On a clammy summer afternoon in Chicago, Downbeat met with cornetist Josh Berman at his apartment in the bleak West Town district of the City. Teeming with life’s essentials- books and records (including impressive stacks of vintage vinyl)- Berman’s boho pad is clearly geared toward music practice and artistic contemplation.

Because it’s cooler in there the kitchen has become an ad hoc rehearsal space. Stacks of CDs of various persuasions from Doo Wop to Ornette Coleman, Betty Carter and Cecil Taylor populate a makeshift table in front of a music stand on which ancient etudes, a book of trumpet calisthenics and sheaves of compositions by Warne Marsh are gathered at the ready, perhaps material Berman has in mind for his regular Monday trio gig at The Old Town Ale House. “I like the discipline of playing standards every week, though it’s not my main bag,” admits Berman, who has risen as a salient voice on the improv/creative music scene, as a sideman sessioneer, leader, booker and general catalyst and abettor.

Looking like 50s era Dave Brubeck in blackrimmed spectacles, Berman is a no-nonsense type, committed, intense; not likely to suffer fools- least of all himself. The latter comment is quickly evident when discussing his patchy development as a musician.

The grandson of a hardworking Maywood paint store owner, things were expected of Berman growing up, without undue pressure to join the family business. A formative exposure to music came from the cantor at his local synagogue, later through hip high school humanities teacher Richard Kamka who provided him with an “aesthetic base.” Then a beatnik school pal turned him on to Miles Davis, who’s solos Berman quickly learnt to sing and therefore assumed he’d be able to play.

But it wasn’t until Berman was nineteen that playing an instrument gelled as a semi-serious option. Into the nouvelle vague of French cinema and imagining himself the next Chris Marker, he began art school studies at Columbia College, getting a grounding in drawing, painting and film editing, pulled towards progressive elements. A defining moment occurred however, when dorm chum and nascent no-wave/free improv nonpareil, Weasel Walter, inveigled him into his band of fledgling “non-musicians.”

After jamming with Walter, Berman confesses he became a bit square due to an interest in actually “learning to play jazz” as it were; he figured he was getting away with murder thanks to an attentive ear and a skill for bluff and arty displacement. Berman lasted a couple semesters at art college, then left to intern with Walter who was sound mixing at non-for-profit performance space Southend Music Works.

“That was amazing,” recalls Berman “I got to hear Fred Anderson, Douglas Ewart, the first time Brötzmann and Hamid Drake performed together…” But it was the proximity of two particular shows in 1991, by Lester Bowie and Paul Smoker, that proved revelatory.

“Bowie was with George Gruntz at the Chicago Jazz Festival and he and Ray Anderson stopped by for an afterfest jam at SEMW. It flipped my shit- he was so stylish, funny and had such power and presence,” remembers Berman, who was equally impressed with Smoker. “Smoker had another energy, a propelled freedom, more frantic, lots of notes, but still the blues was detectable.” An air of confidence and initial focus followed by unpremeditated invention drew Berman to Smoker’s style and he began emulating the onstage gesticulations of Bowie and Smoker.

As his mission clarity grew, Berman proactively sought professional guidance but was crestfallen when hardbop trumpeter Brad Goode had him envisage a decade grinding at the millstone before he could count himself a player. “I didn’t understand there was such a thing as an embouchure,” admits Berman with masochistic bashfulness.

 

Goode suggested Tom Talman, jazz director at College of Du Page, would screw his head on straight. Berman learned a lot from Talman but still felt like a late starter, a long stretch shy of the money.

He sidetepped, gaining a degree in Social Work from Western Illinois University in Macomb, a decision that probably didn’t infuriate his social worker mother. But within days of hitting WIU he met music faculty Dr. John Murphy who streamlined Berman’s work ethic, made him more efficient, ultimately directing him to classical trumpet professor Bruce Briney, who took him on “as a project,” as Berman puts it.

Berman’s assiduous curiosity for what was out there, what the benchmarks were, held his ego in check. Future heavies on the Chicago scene and beyond, including drummer Chad Taylor, seemed to dig his playing, but Berman still saw himself as a charlatan. He’d sniffed around the Jazz Record Mart as a teenager and one day writer Peter Kostakis gave him a cassette of Dave Douglas’ “Tiny Bell Trio.” “It was another life changer,” says Berman, “this was before Douglas broke out. The history of free jazz trumpet was evident, the gestural elements, the spatters and spits, but there was something fancy and legitimate underneath Douglas’ playing, a genuine virtuosity.” Again Berman felt the need for reappraisal, “If not directly via the Haydn concerto, I felt I’d actually need to learn to play this instrument if I wanted more choices.”

Becoming an employee of the Jazz Record Mart, the world’s largest store of its kind, inevitably bred Berman as a gangster pedant about a wide swath of the music. The dichotomy of the JRM’s sister concern the Delmark label, with its simultaneous traditional and avant garde specialisms also gave him conceptual perspective. Just as Picasso forged into the avant garde through primitivism, Berman realized that Ornette had come through a lot of music to arrive at his sound. “I read in a Ben Ratliff interview that Ornette had even checked cantorial singer Yossele Rosenblatt,” he points out.

Berman’s merciless misgivings about his playing are adversely proportional to his analytical intelligence which becomes emphatically obvious when, checking YouTube clips on the laptop in his kitchen, we dig deeper into his passion for early jazz pioneers.

I had had a jazz epiphany after witnessing Rex Stewart perform alongside Henry Red Allen and Pee Wee Russell in a film Delmark’s Bob Koester once showed. Berman and I revisited the clip and my original impression was confirmed, but I was less fascinated by Stewart’s statement of the melody to Ellington’s “Morning Glory” (a Berman favorite) until Berman mimicked Stewart’s articulations for me on his cornet, illustrating in syntax, musically and figuratively, what makes his placement of beat and breath special.

“The sense of rhythm from those days is so distant from us now,” he avers, “how they conceived of time, because it was before Max Roach.It is so foreign to players now, or even what Lee Morgan or Freddie Hubbard were doing; it’s not about gliding over the head to Confirmation.” Although Berman claims he telescoped back to earlier jazz because it was simpler to analyse, it is clear that primal elements resonate with him as readily as the then contemporary patina of Ellingtonian sophistication.

Listening to Ruby Braff play “Thou Swell” Berman can’t resist putting the cornet to his mouth, stressing how Braff “throws out” his phrases, in the Armstrong manner for sure, but somehow differently. “Even when these guys play tribute to their heroes, it’s altered. Braff borrows from Louis but there is an off-kilter phrase, a turn here, a leap there; he is a character, in message and in action. It may sound postmodernist but when something genuine has been removed from its context and placed in a new context, it’s attractive.”

That last statement Berman savors in particular with reference to his chief musical beacon, who, tellingly, wasn’t a trumpet player. It remains one of Berman’s deepest regrets that he didn’t fulfill a dream to play with soprano saxist Steve Lacy. He would even have chased a place at the New England Conservatory to have studied with Lacy. But he has studied with him, through absorption of Lacy’s book of recommendations “Findings” and close listening to his exhaustive collection of the late saxist’s recordings.

Berman flips on the amplifier in the musical nerve center that doubles as his kitchen. It’s Lacy on “Remember,” from the 1957 Prestige album Gil Evans & Ten. “This was the first solo I transcribed,” says Berman. “I love what Lacy admitted about the session. He was surrounded by veteran session guys and they had to keep retaking his solo on ‘Just One Of Those Things’, yet Evans liked what he heard in Lacy. It’s a lesson in getting through what is required yet still being free.”

Berman stresses Lacy’s stylistic timelink, how he started playing Dixie, then became an aficionado of Monk and beyond. We listen to “Ella Speed” from the same album, “You see how that sounds like an authentic Sidney Bechet passage?” insists Berman “and yet the context has shifted. You sense you know where it is going, but who know’s where it will end up?”

This sound of surprise is key to a likeminded group of thirty something visionaries that came up with Berman in Chicago, including drummers Mike Reed and Frank Rosaly, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, trombonist Jeb Bishop, tenorist/clarinettiest Keefe Jackson and bassists Anton Hatwich and Jason Roebke.

Jackson and Berman became joined at the hep as soon as they began playing together and fostered a collective attitude that led to the development of the Fast Citizens sextet, which has recorded twice for Delmark, once under Jackson’s name (Ready Everyday DE 571 2006) and more recently under Oakland-based altoist Aram Shelton’s leadership (Two Cities, DE 590, 2009).

For an instance of Berman’s uninhibited expression check his gasping Lester Bowie sanctioned schmears at the close of “the Twenty-Seven” from Two Cities.

Despite Several Lights, with tubaist Mark Unternährer, Jackson and Rosaly, under the banner of the Chicago Luzern Exchange (Delmark DE-561 2005), which was a taxonomical triumph of improvisational conceits, it wasn’t until last year, and a couple dozen side sessions later (with everybody from The Lucky 7s, to Adasiewicz’s Rolldown quintet; glam-rock maverick Bobby Conn and alt-country singer Steve Dawson), that Berman finally released a record of his own.

Consistent with his young fogey streak, he called the record “Old Idea,” much as he dubbed another project “Josh Berman and his Gang” as a nod to the Austin High Gang, the group of Westside musicians, including cornettist Jimmy McPartland, who originated Chicago style jazz in the 1920s. The wry self-effacement of “Old Idea” notwithstanding, the music therein is fresh and porous, structures designed with flexibility as the core of conceptual strength. Delmark agreed to release the record as a record i.e. in twelve inch vinyl format as well as CD, at Berman’s request. This Luddite call is one of the charms of the association with Bob Koester’s resolutely unglamorous label but also telescopes back to Berman’s artiness which he attributes to kinship with his paternal grandmother, who was a painter. “It’s an investment in the Future of the Object,” he claims with gravitas, since from every angle, he, Adasiewicz and drummer/engineer Nori Tanaka wanted “the experience of ‘making a record’ inclusive of tape machines, vintage mics in an electrical studio, the cutting of the vinyl.”

In the age of instant digital downloads, where artwork is optional, Berman and his comrades have made a stand for an allusive artform for the more discerning palate, rejecting comfort zones, and they’ve arrived there through uncompromising dedication. Berman and Reed, for example, have promoted the Emerging Improvisers Series at the Hungry Brain every Sunday night for ten years now, hosting local, national and international acts, offering haven to any serious start-ups or stalwarts on the creative music map, and together with Mitch Cocanig at the Hideout, Dave Rempis at Elastic and Mike Orlove from the Chicago Cultural Center have expanded what they began as the Phrenology Festival at the Brain into the wider-arching Umbrella Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music, which each Fall has become one of the most important events of its kind, anywhere.

 

Like Chicago’s legendary AACM, of which Reed is currently vice chair, strength has been forged through collective unity amongst marginal musicians supported by a humble but dependable venue like the Hungry Brain. Perhaps by coincidence Berman the accidental scholar of sociology has helped foster a microsociological model in Chicago avant jazz, one where a clutch of singular voices are invited to commune.

As Berman recounts multifarious aggregations and alliances, he has a soft spot for a group that never recorded anything substantial, Andiamo (which included saxist Jon Doyle and bassist Joel Root, who both left Chicago). He remembers they were hard on themselves, laboring under that peculiar jazz disease of never quite feeling worthy, yet how unwittingly burning they probably were.

Counter to his naturally bazorgt sensibility, it’s amusing to note how Berman’s self-motivated journey has led his playing back to the sporadically outrageous high art precepts that were always there, how savvy and cunningly erudite he’s been

all along.

The glories of hindsight.

Originally published in DownBeat Magazine, October 2010