Saxophone giant, Jerry Bergonzi is known not only as a highly-influential saxophonist, referred to by Michael Brecker as “the best tenor player in the world”, but also as one of the great saxophone and jazz educators of our time, currently teaching at the New England Conservatory of Music. Establishing himself early in his career with a stint playing in Dave Brubeck’s band, he’s gone on to perform at jazz festivals and venues all over the world, and featured on over 60 recordings, including his own classic album on Blue Note, Standard Gonz.
This special Q & A comes to us via a list of questions submitted by two members of the Danish Radio Big Band saxophone section, Karl-Martin Almqvist and Hans Ulrik, and their students, Donatas Petreikis and Oleksandr Kolosii.
Q: You were part of the “loft sessions” in New York. The story goes that players like you, Liebman, Brecker, and other now-famous saxophonists would jam and sometimes play drums. Can you talk a little about this? And would you consider these sessions “practicing” together, and who else was a part of this?
A: My first loft was on 6th Ave. between 27th and 28th. I split the rent with Art Barron who was on the road with Duke Ellington most of the time. The rent was $150 a month, which we split. You could play music 24 hours a day. Bill Washer lived the floor above us and he had a shower that worked.
We had no kitchen but we ate out every day at cheep restaurants or buy food that wouldn’t go bad. In the winter I put food on the window sill outside because we didn’t have a fridge. After 6 months I moved to another loft on West 27th st. between 6th and 7th avenues. The rent was $250 a month but the upgrade was amazing. A toilet, shower, hot plate and a mini fridge. A mechanic, Martin lived on the second floor and Rick Kilburn lived on the first. We played sessions practically everyday. I bought a set of 1962 Round Badge Gretch drums, cymbals, and hardware for $125.
During those days, Steve Grossman, Greg Herbert, Stele Slagle, Joe Lovano, Billy Drews, Paul Moen, Eric Turkell, Mike Brecker, Bob Berg, Dave Liebman, Bob Mintzer, and many more would come by and play. I would invite one person and they would tell someone else who told another, and there would be five saxophone players a bass player and drummer. Sometimes I played drums.
Brecker had his loft on 17th street. and he played drums sometimes. I remember practicing with Mike Brecker where he played drums and I played tenor or visa versa. Chip White had a loft under Mike’s and we could always hear him practicing vibes although drums were is primary instrument. We got to try all kinds of things at the sessions with feedback from our peers – a learning experience that was amazing.
Q: Can you name some teachers or players that you worked with that made an especially powerful impact on you as an artist?
A: There weren’t any jazz teachers that I knew of when I grew up. Joe Viola was my saxophone teacher and he was amazing. He played piano too and we would play tunes together. Joe playing piano and I played saxophone. For lessons, I worked on etudes that he gave me. He transposed on alto and I played tenor. He never made a mistake had a great sound and perfect intonation. To this this day, I think of all the things he told me. He is my guru. I called people to study improvisation but had no luck getting anyone. I called Wayne Shorter once, but he declined.
I played along with records every day and tried to figure out what I could practice to get better. I am still trying to figure it out.
Q: Some players stick to one setup for years, some change gear all the time – do you have any thoughts on this?
A: I am one those people who is always searching for the right sound – mouthpiece sound and articulation. Having said that, I hear a sound in my head and try to get something that gets me close to it.
Q: Could you tell more about your breath exercises you do without the saxophone?
A: I practice long tones in my head. I imagine how deep, dark, bright, present, centered, spread, the sound is, and how much it projects. Another part is what it feels like to play. Is it resistant, free blowing. etcetera. You have to hear a good sound to get one. the right technique, instrument, and mouthpiece is just the first step. It all takes shape internally.
Q: Can you share your approach to practicing voice leading?
A: I have voice leading exercises that I give to students, like get to the 9th of every chord at the beginning of each measure, or the 3rd, 5th, 11th, etcetera. I have so many different approaches that it would take me too long to articulate.
Q: Can you share some advice on how you developed such outstanding freedom of thinking in terms of harmony?
A: Playing piano and studying modern harmony is what helps me. Trial and error. I try so many different approaches and play the ones that I like. There is no right or wrong. It is all a matter of taste.
Q: What do you think or feel about today’s jazz music?
A: I love the music that is happening today. It is very different as it is becoming taught in universities all over the world. My students tell me they are using my methods in China, Australia, Japan, Europe, and all over the US. The new student knows so much more that we did at their age. It is all available to them online. We had to figure it out ourselves. If someone knew something, they sure as hell weren’t going to tell you.
Q: Do you think the skill level on sax players has changed over the years? If so, how?
A: Because of information, the skill level is amazing. The long and short of it is everyone has something to say. What took years to figure out takes less time now, but the life experience of playing and getting deep still takes time. Music is the master and we are all the students.
Q: Where jazz is heading in 21 century?
A: A mix of classical, electronic, and latin music.
Q: How do you spend your time during lockdown? Was it depressing or inspirational?
A: I love lockdown. Peace and solitude to delve into your inner sound. Totally inspirational.
Q: Do you feel impact of lockdown on your compositions? And if so, what is different?
A: I have spent the last year going over all my compositions and tweaking them. Sometimes changing a melody note, chord or rhythm. Compositions are living sounds and they change over time, or when the person changes the composition changes. Change is the only game in town.
Make sure to look out for Jerry’s release on June 18, 2021, The Modern Jazz Trio with Jerry Bergonzi..
You can check out two preview tracks here:
You can check out Jerry’s most recent album at https://jerrybergonzi.lnk.to/Standard.
Recorded at Jazzhus Dexter, Odense, March 10th 2020
Jerry Bergonzi – Tenor sax
Carl Winther – Piano
Johnny Åman – Bass
Anders Mogensen – Drums