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Sons of Miles
BOB BERG: Rebel With A Cause
by Mike Zwerin
7 May 1998

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 forms.

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 music."

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.

It 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.

Rebelling 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.

Finally 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."

Miles later 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 it.

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.

For example, 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.

The 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.

Bob Berg

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.

Like 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 it.

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 resist.

"But Bob," Miles replied. "It sounded good because you weren't playing."

"Fortunately, 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."

Playing 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."

Berg 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.

To "test the water," the Berg/Stern band started out with a three-week European tour. "The water," said Berg, "was warm."

Photo: Bob Berg
Credit: Christian Rose

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