Bob Berg had an Italian mother and a Jewish
father. He said he got his emotional side from her and a respect for
the intellect from him. This may or may not be a cliché, but in
any case, let's face it, as far as Miles was concerned he was white.
There was not much to rebel against, but he rebelled anyway.
He wanted to prove to the world how un-bourgeois he was. Moderation
was never Berg's strongest suit. Rebellion began early and took many
He left home at the age of 17 in favor of a renovated
industrial loft in a Manhattan neighborhood later to be gentrified as
SoHo. Along with other young (white) post-Coltranian saxophonists like
Michael Brecker and David Liebman, he "ate, slept and breathed
A year later, he was working the "chittlin'
circuit" on bandstands on bars next to stashes of booze with the
funky organist Brother Jack McDuff. This was an honor and a victory
for a white boy rebelling against a bourgeois upbringing.
was essential for him to prove to himself and his family that jazz was
not just something he did because he could not do anything else. It
was a cultural as well as an aesthetic choice.
against his own rebellion, he took his cause to the streets. But no
demonstrations for him. He just become - shazam! - "It's a bird,
it's a plane, it's WORKING MAN!" It was like a cartoon. He
blitzed more than drove taxis and trucks. A friend of his accused him
of aiming at lampposts. He once "stripped off every rear-view
mirror on the block."
Later, he looked back on it as
immaturity. At the time, however. he was sure that surviving the
physical strain, social prejudice and economic pressure of day labor
would eventually result in more purity and depth to his music.
receiving an offer he could not refuse, he left the wrecking business
to work with one of his heroes; the pianist and composer Horace
Silver; one of the founders of jazz-funk. After three years with
Silver followed by six years with the respected pianist Cedar Walton,
he was "totally immersed" in a role he later described with
irony as "hip saxophone player."
referred to this tendency as "duty shit." Saxophone players
playing lots of notes fast because it is possible to play lots of fast
notes on that horn, and because so many other saxophone players did
Berg's irony involved recognition of the fact that he
had become "totally bourgeoised-out." Everything he once
rebelled against seemed to have become necessities of life. American
prosperity does that to people - the line dividing necessity and
luxury is redefined. Luxury becomes necessity.
he was married and he and his wife and two children lived in a house
with a backyard in the same Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn where he
grew up. "We're buying carpets, Italian furniture and I not only
drive a Cadillac, I feel perfectly 'me' in it," he said.
road to "hip" and back has been well traveled by jazz
musicians of Berg's generation (he was born in 1951). The voyage has
almost always involved excessive drugs or alcohol or both. During the
80s, when he went into serious fear-driven rehabilitation, the concept
of "hip" itself was in the process of being redefined.
Just as "hip" originally revolved around creative use
of chemicals, abstention was central to its redefinition. Rather than
a symbol of a way of life, chemicals were perceived to be a refuge for
empty minds. It has become "hip" to be "square."
Bob Berg is a true "Son of Miles" in this respect.
he had personified so many other modes and trends, Miles Davis was
central to this one. He may not have been the first, but his
participation turned the new sobriety into more than just a collection
of coincidental revelations.
Even though years ago one
critic described Berg as having a "flawless technique, great
harmonic awareness, a beautifully poised sense of time and a massive
emotive sound," the new "square" Miles would not have
hired the old "hip" Berg.
In fact Miles did not "hire"
Bob Berg at all: "He just called me to come to a rehearsal and
never told me to leave." In addition to the musical and
commercial calling card, three years of working for Davis can be
considered the ultimate test of any former addict's rehabilitation. "Miles
is very good at pressing your inadequacy button," is how Berg put
There is a famous story of how Berg once took a solo in a
place where one had not been scheduled. He played long and hard and
intensely; with his habitual honesty. After the concert in the
dressing room, Miles asked him: "Bob why did you play there? You
don't usually play there."
Berg was apologetic. He said
he knew that; it was just that playing with Miles was such a trip and
the music had sounded so good in that spot that he just could not
"But Bob," Miles replied. "It sounded
good because you weren't playing."
there's a healthy part of me that does feel adequate," Berg said.
"When he'd tell me I was playing too long or too often or too
high, I just figured he'd fire me if I wasn't good enough. I tried to
respect my instincts, and when my lines called for more notes or a low
B-flat I'd let them go where they were headed."
jazz for a living requires maintaining a constant and consistant
degree of cynicism. It involves confidence in your own
discriminations. When one of his solos was awarded a burst of
applause, the trombonist Jimmy Knepper muttered, à la W.C.
Fields: "Fooled' em again."
You make something up
on the spur of the moment and play it and you've never played anything
like it before and people cheer. You've got to admit - it's bizarre.
It involves a kind of off-kilter sense of self and reality.
In Berg's case, he knew very well that Miles would not "put up"
with him doing stuff like that if he didn't basically like what he was
hearing. So he took the reprimand for what it was, a warning from the
boss. And he watched his step in the future.
This is a good
place to point out that, far from being the "Crow Jim"
racist he was often accused of being, Miles hired anybody of any color
or nationality who happened to pass by at the right time and could
fill the required space with appropriate sound and feeling. When
criticized by black musicians for having hired Lee Konitz in the "Birth
of the Cool" band, Miles replied: "You show me somebody else
who can get a sound like that and I'll hire him."
said: "I'd say that every close friend of mine, regardless of how
good they play or how mentally healthy they are, somewhere deep down
inside, they feel they are just a fraud waiting to be discovered."
They wonder 'when am I going to be found out? I don't really
have anything to say.' I have a lot of that myself. I know it's
irrational. I also know it's one reason I once considered dope
essential to my well-being. I keep reminding myself of that all the
time, to help stay sober."
Berg formed a band with
another rehabilitating addict and Davis alumnus, the guitarist Mike
Stern. Both being children of the '60s, they added rocky and
technological touches to their bebop heritage. They were two of the
few contemporary jazzmen to sell viable quantities of records (about
30,000 copies) and draw profitable crowds in large clubs like the
Bottom Line in New York and the New Morning in Paris.
the water," the Berg/Stern band started out with a three-week
European tour. "The water," said Berg, "was warm."