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The Importance of Passing Down Our Tribal Lore

David Berger



A few days ago was Fathers’ Day. I got a phone call from my daughter and my 3-year old grandson. Before they called, I was wondering if Elliott would wish me happy Fathers’ Day. He loves talking to me on the phone, but I didn’t know if he understood how I was his father once removed. And did he even know the words or what Fathers’ Day means? Then all of a sudden he leaned into the phone and said, “Happy Fathers’ Day.” It’s funny how a holiday invented by Hallmark Cards can evoke a deep feeling of connection.


Elliott just turned three years old three weeks ago, but he is bursting out of his size 6 pants. The kid is huge, strong, athletic and full of boundless energy. A junior Aaron Judge. I gave him a tee-ball set for his birthday and he is already pounding the tee with his bat. I suspect once he can hit the ball and join a team next year, the Yankees will be drafting him.


A few minutes into my conversation with my daughter (Elliott is easily distracted by everything in the universe), my son arrived at my door bearing his usual gift of a bottle of fine whiskey that he knows I love but can’t really afford. We had a short taste while we talked and then boarded his sports car to enjoy a beautiful dinner at one of New York’s finest Italian restaurants. The way to a man’s heart through his stomach isn’t reserved only for women’s use.


Since Sunday I’ve been thinking about how important my now-adult children are to me. I often think about events from their childhood and teen years and the enormous responsibility I had, and to a lesser extent, still have being their father. When they were young I kept them safe and taught them the world. So much about our orientation to life comes from our parents. I wanted to pass on the good things from my parents and avoid the negative. Unfortunately, life gets in the way. But I did my best, and for all my faults, my kids know that I love them and always gave it my all.


When I was growing up, my mission was to learn my parents’ world—the history, arts, mathematics, science, psychology, every kind of knowledge—American, worldwide (my father’s business was global) and our family. I read their books, listened to their music and sought to one day be their equal. My experience in school started off gently, but by the time I entered junior high school at the tender age of 12, I was expected to be an adult. My teachers were experts on subjects that my parents had but a glancing knowledge of. By the time I was in high school, I was engaged in nightly dinner table battles with my father, who by that time I saw as ever-increasingly conservative, provincial and fearful. It would be many years before I understood how insecure both my parents felt.


I followed their directions to become educated and worldly, but then I went beyond them and their world with all its limitations. My dad had long ceased to be my hero. My early Brooklyn Dodger heroes Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider gave way in my teens to Horace Silver, Erroll Garner, Count Basie, Miles Davis, Thad Jones, and finally Duke Ellington. I wanted to see America and myself through their eyes. At first I just thought they were cool, and their music made me feel cool, but then I became obsessed with figuring out how they do what they do, being able to do it myself, and expressing who I am in their uniquely American language.


I started doing a little private teaching in my 20s and got my first adjunct classroom assignment at 29. Honestly, I wasn’t prepared. I had some knowledge, but it would take a few years of teaching until I was mature enough to want to give to the next generation what had been given to me. By my mid-thirties I was a parent and began to see teaching as a calling more than just a way to pay my rent.


During my lifetime I’ve witnessed America’s popular music make a seismic shift from the sophisticated jazz and popular song repertoire to adolescent rock and roll (which morphed into equally adolescent pop and hip hop). There was always a divide between Black and white artists, but prior to 1960, the gap was narrower and there was mostly common territory. Everyone could sing Stardust and a thousand other songs. Now our music and population are Balkanized.


I lost any interest in pop music after I graduated college. Unfortunately, at the same time, American audiences lost interest in jazz. The minor league system of territory and road big bands collapsed and jazz education was turned over to high schools and colleges. I started playing jazz in our junior high school dance band and then went on to play in high school and college. I had a decent musical education, but the leap from college to the New York professional jazz world was enormous. Within days of graduating college I was playing with the great musicians I listened to on records and saw in clubs.


The main difference between my school bands and working with pros was that in school all the players were my age and had little to no practical experience. When I playing in professional bands, I was always the youngest one in the band, and had much to learn from everyone else. They were the tribal elders. When I joined the Ellington band, Duke had just died, and almost all the sidemen stayed on. I got to sit next to Cootie Williams on the bandstand and then sit right behind him on the bus.


When I left that band, I joined Chuck Israels and the National Jazz Ensemble, which was a mixture of cats my age and seasoned pros like Jimmy Maxwell and Jimmy Knepper. Playing in that brass section was graduate school. Neither of the Jimmys ever lorded it over us youngsters. In fact they rarely told us how to play. We all respected them so much that we sought to learn their world—much the same as I sought to learn my parents’ world in my childhood.


In that band I got to work with so many of my heroes—Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, Roy Eldridge, Phil Woods, Gerry Mulligan, Al Cohn, Jim Hall, and many others. For many of those icons it was the beginning of a long relationship.


The beauty of the learning experience was that it was natural. We just addressed the music at hand and learned to play it. There were no formal lessons or roles. When Billy Strayhorn joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra, he asked Duke for lessons. Ellington’s response was one word, “Listen.”


And so, now all those giants that walked the earth when I was a young man are gone. They’ve passed the leadership of our tribe to my generation (Baby Boomers) and  the next (Wynton and the Young Lions). As I said, the minor league system has collapsed. In fact, the major league teams don’t even play enough games each season to get in shape or for the players to make a middle class living. What’s left of jazz is happening in schools where our beloved music is entrusted to children. This sounds dire. And it is.


Nevertheless, there are pockets of some success around our nation. Although most school jazz programs are not repertoire based and don’t perform the classics from our music’s heyday (1920-1970), programs like Essentially Ellington have encouraged the re-discovery of our heritage. Like all the other arts disciplines, to become a great jazz musician, one needs to know jazz’s history and only then can one stand on the shoulders of giants. For a teacher to avoid this repertoire is musical child abuse.


I’ve gotten all kinds of excuses: The music is too difficult; My kids don’t do well with nuance; Where do I find the music and recordings?; I don’t know enough about jazz to teach it; and so forth. Over the last 50 years I’ve been traveling around the country working with high school and college bands. On the surface, my goal is to make them sound better as quickly as possible. I can usually make a sizeable difference within 15-30 minutes, but the deeper reason for my clinics is to expose the students to the meaning of jazz, to its relationship to who we are as people and as Americans. Jazz has had a profound effect on my life, and I would like to make that available to young Americans who otherwise might not ever come in contact with this special music.


Since I cannot visit every high school jazz band in America (there are about 25,000 of them), I’ve written a book designed for high school jazz band directors. It is for the first time director with no jazz experience or knowledge as well as the top directors whose bands win trophies at competitions and everyone in between. Here are some of the topics I discuss at length:


  1. Tight Set-up
  2. Clear and precise count-offs/play in time
  3. Choose authentic repertoire/internalize the arrangements
  4. Teach musicality
  5. Accents
  6. Dynamics—written and implied, shape long notes
  7. Play expressively
  8. Balance—sectional and section vs. section
  9. 8th Notes—swing vs. straight
  10. Short and long quarters and eighths
  11. Hold long notes full value
  12. Avoid amplification whenever possible
  13. Play with energy (even when soft)
  14. Make the music conversational—vocals, rhythm section
  15. Dress Appropriately
  16. Play with conviction
  17. Solos: short and to the point/using jazz language
  18. Give and command respect
  19. Your excitement about the music will inspire your band


An earlier edition of the book (Democracy in Action) came out about a year ago. My editors, graphic designer and I have spent the last year re-examining every word, example and picture. We added an index and glossary and have tried to make this edition as reader friendly, clear and informative as possible. If you direct a high school jazz band, then I’ve written High School Jazz: A Director’s Guide to a Better Band for you. I sincerely hope that you will click on the button below, read some excerpts, and find something that is of use to you.. I personally guarantee that there will be a lot of information that will be indispensable in your future teaching. If you are not a teacher, but you know one, feel free to pass along the link.


 Click Here to View


Lastly, I want to thank every teacher for the work that you do helping our young people become better citizens and more fulfilled human beings.


Ever onward and upward


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  • Glenn Basile on

    Really beautiful writing. Although I knew you were an Ellington scholar, never realized that you had actually played in the band. You really have walked among the giants🎶Thanks for sharing, and keep up the wonderful work you do.

  • Bill Goodwin on

    Terrific Dave
    How lucky we were in the NJE
    All the best BG

  • BILLY Kerr on

    Hey Dave,
    Beautiful article, good for you.
    All the best,

  • Lainie Cooke on

    This was a wonderful read. Thank you.

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