Jeff Berlin is a world class bass player best known for his work in the jazz/fusion rock field with artists such as: Bill Bruford, Allan Holdsworth, Larry Coryell, John McLaughlin and many others. Having grown up on Long Island in New York, Jeff took up the violin at a young age and studied the instrument through school before switching to the bass. After high school, Jeff enrolled in the prestigious Berklee School of Music in New England. With a solid music backround, Jeff networked himself in the music scene where he would wind up recording on "The Story of I" which was the solo debut record of Yes keyboard player Patrick Moraz. This opportunity led to a successful career and Jeff would wind up playing with many top notch musicians with the likes of: Eddie Van Halen, Frank Zappa, Al Dimeola, Gil Evans, and countless others. Jeff is now working on a tribute album of his bass idol Jack Bruce and has just launched a Pledge Music Campaign for a project called "Songs for a Wailer". I recently chatted with Jeff.
R.V.B. - Hello Jeff, this is Robert von Bernewitz from Long Island New York... how are you today?
J.B. - I'm well. How are you? Where are you on Long Island?
R.V.B. - I'M about 10 minutes outside of Port Jefferson. I can hear the ferry whistle on a calm Sunday morning.
J.B. - That's wonderful... you're very close to the sound.
R.V.B. - It's much more convenient for us to go to the beach on the sound, but you always have the option to go to the ocean. J.B. - In Florida, I'm on the west coast because the east coast is a little bit too Jones "Beachey" to me. The west coast is more of a "sounder", quieter area. It's still on the Gulf of Mexico but it doesn't have the activity that the east coast does. I like that also.
R.V.B. - That is a good analogy. Do you get a lot of thunderstorms where you are?
J.B. - Yes. Where I'm at is the lightning capitol of the world. Pinellas County, where I live... is the lightning capitol of Florida.
R.V.B. - We have family on the west coast, it is nice on that side. Where did you grow up?
J.B. - I was born in Flushing and grew up very early in Jamaica, Queens... Far Rockaway actually. Then I moved to West Hempstead for about 10 years and then moved to Great Neck. Then I went off to Boston to study music, and that was my last time on Long Island. I remember long Island fondly. I sometimes have dreams of living there again. I know it's not as affordable as it used to be.
R.V.B. - It is a little pricy and getting more and more crowded by the day. It's a very populated island and the traffic is tremendous. So you were a Nassau County guy. How did you start with the violin... was your family involved in music?
J.B. - My father was an opera singer. He saw that I had an aptitude for music and put me on the violin at an early age. Thank God he did, because those 10 years in my studies of classical music gave me a great foundation to incorporate the jazz studies that followed... and eventually my own vision of music. I'm very grateful for those violin studies.
R.V.B. - Like everyone else in America, you saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. Was that a life changing experience for you?
J.B. - Well it wasn't, because that show didn't impress me. I had nothing to base it on. I wasn't caught up in the hysteria. I saw 3 guys playing guitars and that wasn't my interest at the time. Later on, as that music became more popular... it absolutely took me over. I wasn't instantly transformed into a guy that wanted to be a bass player or guitar player. That came along a little later.
R.V.B. - How did you migrate to the bass from the violin?
J.B. - It was a matter of practicality for me. The violin is tuned in 5th's... from low to high it goes G - D - A - E. A bass in tuned in 4th's and from low to high E - A - D - G. My thinking was, since the strings are principally named the same, it shouldn't be that hard to play a bass guitar considering the amount of hours that I put in to play the violin. It was a naive, youthful, regard of the instrument. I didn't want to learn how to play an instrument after 10 years of classical studies. I thought that I could just use what I had learned... grab the bass. and function with it quickly. It actually happened. The navigating around the neck came within a few weeks. The bass requirements of that era and the repertoire wasn't very challenging at all. I came along at the right time in music history. I could play the instrument quickly and whatever I heard I could practically play with no rehearsal. It was an interesting time for me. I developed a confidence as a player and I was able to explore deeper into the instrument.
R.V.B. - Did you have a local high school band?
J.B. - Yes I did. I had a band with a couple of guys from high school and we played parties. I was just talking to a bass player that I hadn't been in touch with for almost 50 years. He went to Las Vegas and became Frank Sinatra's and Louie Prima's bass player. We were relating stories about his band and my band and how he was one grade older. I looked up to him as my Influence. His name is Seth Kimble. He was very successful in Las Vegas as a bass player. He influenced me because I got the bass that he played. We played the same repertoire... Rolling Stones, Beatles and whatever was current at the time. The first gig I ever played paid me 6 bucks. Seth laughed and said his first gig paid 5.
R.V.B. - Did you run up and buy some baseball cards?
J.B. - I probably went out and bought a bunch of comic books, candy, and a couple slices of pizza.
R.V.B. - (Hahaha) Did you play violin through school also?
J.B.- I played the violin right through graduation and I was concert master. I was the lead chair in the orchestra AND I was also the 5th chair in the regional orchestra. All and all, I had a very successful amateur violin career.
R.V.B. - How did you find the experience at Berklee?
J.B. - Well at that time, the "Berklee" of my youth was the greatest music school in the world. It is a school that I feel has gone away of a music ethic that it once had. The ethic that it had was 100% based in practicing music... studying with your teacher... playing in ensembles... with reading, jazz, and harmony classes... ear training classes... arranging classes. Ironically, it's that "Berklee" that put me on the course of my belief of music education that I've had for the last 30 or 40 years. I've been un-bendable in regards in the ways to learn. I'm grateful for that school. That school made me.
R.V.B. - Do you still have a school down in Florida?
J.B. - I don't have it anymore. I left that school. It was "The Players School of Music". It's still one of the best little music schools in the country... again because the credo is nothing but music. There is nothing else that is offered to students except music. When I teach privately... it's music. When I do clinics... it's music. The Players School has that same credo. I took the Berklee experience to every area of my life where I may impart information to people. Something that I noticed very clearly is; I was always curious why other guys might not have seen it. There are more opportunities to learn than there have ever been. There are schools... internet lessons... camps... private teachers... magazines... books. There is simply no shortage of information and there's more constantly coming along each week. The unbelievable part is, I see that bass players are having a harder time learning how to play than they ever have. I've come to this conclusion because I've done clinics for a LOOONG, LOOONG time and I noticed a common threat that goes through in clinics, in every country, and in every town, and that's there are bass players mislead by the concepts of modern education and they have nothing to measure the advice that their given against. If somebody tells me to do something... I have 10 years in conservatory training and 3 years of jazz training at the greatest school on earth to compare the suggestions by people who tell me I should practice this or learn that. Today's bass players don't have that benefit. So when they get advice, it sounds good and they say "Sure I'll do it". Ultimately, bass players can't play, can't read music, AREN'T working... but it could all change if they only learned how to learn correctly. I think that flat out vibe I'm getting from musicians that teach is that the advice that they're getting from schools in that the element of being contemporary, teach methods that are popular but in my opinion don't help musicians to play better.
R.V.B. - You mentioned musicians aren't working... do you think file sharing and the internet have an impact on that? In your era, gigs were a lot easier to come by.
J.B. - That's actually a good question. The file sharing thing is precisely why I went with Pledge Music but the file sharing hasn't affected the quality of learning. It's entirely contingent on self taught musicians... all over the world.... dispensing advice on how to play. What the problem is, is that if somebody isn't trained in music and doesn't understand the element of emotion and feeling in music... it always comes to players once they de-mystify the instrument. The advice that they're dispensing... to me... has actually created a problem for bass players, because they believe what they're hearing instead of recognizing that the only two way you get better is by being self taught and learning music. There are no other ways. Self taught means... everything you do for free. Listening to records... trying new amplifiers... playing gigs... practicing in bands... trying new strings... soaking your hands in vinegar juice or putting your fingers in mustard. Eventually you'll probably come to the conclusion that it's not the best thing to do. Anything that you do as a self taught musician, brings you through that experience that can never be taught in school. There's only one other area to learn from and that's the notes... the function... the fact's of music. Education has gone away from that, and it included broad concepts... multi-colored instructions and instructors... smorgasbord approaches. Learning has never been like that. Learning has always been specific and narrow. I feel that bass players in education have lost that narrow vision. I think that it's a shame because I feel that bass players are suffering, although they may not even know it. Ignorance is bliss. You can see I'm pretty passionate about this. It's sort of the blind leading the blind. When I'm trying to get guys to see, it's a tough road.
J.B. - Jack Bruce is the 1st and the greatest. Paul McCartney as well and Tim Bogart from The Vanilla Fudge. Tim Bogart may have recorded the very first rock bass solo in history. I don't think anybody else ever did. Vanilla Fudge did the "Break Song" and Tim Bogart is a legend to me. He's one of the greatest that ever lived. Then later, Stanley Clarke... who became a friend of mine. Jaco Pastorious and Larry Graham with that wonderful approach and deep sound. I'm a big fan of a lot of guys that play.
R.V.B. - It was a natural progression of learning and exploring for you to get out of straight ahead rock and roll and go into a "prog and jazzy" style?
J.B - Yes, my curiosity lead me out of it and recently the "prog rock", or the function of the rhythm section as a bass player, lead me back in as I got older. I have two sort of lives... before therapy and after the therapy. (hahaha) Before therapy was the time where I was coming into my own... hyperactive... and wanting to play everything that I could play in the least amount of time. That could lend some trouble because a lot of guys wanted to hear a bass player and not an experimenting instrumentalist. When that part of my life quieted down and I got more introspective... I picked my spots. So when I was into the "prog rock" thing, it was a perfect time. It was a little window in music history that I lucked out and managed to get into... the fusion bass era. The Jaco, Stanley Clarke, Louis Johnson, Alphonso Johnson... I was there. Jack Bruce by then, wasn't the bass player that he used to be because the music that he played didn't require that. The fusion guys were the kings of bass at that time. I was very fortunate to be one of the guys who shared that era.
R.V.B. - How did you start working your way in as a professional? Did you catch a break? Did you network yourself in the studio? How did that come about?
J.B. - I started up because I was one of a few guys that had a little bit of technical proficiently. In reflecting back on it... what I didn't have was; good time... good tone... good feel... but I sure could play fast. Fortunately, that was accepted in that little window of time. As I learned how to play bass a little more properly, I could pick my spots. It was through Bill Bruford and then later with Alan Holdsworth, that my brand got established and people took a lot more notice of me. I started to do sideman records with a lot of people that you may not heard of. I was flourishing in that period and started my own solo thing. I was so into what I what I wanted to do that I didn't see that I could find other colleagues to start a group and share it. I wanted to find a Ginger Baker and an Eric Clapton so that we could collectively share the fanatical players that we had in our spirit. That didn't happen, so I started my own band and started doing my own gigs.
R.V.B. - I see that you worked with Partick Moraz on "The Story of I". How did you meet him and wind up working on that project?
J.B. - Ray Gomez had first come to America. He and I were playing in a band with Carmine Appice which was one of my very first gigs ever. Ray was friends with Patrick who had just acquired the Yes gig. When Patrick asked Ray if he would play on it... Ray was very forthcoming and kind and said to Patrick "I have a bass player that you really have to use." That became my very first recording. Yes was very big at the time and a lot of people heard that record. I've always lamented from this. I think Alphonse moved on and we both felt that the mix didn't support the band as much as it supported the multitude of keyboards that Patrick had recorded with. I think every musician has that story. When you're a sideman, it's not in your hands. You just accept the way that someone else envisions it to sound. That was my first breakout record and I got a lot of gigs after that record came.
R.V.B. - You mentioned Carmine... I gather that was a local New York gig?
J.B. - It was our little fusion band and that broke up. It was a New York thing and we played "My Fathers Place", and we wrote a few tunes. We had Steve Hill from "Bloodrock" who has sadly just passed away. I was a good enough bass player to really make an impact and I was very flattered. I wore two hats... the guy that's extremely confident and the guy that's extremely unconfident as a bass player. When I played with Carmine I was pretty well received and I was very grateful for that.
R.V.B. - I see that you did some extensive work with Bill Bruford.
J.B. - Yeah. I was in New York at the time. I was a session player because of my ability to read and I started to slow down my hyper crazy bass playing style, and I began to become a studio bass player. I played a lot in New York and New York jazz. I was one of the top guys for some years. Bill Bruford caught wind of me and invited me to play. I'm glad I did because Bill has always been a visionary in my eyes. He's a guy that plays drums technically solid but his sound was his own and his vision was his own. That was a great lesson to me. I learned a lot from being in his company.
R.V.B. - Do you have any performances that were your favorites?
J.B. - You have to hear the members of this group. It was Al Dimeola, Lenny White, Tony Williams, Ray Baretto, Brian Auger, The Brecker Brothers, and me.
R.V.B. - That's a loaded band.
J.B. - That's a helluva band... buddy. I was fairly fresh out of music school. We played in Europe and I was looking around and said "Look at these guys that I happened upon." They could have played with anybody but they hired me.
R.V.B. - When I was a teenager, I saw Brian Auger and the Oblivion Express at the Long Island Arena and I was floored by it.
R.V.B. - How is the Jack Bruce tribute project coming along?
J.B. - This is a project of love. When I was a boy I worshipped him. I got to meet him later in life and we became good friends. The project is coming along in a way that is new for some people. You mentioned earlier, file sharing. I agree with you in the fact that it's a difficult thing for musicians to deal with. I think the concept is that a musician is playing music and doesn't have a right to earn money from his contribution. It's in the air... what do you need to get paid for? File sharing has changed permanently the nature of the music industry today. So for a guy who only plays the bass guitar... what I opted for was to go to a company and invite people that might be fans of mine, or fans of Jack Bruce, or the musicians that I have on the record. They have to buy a CD. The money that they contribute to purchase the product is used to record the product. I only play with the best players that there are. That's my credo. I'm happy when people trust that I'm going to provide them with something that's really slamming because that's exactly my plan. It's Jacks music but I didn't want it to sound like a cover band. I never thought that cover music equaled the original for the most part. The original has always had that heart and that spirit. So knowing that, I just tried to alter the music a little bit, so that it's familiar to people but fresh enough where they say "Wow, this is a new rendition." That's what I'm doing and that's how it's progressing right now.
R.V.B. - I was on the press release that you already have Ginger Baker, Paul Schaefer, Chad Smith and Alan Holdsworth involved?
J.B. - Look at the guys who have done me the honor by agreeing to play. Paul Schaefer is a terrific organ player. He may be known as Letterman's band leader but the man can play. There's a lot of organ in Jack's music. What can you say about Ginger Baker? People sort of reflect on the documentary and his curmudgeonly ways, but let me tell you something about Ginger Baker. A few years ago he was at an event, and he came up to ME! to introduce himself. I have never personally ever dealt with the curmudgeonly, evil guy that I have heard about. I won't dismiss other peoples experiences but I feel like I understand how he works. When you're a fan of Cream, Ginger, Jack and Eric Clapton like I am, you read a lot about these guys. You read their interviews and I'm a sensible guy... I get inside of their words. I know how Ginger feels and acts and I know what to do to not violate his life believes.
J.B. - I did Asia in May for about two weeks and I loved every single second of it. I ended up in places that are capitals and places out in the boonies. Music opens a lot of doors for me. The people were great... the food was great. I did it for Cort guitars because I'm an endorser.
R.V.B. - How is your son doing?
J.B. - My son is 22 and he's been cancer free for 17 years. That's very nice of you to ask. When I often hear of people who have gotten the same kind of cancer that Jason had at 5 years old... I contact them weather they know me or not... and I say "Cancer treatment is exponentially better than it's ever been, since when my son was treated in the late 90's" People survive this more and more and more. I try to support these people because I wasn't sure my son was going to survive it. He did, and he flourished, so it happens. His scare for us, leads he to help other people.
R.V.B. - Thank you very much for taking this time to speak with me and good luck with your Jack Bruce project. We're all looking to hearing the final product.
J.B. - Thank you for the kind words. My interest is to only help, and lift up my instrument and inspire people to do right for themselves. Thanks for the support for the Jack project as well.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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For further information of Jeff Berlin visit his website http://www.jeffberlinbass.com/
For Jeff Berlin's - Jack Bruce project click here http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/jeffberlinplaysjackbruce
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