Interview by Tanya Levy (MGBH)
The talent of Shelly Berg (MGBH), the 21st century jazz pianist, is unique. Like many talented people, he is talented in many things. Throughout his career he equally managed succeed as a jazz musician, an educator, a composer, a music administrator, and an entrepreneur. But most importantly, he succeeded in becoming a man of integrity and character.
PPM: What was your home atmosphere like growing up with the musician father and a writer mother? Would you, please, share some of the your childhood memories of experiences that made you like music?
SB: There was always music playing in my home. My father had a large LP collection, and a large collection of 78rpm recordings. He was both a classical and jazz musician, so the listening palette was large. He began teaching me jazz when I was 11 years old, and we had a lifetime of making music together. My parents loved to entertain and invited touring musicians to parties at our home. Some amazing jazz artists played in my living room when I was a child. In the early years of my jazz piano playing, my father would pull out three small nesting tables and use them as a drum set, teaching me to “leave space” and to be collaborative and attentive in playing music. My mother knew the lyrics to hundreds of pieces from the Great American Songbook and sang them to me in the car, while she was cooking, etc. She instilled in me a contextual way of experiencing music.
PPM: What kind of writer was your mother?
SB: My mother wrote short stories and a novel. Like so many of her day, she was a homemaker, so her writing was never published.
PPM: Please, share with our readers a little bit more about your father. What entrepreneurial activities was he involved in besides being a musician?
SB: My father, Jay Berg (OBM), was a very talented musician. He played principle French horn in the Camp Pendleton Marine Band during WW2 and played jazz trumpet with many legends, including Charlie Parker and Sonny Stitt. After he married my mother, he decided to make music his avocation and embarked on a business career. He had a successful aluminum siding businesses in Cleveland. When that market became saturated, he moved the family to the Texas Gulf Coast. He invented a foundation pier for homes that were sinking in the Texas clay, and he remained in that business for the rest of his life.
PPM: Did any of your siblings play an instrument? What do they do now?
SB: I was the lone musical sibling. My eldest brother was a brilliantly talented visual artist who tragically passed away in 1990. My next oldest brother has had a varied career in business, and my younger sister is a prominent entertainment attorney in Los Angeles.
One week, after not practicing for a few days after my lesson, I forgot the keys my teacher had played in. At the following lesson, I played the assigned pieces, but in the wrong keys. Subsequently my parents took me to the Cleveland Institute of Music, and I was accepted at 6 into a gifted program, which included private lessons, solfege, and theory.
PPM: At what point was it decided that you needed to take special instruction with Maxine Priest? What did she give you as a teacher?
SB: By the time I was four years old, I had discovered the piano, and I instinctively knew how to play it. One day, my parents overheard me playing the then popular song, “Alley Cat,” by ear with both hands. I was started in piano lessons when I was five, but the teacher failed to recognize I was playing entirely by ear. One week, after not practicing for a few days after my lesson, I forgot the keys my teacher had played in. At the following lesson, I played the assigned pieces, but in the wrong keys. Subsequently my parents took me to the Cleveland Institute of Music, and I was accepted at 6 into a gifted program, which included private lessons, solfege, and theory. Maxine Priest was my teacher for the next 10 years. She began my education in earnest, including etudes (such Czerny op. 299 and 740) and a wide variety of repertoire. She was a very nurturing teacher, and instilled in me a confidence that music could be my life.
PPM: Let’s talk a little bit about your other childhood passion – baseball. Was that an alternative professional choice or just a hobby? Was there a time when you had to decide between baseball and music? Do you still play baseball?
SB: I was a good baseball player in my childhood and spent more time in childhood summers with baseball than I did with music. I developed an ability as a batter to put the ball in play and almost never struck out as I progressed through the various levels of little league and high school ball. In fact, in my year of Pony League, I never struck out al all. BUT, as much as I loved the sport, I would never have made it to professional baseball, because my talent was not at that level. If I see anyone playing baseball or throwing the ball around I still want to join in!
PPM: When you were 12, your father started teaching you jazz standards and exposing you to jam sessions. Do you remember your first impression of being with a bunch of men playing jazz?
SB: I remember very well the first time I played at an adult jam session with my father. I was 13 years old. I got kicked off the stand! I wasn’t ready. As I sulked in a corner, the drummer came over and said to me, “Son, you’re going to be fine. You only need one thing . . . mileage.” Over the next year I worked very hard to acquire that mileage and grew to be accepted at jam sessions. We moved to Houston when I was almost 16, and my father took me to a jam session with a Texas saxophone legend Arnett Cobb (OBM). We arrived early, and I began to play solo piano. During the song other musicians arrived, and as I told my mother later that night, I heard the “whoosh” of great musicians coming in behind me. It was the biggest thrill I had up to that time in music. I’ll never forget the exhilaration, and it is a something I still experience today.
PPM: When was your first public performance? Do you remember the feeling of first performing in public?
SB: My very first public performance was playing “Lavender’s Blue” at my teacher’s studio recital. My feet didn’t reach the floor yet. I felt a very strong connection to music even then. I remember that it began my 30-year quest to overcome stage anxiety. Today, one of the most important aspects of teaching for me is helping students enter a beautiful, anxiety-free space when they play.
Jam sessions are an important right of passage for jazz musicians.<..> The joy of playing jazz is the collaboration – the musical moments that feel telepathic. It is indescribably wonderful to be “in the zone” with other accomplished jazz artists.
PPM: What does a jam session mean to a jazz player? Is it inclusive or exclusive? Do musicians invite whoever is good or is it a cliquish activity? How are the players selected/invited?
SB: Jam sessions are an important right of passage for jazz musicians. As I explained earlier, if you are not ready, they will send you “back to the woodshed.” If you are ready, it is not cliquish at all. The joy of playing jazz is the collaboration – the musical moments that feel telepathic. It is indescribably wonderful to be “in the zone” with other accomplished jazz artists.
PPM: What was the most important thing you learned from Albert Hirsch (OBM), your mentor?
SB: I could write a book about things I learned from my greatest mentor, Albert Hirsh. When I was 17, I played for Rudolph Serkin (OBM), and he asked me who I studied with. When I told him, he said, “There is no greater teacher than Albert Hirsch, and everyone should study with him.” Albert had an uncanny ability to find simple solutions to issues of technic and execution. He was also a master interpreter and helped me learn subtleties in approaching Haydn (OBM), as compared to Mozart (OBM), or Mozart as compared to Beethoven (OBM), etc. He was such a complete and compelling pianist himself that I worked even harder, simply knowing what was possible through his example.
PPM: While in college, you played in a band six nights a week, to help support your family. What was that experience like and how did the things you learned translate into having your own band after you graduated?
SB: I had a dual education and learned as much in the evenings as I did in college. Larry Martinez (MGBH) was the leader of the band I played in, and he was another great mentor. Martinez is a world-class trumpeter, and the quality of the music we made was of utmost importance to him. But he also understood that there is always an audience, and if they aren’t excited to hear you again, you’ve missed a golden opportunity. I learned from Larry that “entertainment” is not a dirty word, and it is possible to entertain an audience without pandering. Classical and Jazz musicians sometimes forget that fact, but my saying is, “It is never the audience’s fault if they are not captivated by my performance.”
I learned from Larry that “entertainment” is not a dirty word, and it is possible to entertain an audience without pandering. Classical and Jazz musicians sometimes forget that fact, but my saying is, “It is never the audience’s fault if they are not captivated by my performance.”
PPM: Your first teaching job at Jacinto College…. Although you stayed there for only two years, seems like you did a lot for their music program. Among many other things, you directed a Jazz band, which became one of the top bands in the country. You created Music Business and recording arts program that is still there. Why teaching at college, which is somewhat restricting vs. pursuing a full-time career of a jazz musician?
SB: I was actually at San Jacinto College for twelve years, the first two at the North Campus and the remaining ten at the Central Campus. As a dean now, I would have to hire four professors to do what I did at San Jacinto, which included directing the athletic band, concert, band, and jazz band, while teaching courses in theory, ear training, music business, jazz improvisation, and about a dozen private students each semester. I am very proud of the nationally prominent program we built, and along the way I learned so much that I use today. I have always loved teaching, and had my first private student when I was 15. In my undergraduate years I was a student conductor of university orchestra and choirs, and I was subsequently awarded a teaching assistantship in Music Theory and Composition for graduate study. By the time I obtained my Master’s Degree, I was 23 years old, and had two children. I knew I didn’t want to play every night for a living, so I applied for and was given the job at San Jacinto College. It is now my 39th year in higher education!
PPM: We know that besides being a jazz performer and an educator, you have developed a successful commercial jingles career. How did you get into it? Where you still in Texas or did you already move to Los Angeles?
SB: Raising a family is expensive! When my children were young, I had a band that played over 100 events a year, including wedding receptions, bar mitzvahs – you name it. I wrote my first jingle when I was 20 years old, for a local wedding photographer. Throughout the next fifteen years I continued to develop writing clients, and I had moved up to national jingles by the time I moved to Los Angeles in 1991. In LA I met the late Dick Marx (OBM), who was the country’s undisputed king of jingles. Dick took me under his wing, and together we wrote not only jingles, but also album orchestrations, television themes, and movie orchestrations and scoring.
Bill taught me that the one note that will never be forgotten is infinitely more valuable than a stream of virtuosity.
PPM: In 1986 you started working with Bill Watrous (MGBH), a jazz trombonist. What was that collaboration like? What are some of your memorable travel performance memories with him?
SB: My greatest jazz mentor, after my father is Bill Watrous, who I spent twenty years with. Bill is one of the few greatest trombonists ever. His sound and technique inspired a generation of followers. As I played with him more and more, I realized that behind the dazzling display was a lyricism as great as any I’d heard. Bill taught me that the one note that will never be forgotten is infinitely more valuable than a stream of virtuosity. Bill and I played all over the world, most memorably at some big jazz festival Like Montreux and North Sea. Before every concert Bill would look at me and say “who gets the brass ring tonight?” which was his way of challenging me to bring my “A game” every time. At the end of each performance, we would usually agree which one of us earned the brass ring. I would not be who I am today without Bill.
PPM: Please, tell us about your first jazz album.
SB: As I said earlier, I had a “casual” band when my children were young, and although I practiced a great deal, I was not seriously contemplating a jazz career. By my late 30’s I was overdue to record my own project. A great bassist, Lou Fischer (MGBH), and an equally great drummer, Randy Drake (MGBH) also toured with Bill Watrous, and we had developed a rapport. Through Lou, I began to play with another fabulous drummer, Steve Houghton (MGBH). It was decided that we would do a trio project with Lou on bass, and Houghton and Drake splitting the drum chair. A few years earlier, I was a finalist in the “Great American Jazz Piano Contest”, and that was during my “stage fright” days. I was very worried that I would suffer debilitating anxiety at that competition, on national television! So, I wrote a song for my three children and put their picture on the pin bloc of the piano where only I could see. As a result, I wasn’t nervous, and I had discovered one of the secrets to escaping performance anxiety. I named that song, “The Joy”, and it is the title of my first album.
PPM: When did you start writing for TV and film?
SB: When I met Dick Marx (MGBH) in Los Angeles, we worked together to pursue TV and film writing. We had so much fun, and Dick became another of my valued mentors. One of our shows, “Fudge” (ABC), became the #1 program on Saturday mornings, and we worked on several other TV projects and major studio films. Dick had great success in the jingle business, and was very wise. Whenever I would agonize over a musical decision, he would say, “Will your new idea sell another Pop Tart? If not, you probably already have what you need.” I tried so hard not to make in error in score writing. When I felt my score was perfect I would bring it to Dick. Hearing it in his head, he would make comments like, “Oh, this is great, very interesting, etc.” We never got through a score without him saying something like, “Isn’t this note supposed to be F natural.” He was uncanny.
In writing for TV and film, I learned how to deal with a multitude of competing opinions, while navigating the politics of an industry.
PPM: In 2005, after you started composing for jazz trio, you released your second CD called “Blackbird,” which reached #1 on jazz radio and stayed there for eight weeks, which means, people liked it. What was it like working on this album?
SB: “Blackbird” was magic to me. I booked two days in the studio with Chuck Berghofer (MGBH) on bass, Gregg Field (MGBH) on drums, and my long-time engineer collaborator, Les Williams (MGBH). There were no expectations. I brought in a bunch of charts, some of them to original songs, and we picked the ones we liked best. The album felt easy to make because we got into that “zone” that athletes and musicians talk about. We weren’t overthinking, because we weren’t trying to make a “successful” recording. We just wanted to play and collaborate. There is a lesson in that experience.
PPM: Between 1994 and now, you did over a dozen of album orchestrations. What does this type of work entail?
SB: I have done many dozens of album orchestrations in the last twenty years. I have been privileged to work with artists who I admire greatly, including Gloria Estefan, The Count Basie Orchestra, Renee Fleming, Steve Miller, Chicago, Richard Marx, Dionne Warwick, Carole King, Kurt Elling, and many others. I even did a record with KISS.
I love orchestrating, which is very much like being an accompanist. My first responsibility is to get inside the head of the artist and to feel what they are feeling. If I do my job well, my orchestration will inspire the artist to her or his most compelling performance. I believe that the introduction of an orchestration should transport the performer and listener into the emotion of the song.
PPM: Please, tell our readers about the Jazz Cruise.
SB: I am the Musical Director of The Jazz Cruise, which is arguably the World’s best seven days of jazz each year. There are over 100 of the greatest jazz artists, and 2,000 fans onboard. Four venues are programmed day and night, and many of the shows feature combinations of artists that can only be seen on the cruise. It is the one week of the year when I am not a music school dean, I am solely a jazz pianist.
PPM: What does your jazz pianist life look like today?
SB: My life as a pianist today is very fulfilling. I don’t have an agent or manager, because I am fortunate to be asked to perform as much as I can handle with my career at the Frost School of Music. My performances cover a wide range, from jazz clubs to festivals and performing arts centers. I am equally happy to accompany a great artist as to perform in my own project. For instance, lately Steve Miller and I have been producing “Jazz Meets Blues” shows at Lincoln Center. I have been privileged to perform in the last few years at the White House, Hollywood Bowl, Royal Albert Hall, the Apollo Theater, etc. I’m having fun!
PPM: Please, tell us a little bit about your children. What are they like and what life paths are they on?
SB: I have three children in their 30’s (Lindsay, Kyle and Ashlyn) and a stepson (Dylan) who is 27. I also have two grandchildren (Jackson who is 14, and Noelle who is 12) and another grandchild on the way. Jackson and Noelle are both musicians. If I could never play a note again, I would derive infinite happiness from who my children are and how they lead their lives. They are happy, successful, and compassionate.
PPM: What do you like about living in Miami vs. Los Angeles? Are there times you miss LA?
SB: Miami has been an amazing experience for my wife, Julia and me. By the way, Julia is my muse, and my music changed profoundly after we met. Miami is very diverse and very open. It feels easy to meet anyone, and the mix of cultures is inspiring. If I hadn’t moved to Miami, I wouldn’t have met Gloria and Emilio Estefan. They have become dear friends and collaborators. I love LA as well, and am fortunate to be there regularly to perform, record and connect with old friends.
PPM: What are your hobbies?
SB: My life doesn’t allow much time for hobbies besides music. When I have free time, I want to practice! I am a runner, and try to run at least three times per week. I also love to snow ski, but haven’t gone in four years.
PPM: What do you usually do on Sundays?
SB: I don’t have a Sunday routine. If I am in the middle of a composing or orchestrating project (which is most of the time), I have to work when I am not at the Frost School. My writing sessions are often very late at night or very early in the morning. So, a free Sunday for writing is a welcome day! If I don’t have a writing project, and I am not on the road, Sunday is very special. I can read the entire New York Times by the pool, take a long run and spend relaxed time with Julia.
PPM: How did becoming a grandfather affect you as a human being?
SB: I don’t think becoming a grandfather has changed me. I have had such wonderful and close relationships with my children that becoming a grandfather has felt like an extension of that. The joy of being a grandfather is that it has widened the world of love in my life.
PPM: Let’s focus on the topic of your TEDx Miami talk, which I found very interesting and, I hope, our readers will do to. What is its main idea? (* We will include the video of the talk in our “Amazing Videos” section as well as on the bottom of the interview).
SB: MY TEDx talk has two central ideas. First, music is an example of how we learn. We strive to master the techniques of anything we do, whether piano, sports, math, speech, or any other endeavor. Then, we naturally think that the world wants to see a display of our “prowess.” My point is that it is our “intent” that truly resonates with others, and technique gives us the tools to express intent. The last point of my TEDx talk has to do with what music teaches us about life. As a musician, I must tap into the original inspiration of a piece, so that I fall in love with it anew with each performance. If we can transfer that approach to our relationships and life situations, then we have found the secret to life. If every time I say, “I love you” to Julia feels like the first time, then our love will be infinitely renewing.
The last point of my TEDx talk has to do with what music teaches us about life. As a musician, I must tap into the original inspiration of a piece, so that I fall in love with it anew with each performance. If we can transfer that approach to our relationships and life situations, then we have found the secret to life.
Enjoyed the interview? Please, consider donating a small amount to the author to express your appreciation.