An Interview With Jerry Bergonzi

By Paul Haar 

Photo credits: Justin Mohling

"When I listen to a record I’ve made, I don’t hear me…I just hear music."

We use words in strange ways these days.  How can you “love” a car wax or “worship” a pasta sauce?  Likewise the term “master” is commonly thrown about like participation medals at a junior soccer club. Yet every so often we witness a talent that not only deserves the term “master, they define it. Such is the case with Jerry Bergonzi.  I first encountered Jerry as a student.  He brought me down to size in a private lesson when told me, “You can’t be a player if you don’t know your chords and scales.  It’s like a painter who doesn’t know what color is.”  It was a tough lesson to learn from someone you idolized, but he did it in such a spiritual way that it made me want to practice and discover rather than go lick my wounds. As a an educator I have had the pleasure of bringing him to our campus (The University of Nebraska-Lincoln) to work with our students. Seldom can I remember a figure who ignited the student body and faculty with their humanity, kindness and raw brilliance.  As you will discover in this interview, there is Zen-like quality about the tenor master.  There exists a peace and awareness that defies the fire and brimstone tenor playing that he's known for.  Underneath everything is a sense of love and humor that commonly manifests itself in a signature Cheshire-cat grin. He is instantly likable and like the great players that served as his inspiration Jerry Bergonzi is singular, identifiable and unique.  



The Saxophonist:  How did you first get involved playing the saxophone?


Jerry Bergonzi: One day these people came by my school, when I was about 8 years old, and they gave us a music aptitude test. They played a low note on the piano and then they played a high note on the piano. Then they asked, “Was the second note higher or lower than the first one?” Well, about half of us got it right and according to them we were all musically gifted (laughter). They wanted us to play instruments, so they asked what I wanted to play.  I wanted to play trumpet. The guy looks at me and says, “Well according to the test you are better suited to play the clarinet.” I don’t…I guess they were looking to add more clarinets to their marching band or something…I don’t know. So I hounded my mother for months to get me a clarinet. So, she finally broke down and bought me this $14 U.S. Army clarinet….you know…the metal ones?  So, that’s how I started.  My uncle lived upstairs and he was a jazz musician who played trombone, bass and guitar. So, he would write out little jazz solos and little heads for me to play. So from an early age I started listening to jazz.

TS:  So your first involvement with jazz was through your uncle?


JB:  MMMM….well…kind of. I don’t recall. I mean I remember the first solos he had me play were Sidney Bechet solos on clarinet. Across the street was a record shop so I went there and bought  my first record…it was a Lester Young record. I don’t know why I was interested in jazz. I guess it could possibly be him….I don’t remember…I have just always been interested in it (jazz). 

TS:  Who has influenced you as a player?  Either as mentors or as a young player growing up?  I realize this could be an extensive list.

Photo Credit:  Justin Mohling

JB:  Yeah…it is an extensive list.  At the age of about 13 years old, a friend of mine who plays trumpet, Miles Donahue, came by my house with a Miles Davis record (Steaming with the Miles Davis Quintet) and then there was a Sonny (Rollins) record and an Art Blakey record…it was a TOTAL AWAKENING!!! I could give you a list but its not a prioritized list…one is not greater than another in my opinion…they are all…SIMPLY….GREAT…ya know? Its like talking about colors.  I adore everyone of them.  People like Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Trane (John Coltrane), Dexter Gordon, Stanley Turrentine Joe Henderson and Hank Mobley were probably all my favorite tenor players at the time. Alto players, there was Sonny Stitt, Cannonball and Charlie Mariano. Charlie Mariano was a big influence because I could hear him live all the time.  He lived in Boston…he was incredible live. I would catch all those guys when they would come to Boston. I would just put on a record and play along with them.  


TS:  You always hear the great players say they learned to play jazz from records.  Now I know you do a lot of teaching.  Do you feel that this is still the best way for a person to learn jazz or do you feel we have gotten away from that now?


JB:  Well the big difference back then was there were no jazz teachers. If you called up somebody and said, hey do you teach jazz, they would say, “No, go buy a record and figure out the solos and learn tunes.” Not how they do it today, “Do this….play the bebop scale and learn approach notes, etc.” NOBODY did that back then. That was the only way to learn…to take things off of records or to learn on the bandstand.  

TS:  It seems throughout your life you have gravitated to the tenor saxophone.  Can you talk about what has drawn you to the tenor as opposed to the alto or soprano saxophone?


JB:   You know, I am not sure…I have just always gravitated to the tenor.  That’s what I always played excepted when I was about 19 when I played the alto. I was listening to so much Charlie Mariano and was so knocked out by him I said, “I am going to take a year and play alto!”  So I did and after that time I was just exhausted and said, “This is too hard!” I always heard my voice on the tenor…its my natural voice. So I had to relearn to play the tenor.

TS:  So you have always recorded as a tenor player.


JB:  I have recorded a little bit with soprano. Hopefully I will do more again soon.  I had a soprano saxophone that I just loved, but it was stolen off the bandstand and I haven’t wanted to play one since. It was a blast to play…ya know?  A perfect marriage between the mouthpiece and the instrument and I haven’t found one since that I enjoyed. But I found one recently that I think I could enjoy…so maybe it will come back.

Photo Credit:  Justin Mohling

TS:  This is an opinion question-the saxophone wasn’t the first major instrument in jazz but it is widely considered to be the great instrument of jazz.  Why do you think that is?


JB:  I don’t think I can give you anything anything original for an answer but what comes immediately to mind is it is the most versatile.  I mean, compared to a clarinet the saxophone is a walk in the park (laughter). Also…the ability to compete with louder instruments.  Not to mention the ability to replicate the human voice.  It is capable of getting a whole variety of sounds. Not that you can’t get variety on other instruments, but the difference between two tenor players can sound like the difference between two different instruments.  


That was the nice things about hearing these guys back in the 60’s. These guys could have totally different and unique sounds.  Today, the players sound…well…more or less alike. Maybe thats the result of technology where people can access more then they could before.


TS:  Do you feel there is a focus with players today to try to fit within a certain mold? Not that it is a case of being marketable, but with the success of a couple players who have made names for themselves bring others to try to emulate them?  


JB:  That is a great question. I guess I am really the wrong person to ask because I am not even in that headspace. I don’t even play music to be successful. I have never played it that way to begin with.


TS:   Where I am going is that you open up jazz magazines now and….


JB:  You only see a few players being mentioned right?


TS:  Yes, or you see the “buy this mouthpiece because person X plays this” type thing. Do you think it causes players to copy without exploring their own voice?


JB:  I don’t think any more then there used to be. What happens is, some people are more in the forefront so students or young players get exposed more to them or get more exposed to their music. The Joshua Redman's, Mike Brecker's or the Joe Lovano's…they are very popular so people are more exposed. But I don’t think its more of a pressure to sound like them or anything.  Its a natural thing. Those people I just mentioned are all great players so they inspire the younger generation to check them out.  


TS:  When you were playing with the Brubeck Generation, did you find the audience to be more receptive or less receptive to your playing?  After all, most audiences knew Paul Desmond as the sound of the saxophone associated with Brubeck.  


JB:   Uhhhh…To me Dave’s audience was very nostalgic.  Dave never had a jazz audience…he had a Dave Brubeck audience.  It is a very unique audience. A very nostalgic audience. The reason they always accepted me was because when I was playing, Dave was always smiling.  He would look at me and smile and then look at the audience like, “Hey this guy doesn’t play half bad does he?”  Left to their own devices I don’t know if they would enjoy my playing.  To be honest, I have never thought about it.  I never thought about it when I was playing with him.


TS:  You have really been known as “The Jazz Musicians, Musician.”  For example I was talking with Gary Foster and I mentioned your name.  He stopped me and said, “Hey man, Bergonzi is to the 10th power!  Why don’t more people know this genius?”


JB:  He said that?  Wow…man.  I am totally knocked out.  Because I am a huge fan of his playing!   He is a fantastic improviser. Man…that made my day.  Thank you.  Sincerely for that!  


TS:  Well, if you don’t mind, I will pass that on to him.


JB:  Please…please do.  I listen to him and just say, “My God this guys is great!”  I have been a fan for years.


TS:  You had spoken a little about your approach to music not being consumed with the success of being a musician.   I don’t want to imply anonymity because you are not anonymous.   But has your lack of attention to the promotion or press helped your music and its development?


JB:  You know it is hard to answer that question.  I can only play what I hear and I have very strong tastes.  There are certain things that I like.  I couldn’t play like someone else.  I only play how I play. I have NEVER thought about it being popular or being unpopular.  To me there is no audience.  Its me playing in my living room…or just like it.  It’s just me playing.  If they like it…fine.  If they don’t like it…fine. 

Photo Credit:  Justin Mohling

TS:  So you are doing it for you?


JB:  No…I am not doing it for anyone.  The music just happens…It happen to us.  Sometimes I don’t even feel like playing.  Maybe I have been traveling too much and I am beat…ya know…tired.  But I go to the gig and just let the music happen.  Some pretty scary (great) things happen.  


TS:  I had the fortune of driving you around when you were a guest artist at my college.  We had the radio tuned to the university station and a Sonny Rollins track came on.  I remember you were in mid sentence and suddenly stopped talking.  I thought something went wron-you just froze and sat there in the car until the solo was over.  Afterward the look on your face was like you had heard a great sermon.  When you went into you clinic you talked about listening and how you process music and it was very holistic. I even remember you saying you don’t put anything into your body that could affect your listening when could affect your creativity.   Could you talk a little about that?  How you go about practicing? Creating? 


JB:  When I am playing, I just try to play as much “in the moment” as I can.  And being in the moment means being without any thought.  Nothing preconceived.  When I do that I have volumes of things to play.  When there is something I am working on and I want to try it on the bandstand, it jams my channel.  Nothing seems to get through.  


When I’m practicing it is kind of like meditation.  First off, when you are practicing you are supposed to be playing things you have never played before…otherwise it is not practicing.  Lately, I try to practice a concept.  For example I might think about vibrato. So on that day I will practice trying to play using a bunch of different vibratos.  Or playing with different endings on the notes. You know, trying to get different endings on the same note….a quick ending, or tapering with vibrato, etc.  I practice like that a lot and it is fascinating.  I have practiced many different things throughout my career.  The thing that is common throughout all of it is that I am present and in the moment.  Even if it is just practicing major scales…I am THERE practicing major scales.  I am listening to the scale, I am experiencing the scale.  Every single note is there in my conciseness.  And when I am playing music I am very present.  Anything else, thinking of lunch or how the sound system sounds, is interference.  It is very metaphysical.

TS:  When watching you play, you can see that you have a great awareness and presence with the other instruments.  I know you also play the other instruments (piano, drums, bass).  How has that helped you as a saxophonist or as an improviser?


JB:  I always joke with people that they (piano, bass and drums) are just funny looking saxophones to me (laughing).  I think they have helped me.  There are certain things that piano players do that saxophone players don’t.  Like voicings, range and counterpoint.  Drums have really influenced me.  My book Melodic Rhythms came from the trickling down concepts modern jazz drummers play.  I get a lot of things from drums.  The bass gives me the harmonic rhythm…it has a great impact on me.


TS:  Did you study on drums? You play quite well and do a lot of independent and intricate things on the drums.


JB:  No..nothing formal.  I pick up things from the cats I play with…mostly it is just concepts and things I hear in my head naturally.  I don’t know, they just come out on the drums as I hear them.


TS:  Your improvisation series (published through Advanced)….what was your goal in creating that series?


JB:  I do a lot of teaching.  I have these concepts that I talk about and use. A lot of people have enjoyed some of the specific things that I do.  Whenever I get an opportunity I try to document them.  Its just one of many ways that approach things.  I have a lot books that I intend to do.  As to WHY?  I think because people have said that it has benefit them.  You’re not going to make a mint on these little jazz book ya know (laughter)?


TS: I know you have a strong involvement with the European jazz community.  Can you talk how players differ from American players or how audiences differ from American audiences?


JB:  You know…I could be wrong about this and I could change my perspective tomorrow….but it seems to me that art is definitely more a part of their culture.  They visit art museums, they attend concerts, the government sponsors concerts.  I can play in a club in a tiny town of 8,000 people and the place will be packed!  


TS:  Do you find their knowledge base of an American art form like jazz is greater?


JB:  Yeah! Without question.  I will be picked up by a taxi drivers and they know all about jazz.


TS:  What would you say to a student who says, “Oh Mr. Bergonzi…you're my favorite player, I want to play just like you”?


JB:  I don’t think anything about it.  Someone says they want to play just like me?  There is no me.  Leave me out of it…there is no me.  When I listen to a record I’ve made, I don’t hear me…I just hear music.  If they want to play like that music…I don’t take it personally….it’s the lineage.  But there is no me.


TS:  You have played and recorded in a number of instrumental/group formats.  Is there one you enjoy playing in more than another?


JB:  Do I?  I don’t.  I think they are all fantastic.  I love playing trio without piano….organ trios…quartets…anything.  All different situations.  I’ve even played a series of duets with just two saxophones.  Its a gas man.  Lots of positive energy.


TS:  We talked about there being more information available today for the young player.  What do you think is good and what do you think is bad about the flood of information presented to young players?


JB:    I think the players today…there is a breed of player that is pretty awesome.  I think the big thing with players today is they have so much knowledge at their fingertips today.  The information is far greater now.  They have a bigger history to take care of as well. But, younger kids know so much more then their heroes at that age.  I will will go do a clinic and say, “What about this concept…do you know that?” And they are like, “Yeah…we can do that.”  And they can!  They know everything.  It makes you realize…knowledge is cheep.  Go on the internet and you can pick and choose what knowledge you want to have.


TS:  What advice do you have for a student who wants to be a professional musician?


JB:  Well that’s the question right there!  Do you mean to be successful in the music business?  OR do you mean being successful as a musician?


TS:  Let’s say as a musician.


JB:  Ok…because the answer to the first question (music business)…I have no answer.  Its a mystery to me.  As far as being a musician?  You play as much music as you can with as many people as you can and in time…no question about it….you will be able to play.  If you have the passion and the desire….it will happen.


TS:  What would Jerry Bergonzi now tell the Jerry Bergonzi of 20 years ago?


JB:  Well 20 years ago I hadn’t discovered what I know now.  There are things I have figured out in the last 10 years.  There are things that I have discovered in the past two years.  So I would go back and try to focus on those things I have learned now….or recently.  In a way, I don’t know if I would change anything.  It happened how it’s supposed to happen.  If you take time out of the equation….the Jerry Bergonzi that existed 20 years ago is just a memory.  There is just right now.  The now keeps bringing new things.  The now is what’s happening.  That’s why we are addicted to playing.  We are addicted to the now.

TS:  You strike me a someone who is never looking for the end goal.  You are viewing life as a progression or development that is always evolving.


JB:  Yeah….you’re absolutely right.  You know what is amazing.  This music that we are playing….its happening now and it is happening to us!  Say for example you're 20 years old and your playing with a pianist who is 50 and a drummer who is 100.  It’s all happening to us right now.  Age has nothing to do with us.  Its amazing.   I'll be practicing and ill tell someone, “Hey Im working this stuff here” and they will say “Yeah…me too.”  It makes me realize that music is in the atmosphere.  We put our antenna out there and we get it…we pick up on it and we start evolving.  


TS:  What are you listening to?  What do you enjoy?


JB:  You know I’ve enjoyed doing a lot of recording.   In the process of helping people pick tracks, etc, I have really enjoyed listening to the people I’m playing with.   So, that is one thing.  I love listening to singers…Diana Washington, Frank Sinatra.  I listen to Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Wayne Shorter….Coltrane of course.  Sometimes I listen to the new records.


TS:  Anyone new players you enjoy…


JB:  EVERYONE OF THEM!  I can’t believe how well they play.  Its awesome.  Someone will ask, “Who’s your favorite player?” And I will say, “The last one I heard!”  


TS:  Thank you for your time….is there anything you wish to close with?


JB:  One thing that I think is really great to leave you with is this:  Its really great and really important to not have any opinions.  Some people listen to just one thing and they are totally closed off to everything else.  They are as closed off as possible.  It is important to be as open as possible  Be open to everything!  That is how you learn and that is how you can create…with the exposure to the world around you!