Bill Berry – Serious Fun

September 30, 2012

Bill Berry pen/ink drawing

One of the outstanding big bands of the 1970s, Bill Berry’s LA Band was rich in talented soloists, powerful in execution, and dedicated in its approach. Sadly, it was barely recorded although many off-air and private recordings exist and I count myself lucky in having several of these. Officially, only two albums were released, the almost impossible to find vinyl, Hot & Happy (Beez 1), and Hello Rev (Concord Jazz CJ CCD 4023) and the former on Bill’s own label. (One all-too brief track on an Ernestine Anderson CD doesn’t really count.) The CD incarnation of Hello Rev is therefore a ‘must have’ for all lovers of big band jazz at its fiery best. Bill Berry-Hello Rev coverSoloists include Blue Mitchell, Cat Anderson, Jack Sheldon, Jimmy Cleveland, Tricky Lofton, Richie Kamuca, Marshal Royal and Dave Frishberg. Throughout his work, leading big and small bands, playing jazz cornet, composing and arranging, Bill Berry lived and breathed the music of Duke Ellington.  This stemmed from a spell in the early 1960s when he was a member of the Ellington band. When he joined the Ellington band, Bill quickly discovered that much of the magic did not come from notes on paper. Seated in the trumpet section, he looked in vain for his part, finding only a tattered scrap of paper with a few notes scribbled on it. ‘What do I do?’ he asked Cat Anderson. ‘Grab a note and hold on,’ he was told. At the end of the number, Cat leaned over and growled, ‘That was my note.’ Years later, that scrap of paper, carefully framed, hung proudly on the wall of Bill’s study at his North Hollywood home.

Bill’s spell with Ellington coincided with the darkest days of the Civil Rights movement, and sometimes there were problems. Later, Bill would recalls that when touring some parts of the Deep South, as the only white member of the band, he was sent into diners to buy two dozen hamburgers to go, the rest of the band remaining cautiously in the bus. But bad as they sometimes were, the difficulties were outweighed by the musical experience – something that changed his life forever, all for the good, and which he never failed to credit.

Hearing Bill Berry’s big band albums almost matches the awesome experience of encountering the band live. I had this privilege just once, at Carmelo’s, a Los Angeles jazz club. That night, in the late 1970s, the band included Sheldon, Cleveland, and Frishberg, as well as Pete and Conte Candoli, Bob Efford, Jack Nimitz, Monty Budwig, and Frank Capp among a truly star-studded personnel. If only more of my memories were made of mouth-watering evenings like this.

Bill Berry also led small groups and they have fared a little better in the CD age.Bill Berry-Shortcake cover Of these Shortcake (Concord Jazz CJ CCD 4075) also abounds in distinguished soloists, including Marshal Royal, Lew Tabackin, Bill Watrous and Dave Frishberg; additionally it  is marked by ingenious and witty charts.

In the 1990s, Bill Berry and his wife, Betty, organized the Pacific Jazz Party, a richly rewarding trans-oceanic collaboration between musicians from America and Japan. The fine mainstream set, Jazz Party (Jazz Cook JCCD 1003) is one result of this meeting of musical minds. Cornetist Bill co-leads with his counterpart, clarinetist Eiji Kitamura, and they are joined by tenor saxophonist Sam Sadigursky and a pulsating rhythm section that draws from both countries: pianist Kotaro Tsukahara and the veteran bass and drums team of Ray Brown and Jake Hanna. Bill Berry-Capozzoli's coverThen there is Live at Capozzoli’s (Woofy WPCD 54), recorded during a late 1990s Las Vegas club date. The uncommon front line of Bill’s cornet and Jack Nimitz’s baritone saxophone lend interesting textures to a nice selection of numbers, most of which are standards.

A passing thought: although Bill had played trumpet in his early years, for most of his career, he played cornet, preferring the slightly mellower sound and the freedom the instrument gave him to execute fast boppish phrasing. Towards the end of his career, Bill played a Japanese-made instrument that was reshaped to look decidedly un-cornet-like. This confused some; on one occasion an emcee ended an evening by referring to the instrument as a flügelhorn. Bill was too polite to correct this misapprehension. Neither did he trouble interviewers with technical reasons for his choice. When asked by the BBC’s Peter Clayton why he played cornet and not trumpet, Bill answered: ‘As you can see, I am of a somewhat diminutive stature and my arms are too short for a trumpet’ .

Apart from hearing Bill with his own big band during that particular trip to California, I also heard him in the Capp-Pierce Juggernaut and an all-star outfit fronted by Bob Crosby as well as various small groups. Also memorable was his appearance in small and large groups at 1988’s Duke Ellington Conference. And I was happily able to make a few phone calls that helped smooth the way for Bill’s appearance in a playing and acting role in an Alan Plater television drama on British television. In this, he was cast as an American jazzman visiting the UK, but, completely against type, his character was decidedly ill-tempered.

Bill Berry’s death, in November 2002, brought to an end a personal friendship that existed between us for about a quarter-century. I miss Bill, but count myself lucky to have known him and to have heard him play live on many occasions in London and Los Angeles and points in between, including that never-to-be-forgotten night with his mighty big band.

Important in keeping alive memories of this fine jazz musician are the records, all of which exemplify something Bill once observed:

“You can be 100% serious about music, and still have fun.”


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