have been more like a “fan moment”, than the gentle rapport we had and developed. But I sure wish I had a couple pictures! I talked with Cedar a couple times before he left us. And I caught Moody on his last birthday. Lewis and I stay in touch, as much is possible with his impossible schedule! I’m so happy for all the accolades he is getting. Peter and I talked once about them naming a concert hall in honor of Lewis. “The Nash”…and then on the wall: “Jazz Happens Here”. Peter said he was so glad that these things were happening to Lewis now…so he can enjoy it! Not waiting until the cat dies, or something! You brought up a whole bunch of memories, dear David Berger! I’m out West, now…in the SE corner of Washington state. Right at the confluence of the Snake and Columbia rivers. Caring for my 95 year old mom. Toughest gig I’ve ever had…I didn’t think it would be so tough, so isolating. I really miss my friends in NYC and Boston, etc. And we try to stay in touch…but it’s difficult. Thanks for the great blog, David!!

  • Stutz Wimmer on

    I played a Fat Tuesday jazz gig last evening, in a famously popular local supper-club (with a music cover-charge) just down the road from my home. All in the quintet are far younger than me. Some greener than others, but all in love with jazz music. I have spent a lifetime studying this stuff…coaching kids, practicing and preparing to perform at the very highest level my/our talent will accommodate. Many of the tunes we played last night were new to us, programmed for the occasion. Some came off without incident. But several…(many?)…were deeply flawed. Every seat in the room was filled when we started, and every seat was still filled when when finished. We received a standing “O” in the end, despite so many flaws! How can this be so??? I am convinced that it was because of the raw, unbridled effort, good humor, loving, open acceptance of our collective boo-boos and the constant humor-filled engagement with our audience that created a success. Honesty! We were honest with them at every step of the way. We musicians get so caught up our own “perfection” and the craving of acceptance by our musical peer group that we lose site of the real mission of our craft…it’s all about how it makes folks feel when we play for them. I will be the first to agree that as artists, we should never bow to mediocrity. But as performers, we should ALWAYS just put what we got out there come showtime. Then, go home and ‘shed on the stuff that didn’t come off as well as we’d hoped the next morning. Seems a successful performance comes in many forms.

  • Ginny hoffman on

    You mean the Hebrews never were in Egypt?!?!? Hmmmm… really enjoyed reading this David. Looking forward to seeing you next month.

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