Interview for Cadence

Ludwig vanTrikt: You have added another layer to your career by being named Chairman of the Music Department at the University of Mass. in Dartmouth Ma. How do you feel?

Will this effect your being an active artist?

Karl Berger: Not really. I did commit to this for a limited time only. This commitment ends with the end of this year. It’s a department with a world-music orientation. They needed someone to give it a direction and sense of connection between the different musical styles taught there. Actually, this period was a very busy one in terms of concerts and recordings: two duet Cds were recorded ( with Ingrid Sertso, and with John Lindberg ) and my quartet as well as the project “In the Spirit of Don Cherry” played at concerts and festivals in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy.

L.v.T.: Let s go back to your roots - were you a virtuoso when you started the piano at six?

K.B.: No. But I was a fast learner.

L.v.T.: Despite your continuing studies at the Heidelberg Conservatory (for classical studies) you thought of yourself as a composer during your youth...

K.B.: No. Composition came later, after I had started performing with Hans Koller and other musicians

L.v.T.: How did you first hear jazz in your native Germany?

K.B.: Through the AFM Radio, with was the US Armed Forces Radio Network. Then through jam sessions that were held by American and European musicians in Heidelberg.

L.v.T.: Lead us up to being the house pianist at the "Cave54" in 1955 from you beginnings?

K.B.: I had just completed High School when the “Cave 54” opened in Heidelberg. It was to be the club space for the Film Club of the University students. They hired a jazz trio, led by pianist Wolfgang Lauth, to play there 6 nights a week. I became a member of the club and offered to work there as a barkeeper's help. This went on for 6 months. Then the club ran out of money to pay for the trio and I offered to play there with a bassist. So starting in the Spring 55 I played there 6 nights a week for several years, learning the trade as I went along. The Cave had quickly become a meeting place for US musicians who where stationed in Army and Air Force bands in Mannheim, Kaiserslautern, Frankfurt, among them Cedar Walton, Lex Humphreys, Don Ellis, Carlos Ward and many more. It was like playing in jam sessions in New York every night.

L.v.T.: There is a interesting story about how you came to play the vibraphone...

K.B.: A German vibraphonist left his instrument at the Cave, occasionally coming by to jam with us. The piano was often out of tune, or other piano players were sitting in, so I started using the vibes that was there.

L.v.T.: What kinds of studies both formal & informal helped you become a jazz artist?

K.B.: It was all trial and error, the practical experience of playing for 6 to 8 hours every night and learning tunes from records during the day ( there were no Real Books then ). At that time there were no educational programs or literature available.

L.v.T.: Early on you heard the jazz avant garde -did you get wind of the politics often associated with the New Music?

K.B.: I started hearing Ornette’s music and felt very much drawn to that kind of playing. It was different from the New Music I grew up with: the thoroughly rhythmic orientation and its freedom of melodic language were very compelling to me. I wanted to play like that. I didn’t think of politics in connection with the music.

L.v.T.: Paris in the early 60 s was a hot spot allowing you to meet several of the African American cats @ CHAT QUI PECHE -what was that era like?

K.B.: Well, first of all, the Chat-qui-peche and all the other clubs were packed every night. Bands played for months, even years, in the same club. Bud Powell and Kenny Clarke had their bands at the Blue Note for a number of years, I don’t know how long. Then there was Art Taylor and Jonny Griffin and many other American and French musicians of the highest caliber, playing every night. No way that one can even imagine what that was like when you grow up now.

I came to Paris with Ingrid Sertso in the Spring of 65, looking for Don Cherry. I had heard that he was there and Heidelberg was only 6 hours away by car. We saw him on the second night at the Buttercup Club, which was owned by Bud Powell’s wife. I introduced myself and Don invited me to come to a rehearsal of his band the next afternoon at the bassist Jenny Clarke’s house. And from then on I played with Don for the next three years, in Paris, all over Europe, and finally in New York, where we went for the Blue Note recording “Symphony for Improvisers” and made that our new home.

L.v.T.: How far along was Ornette Coleman s harmolodic concept when you meet him in 1965?

K.B.: The harmolodic concept was fundamentally in place from the start of Ornette’s Atlantic recordings.

L.v.T.: When did you first hit the United States?

K.B.: In August of 1966. We had an engagement at the Five Spot Café, and a concert at Town Hall, which Ornette had organized and wrote a piece for that brought our quintet with Gato Barbieri, J.F.Jenny Clarke, Ed Blackwell ( Aldo Romano went back to Paris ) together with Pharoah Sanders, Rashied Ali, Henry Grimes, Lee Konitz a.o. Then came the Blue Note recordings.

L.v.T.: Developing a jazz curriculum was an early idea for you.What kinds of ideas were you working on in the New York School of Social Research?

K.B.: Actually, at the New School I took over a course that John Cage had given there and was not related to jazz at all. It was about what Cage called Chance Techniques, and what I then changed into Improvisation. It was still not about jazz per se. I developed the Rhythmic Training there, which is now known as GaMaLa Taki, and is a practice of musical language patterns. Actually, it is a kind of mind training, for focus and attention to each beat, regardless what the musical style may be.

L.v.T.: Did Jazz education help you avoid the economic struggle that most cats had to go through in the 60s/70s?

K.B.: Well, not really. It was quite a financial struggle to develop the Creative Music Studio and in the end we lost it for economic, or Reaganomic, reasons, some 15 years later.

Very early in your career you toured internationally........ With Hans Koller and with Don Cherry there was a pretty constant touring schedule. But touring meant in the sixties still that one could in one place for several weeks or a month at times, which were great opportunities to develop music and a band sound. These times are over, unfortunately. I give you an example: in March of 66 we played at the Montmartre Club in Copenhagen, every night except Mondays, from 8 to 1. From 4 to 6 in the afternoon we had rehearsals. Just like in Paris, where we had the same schedule for more than 8 months at the Chat-qui-Peche. I Copenhagen our band was to be followed by a local trio, but the piano player got so scared when he heard us play, that he quite the first night and club owner asked me to also play the trio spot fro 1 to 5 am. One-nighter touring was never a way I wanted to live. I am wide awake after a concert, so I end up not getting enough sleep, and a week later I am no longer enjoying the situation. So in the seventies and so on, we only played selected concerts. Only a few major tours happened after that, although I was in Europe every year, as well as in Japan, Brazil, West Africa, India, The Phillippines with selective tours and concerts / festivals. I still play an average of 20 to 30 concerts every year, most of them in Europe. Many of the avant garde artist who you were involved with during the 60s have mellowed (Archie Shepp,Pharaoh Sanders) or have a different view of their involvement in that genre(Gato Barbieri,Joe Chambers). Have your own views changed about that era? The sixties were a time of cutting through to new frontiers, opening up and expanding musical forms all the way to getting rid of them altogether. It was a very liberating time that will always be with us. It enabled us to find new sense of space and meaning in all forms of music. I realized early on that this was not about creating new styles; it was about opening our vision to all of the world’s music forms, cutting through to the essence and developing personal statements from there. That process can be realized within any given style. Please give us a brief history of the CMF....... Well, it started with the New School class, which was a spontaneous happening at first. I remember driving to the first meeting and saying to myself: this is about improvisation, so don’t fall into the trap of planning anything. This class has to be improvised. Then I realized from the exchanges with the wide range of students, that there was an essential issue of the mastery of time or rhythm, that kept everyone from making meaningful improvisational statements. Most everyone had interesting melodic ideas etc., but little experience in how to space them, play them in a time context that was communicative as language. Another line of work that I was involved with in New York in the late sixties: playing in a program called Young Audiences in New York Public Schools, with Reggie Workman, Sam Rivers a.o., was definitely a component leading to the Creative Music Studio: I realized that f.e. sixth-graders (at that time) showed an amazingly open mind to all kinds of improvisational materials and came up with very surprising input of their own. We worked with them on improvisation in very general, non-stylistic terms and got them creatively involved in formulating thematic materials to improvise from. I talked to Ornette about the formation of the Creative Music Foundation, Inc. as a non-profit corporation, with the Creative Musi Studio as a centerpiece. We invited John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, Gunther Schuller, Gil Evans, George Russell to be on the initial Advisory Board and started in 1971 with Ornette Coleman, Ingrid Sertso, myself and two laywers being the founding Board. Originally, Carla Bley and Mike Mantler offered office space in their Jazz Composers Orchestra office on Broadway near Lincoln Center. I was still busy with concert schedules in Europe and in the fall of 1972 we moved to Woodstock NY. Carla and Mike followed soon after. Dave Holland, who I worked with closely since 1968 also moved to Woodstock. Jack DeJohnette and Anthony Braxton followed soon after and in 1973 the first CMS Workshop Sessions started in a large barn that we had rented. The story of CMS is documented in Bob Sweet’s book “Music Universe / Music Mind” (Arborville Publishing ). A shorter account can be found at During the early years of the CMF you also had extensive contact with contemporary classical composers/performers including John Cage ,Frederic Rzewsky and Steve Reich-please detail these encounters From the very start we worked with members of Musica Eletronica Viva: Frederic Rzewski, Garrett List, Richard Teitelbaum. My goal was always to work with principles common to all kind of music and to incorporate different styles and forms of written and improvised music into the workshop sequences. Later we focused more and more on world musical crossover, the phrases “world jazz” and “world jam” were coined here. Bansuri flutist Steve Gorn moved into the area, the Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos came up regularly, so did Don Cherry, several Turkish improvisers, African musicians etc. Steve Reich came up for a special workshop and concert, we Had Intensives with Cecil Taylor, The Art Ensemble of Chicago and other AACM members. You are a five time DownBeat poll winner -did winning these awards translate into more lucrative work? Not directly, at least I am not aware of it. I am sure it helped when writing grants for performance projects, which we did a lot then. Do you still do the occasional commercial project? You have a long history of such involvement's "Grace" -Jeff Buckley;"Opheila" -Natalie Merchant work with Bootsie Collins and Sly & Robbie Yes, but I don’t quite look at it that way: it started with collaborations with Bill Laswell who had started “Curlew” at CMS, although he was never an official student or member there. We experimented with string writing that functioned like horn writing, mostly with funk/reggae/dub projects. Bill Laswell was the leading producer of the avantgarde of those directions of music. I never think of this writing work as “commercial”. I don’t follow stylistic pattern, I follow the same principles in writing for songs that I follow in writing my own music. I get called when the producers want something different. “Grace” for example: Jeff Buckley was a genius of a musician; his library had Schostakowitch, Alban Berg, Bill Evans, you name it. I could write what I wanted. Just listen to “Last Goodbye”. This was very original stuff. In a way you can say that the CMS work, particularly what I call Basic Practice or Elemental Studies, helped me to be able to work in most different stylistic areas without ever losing my musical identity. Your musical personality can express itself in many areas of music and I enjoy participating in top-level pop-productions. . You had a wonderful relationship with the late Ed Blackwell,some of that dialogue is documented on "Crystal Fire" (Enja CD 7029-2) with bassist Dave Holland. There was also a duet recording on a British label? Ed Blackwell was a one-of-a-kind drummer, a Zen-master of the drums. The trio with Blackwell and Dave Holland was simply amazing. It started out as a quartet, with Carlos Ward, and a recording for Milestone Records (“Tune In”), followed later by trio recordings for Black Saint (“Transit”) and Enja (“Crystal Fire”). The duet recording is a live-recording on the Emanem label (“Just Play”). We did a European tour with the trio, and I played at some festivals with Blackwell in duet. I don’t know how to describe it: we just had this rapport, this rhythm-thing happening between us, also in the trio, that is a rare thing. I regularly get feedback from listeners of the Crystal Fire CD, even now. Please talk about the man & your memory of him? Blackwell was a man of few words, which were always to the point. There was no small talk with him. And he played that way too: totally crisp and lean, every beat as if it was written in stone since thousands of years. But never any repetition: I never heard him play the same song the same way; he was constantly improvising four-part drum lines. You could hear perfect lines and counter lines, whole songs in his playing. And god was he swinging. I never felt that way with another drummer; I could never replace him when he died. He was a perfectionist. Once I asked in a recording session to do a third take of a song ( we usually recorded two takes: one to get into the song, and one to keep ). He asked why. I said I made a little mistake in the line. His answer: that’s your problem. But then he would smile and play the third take, but his part would sound very different again. "No Man Is An Island" seems a pivotal recording in your career. Both for the large orchestral setting and the crystallization of the concept you call "elemental"............please comment? In “No Man IS An Island”, just like in “Stillpoint” I explore the “sense of space” ( There is also a duet CD with violinist/trombonist Annemarie Roelofs called “Sense of Space), the notes that you don’t need to play in order for them to be heard. Also the experience of “listening to the sounds disappearing”, the opening to a genuine experience of silent space, not just new-agee watery space, I am trying to focus on compositional economy, only playing what absolutely needs to be played. And focus on a balance of pulse, language, form that does not take its cues from stylistic considerations but from more fundamental elements of rhythms, harmonics, dynamics. I work in that same way in a variety of new recordings, with Ingrid Sertso, with John Lindberg, with the project “In the Spirit of Don Cherry” etc. I feel that providing a genuine sense of space and time is one of the most uplifting and healing energies that we as musicians can contribute to a world that feels increasingly cramped and overloaded with work, stimulations, tensions, pressures, pleasures, habitual patterns of many kinds.