click for a GIGANTIC picture
of jeff! yeah!
Every bass player should
know who Jeff Berlin is. His credits include playing with a broad
range of contemporary masters - George Benson, Tony WIlliams,
Pat Metheny, The Becker Brothers, Toots Thielemans, Bob James,
Herbie Mann, Bill Evans, John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell - the
list goes on and on. He's also the director of The Players School
of Music in Clearwater, Florida and continues to be known (feared!)
as an iconoclast music educator. We sat down with Jeff Berlin
to discuss the release of his latest CD, "In Harmony's Way," but also to talk
about some of the perspectives on bass playing that have made
him controversial, but also highly respected as someone who isn't
afraid to speak the truth. Of course, before you can say something
anything truthful, you have to dare to allow youself to think
it. And because he has always taken the care to think honestly
about things, we think his words deserve your serious consideration.
We hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as we had this
opportunity to speak to someone we both respect.
~ your friends at bunnybass,
jon & mimi
bunnybass: You were very well known as a bassist
before your interests in education became public. Lots of "famous"
bass players teach. But why did it become such an important aspect
of your life?
Jeff Berlin: It sort of happened without my planning
it. I came from a time in music where there were practically
no bass players with technique. It was Jaco, Stanley, and myself
(these days EVERYBODY has fantastic technique, but that's another
story). Over time, people began to ask me how I did it. Players
wanted to study with me and tap into what I knew about music
and my instrument. The final result of my teaching skills was
the beginning of The Players School of Music in Clearwater [Florida].
I wanted to make a truly meaningful educational situation for
guitar players, bass players, drummers and keyboard players.
The final impetus to start this school was the diagnosis of my
son with lymphoma. While he was receiving his treatments, I decided
not to go on the road anymore until he recovered completely from
his illness. In order to make a living, I put everything into
The Players School. I wanted to make a school that offered players
great musical information in an intimate setting. One complaint
that I kept hearing from other players was that they sometimes
felt lost within the larger school systems. Hearing this inspired
me to make an intimate learning environment. This story ended
with my son recovering from his cancer, The Players School continuing
to grow every year, and my bass career getting bigger all the
bunnybass: What were the fundamental principles
that guided you as you developed the curriculum for the Player's
Jeff Berlin: The principles are all based on
methods of learning that have been proven to be effective for
years. Harmony lessons, ear training lessons, two private instrument
lessons each week, five live playing ensembles each week. The
concepts at the school were designed to make music, not technique,
the carrot to entice and lead young players into new concepts
even if they never read music in their lives. We have students
who never read a note, and now can read through charts after
only one month of studying with us. I don't know of any other
school that can make this claim anywhere in the world.
bunnybass: This scenario is a real one all the
time here at bunnybass - and you're probably the perfect person
to ask. A 15 year old e-mails us "I want to play bass. Tell
me what bass to buy and how I should go about learning to play.
I have $500 and that's it." - What would you tell a beginning
learner like this?
Jeff Berlin: I would tell him/her to go and buy
their bass, then buy some CD's of their favorite bands, listen
to those CD's and imitate what they've heard. It isn't right
to ask a pure beginner to dedicate himself to the rigors of studying
since they have no idea about what real musical study is all
about. If, after a year or two, the beginner player finds that
music is a really important part of their lives and that they
want to continue learning, then they should contact a really
good music teacher and continue from there.
bunnybass: You've been a controversial figure
in the area of music education - everybody should know by now
you don't believe in hand strengthening tools, tab, and all that
shit. But how do you think your ideas on the purpose and utility
of music education differs from, say that of a four-year university
type music education, 'taking lessons', or other means of formal
Jeff Berlin: Probably not much. The major music
schools seem to focus on music, not rock or chops as their basic
sources of musical information. We are simply a smaller and less
expensive version of these larger jazz academies. First of all,
The Players School is not accredited. This means that our students
do not have to take social studies (as it were) just to satisfy
the State's educational requirements when all these students
wanted to do in the first place was to come to Florida just to
study their keyboard or drums. Because we are a small school,
we also have the luxury of taking our time with the students
so that they don't have to feel rushed into learning new musical
ideas in a hurry. Some guys learn faster than others. You can't
penalize the slower guys who will eventually be able to play
the new music anyway. The object here is to practice. The learning
part will take care of itself. Our teachers have the mindset
that the entire school is like one giant private lesson, which
allows the students to slowly grow in music if slow growth is
their natural way to learn. For the more advanced players, believe
me! - we have some lesson concepts here that you might not be
able to find anywhere else.
But the general attitude here is there's no rush to learn.
Just, do the work and the benefits will follow. Since the major
schools have to answer to the government in regards to timetables
and schedules overseen by the government, we take the path of
least resistance. We teach MUSIC at a more personal pace. Just
do the work and you will grow. In fact, it's guaranteed.
bunnybass: In regards to learning and teaching
bass, how do you think you've been most often misunderstood?
Jeff Berlin: Most of my critics don't read what
I really say. One guy wrote a letter to a website stating how
he was in stitches because of my arrogance about hating rock
music. I wrote him back and asked him to show me anywhere where
I said that I hated rock. He never wrote back because nothing
like this exists.
Another guy wrote me and told me that he was fuming because
he said that I tear down educational concepts and but never make
suggestions to replace them. I told him that I regularly write
in my columns to practice reading, practice jazz, practice scales,
chord tones, harmony and ear training and to find a teacher who
will teach these things. I told him that if he read what I said
instead of what he thought I said, he wouldn't have had a need
to write me in such a pissed off manner. I didn't hear back from
this guy either.
I can outright prove any statement that I have made. I do
this in my clinics all the time. When I show my critics my points
of views and then ask them to show me errors in what I have just
demonstrated to them, there is dead silence from those people
who now cannot find any faults in what I have just demonstrated
to them. It really stops them cold.
bunnybass: I guess I'm not surprised. It seems
like most people would rather believe in a secret (and easy)
path from "here to there". From my experiences I can
say that it's the same with art ("Can you teach me how to
draw like Michelangelo this semester?") and with social
change work too ("I've been struggling against racism for
FIVE WHOLE YEARS but nothing's changed - forget it."). Seems
like as a society we've really become alienated from the traditional
meanings and value of the concept of work.
Jeff Berlin: That's right. This society is raised
on fast food, fast service, the fast checkout line, lose weight
fast, get rich fast. In music, there are those articles that
tell you that they have exercises to help you to play your instrument
faster, solo faster, make your chops faster. It's a crock. You
will never play faster, you will never learn music faster. It's
a lie that is supported by every guitar magazine in the business.
Music is a life-long endeavor unless you treat it as a hobby.
In this case, you can dick around with music in any capacity
you like, just like my miniature golfing or someone else's weekend
tennis. But, the minute that you attach more meaning to music
in, say, making a career out of it, or learning as much about
it so that you can express yourself through your instrument with
ease, the rules change. Like it or not, you have to up your ante.
bunnybass: Let me play devil's advocate for a
moment. Some say that art and music educators are in a sense
producing a specialized kind of laborer for what can be called
an expanded entertainment industry (night clubs, galleries, performance
spaces, television and film, and so on). These "cultural
workers" generally have a difficult time finding long-term
employment, are often under-appreciated and under-paid when they
do, compete against each other for an extremely limited pool
of financial and support resources from governmental and other
agencies, and work in an industry that often seems to value novelty
and glamour over artistic mastery or intellectual development.
How do you prepare yourself and your students for the fucked
up reality that awaits them after leaving your program?
Jeff Berlin: I rarely discuss employment possibilities
because of the constantly changing industry and musical fads
that go along with it. It is easier to become a lawyer or a doctor
than a steadily working musician. My focus is always on music
and the instrument. If my students can learn to read music and
play their instruments with some authority, then they will have
a chance to stay in this quirky industry because many musicians
can't read music and can't play with authority. Styles may change,
but a G major chord is forever a G major chord. Learn this fact,
and you can always be qualified to remain in music no matter
the current popular style. When I try to rev up the general community
of musicians and tell them to learn music so they can survive
in this industry, some of them reject this as if it was bad advise
I was giving them. So, I leave it alone. Fuck it! It's their
careers. They'll find out soon enough.
bunnybass: In your experiences as a teacher,
what are the most typical roadblocks to musical and intellectual
development that students bring with them when they enter your
Jeff Berlin: By far, the biggest roadblocks are
what these players have read in music magazines about learning
how to play. Handgrips, metronome studies, major scales exercises
that have been re-hashed to death for over 20 years, music magazine
articles with titles like "Learn How to Play in a Week"
or even "Learn Without Practice" (this one cracked
me up because the author was serious), tablature, memorization
exercises, alternate picking exercises, slap exercises, rock
class, rock bass transcriptions. There isn't a shovel big enough
in the world to scoop up all the shit that has been dropped in
front of these guys every month for years.
At a clinic one day, a bass player named Steve Bailey actually
told a group of young players to use their handgrips while driving
their cars. It wasn't even my clinic, yet I walked on the stage,
got on the microphone and told those guys to keep both hands
on the wheel and pay attention to the road. How can anyone make
suggestions like this to impressionable people and then wonder
why I get so concerned about the educational farce that is perpetuated
on players all the time and from all kinds of sources?
bunnybass: I'd hate to get killed while driving
just because someone wants to play bass faster. I've never heard
you talk about this before, but I wanted to ask you anyway -
just in case you have anything to say about this: How do you
think the performance of music is related to the ethical and
spiritual development of a human being?
Jeff Berlin: Music is a spontaneous outpouring.
It comes from knowledge and emotion, skill and focus. I,m not
sure if one's ethics and spirit are connected to great music.
Maybe it is sometimes, but I don't know. Look at it this way:
Wagner was an anti-Semite. Van Gogh had mental disease. Charlie
Parker lied and stole from his friends for drugs. Yet, their
art was at the absolute highest levels. Maybe one's ethics and
spirit can be separate from one's art. I don't really know.
bunnybass: When I heard that you were a long-time
student of boxing, I immediately thought that I'd like to ask
you if you could share with us maybe a couple of insights you've
learned by simultaneously dedicating yourself to these two passions:
bass and boxing...
Jeff Berlin: I have never had a boxing match.
I HAVE sparred loads of times and practiced the skills connected
with the sport. I love boxing. This sport requires skill and
heart and a ton of stamina and guts. I don't have the heart to
be a real fighter because I'm not dedicated enough to giving
out or receiving punishment. But, I have sparred some really
rough rounds and have learned that I can take a shot and can
rely on my skills to dish it out if I have to. I have been in
the ring when my gas tank was empty and there was still a minute
left in the round. I had to find a way to last because my macho
wouldn't permit me to quit in front of the other guys. I don't
like to fight. I like to box. Big difference. I love to learn
about boxing and I always find out something new whenever I go
to the gym to work out. I'm not sure how all this relates to
the bass. I can say however that if I learned boxing using the
same goofy tricks that some bass players learn music, I would
have gotten my face kicked in the first week at the gym. As it
stands, I suck as a boxer anyway. But, I enjoy the hang so I
bunnybass: I'd like to ask you about your latest
CD, "In Harmony's Way". Of course it has unbelievable
playing on it - it's the kind of CD I can't play as background
music. For myself, I'm finding that I have to stop doing everything
I'm going and just sit and listen really carefully (I'm getting
a lot less work done since I got the disk). What kind of musical
themes did you specifically set out to explore on this recording?
Jeff Berlin: I feel that this CD is my finest
work I've done to date. I am so proud of the results of this
CD. I can't say that I had a specific plan before I recorded
it except to try and do as live sounding recording as I could
make. The bass solos are all live. Everything here is practically
all first takes which shows how well rehearsed we were before
bunnybass: The dialogue established between yourself
and the guest musicians are really... 'wow'. I especially enjoyed
"Liebman On a Jet Plane" with Dave Liebman, and you
and Mike Stern on the song "Emeril Kicks It Up". Those
solos are just totally sick. Do you approach these kinds of guest-soloist
situations very differently than from how you would play with,
say, musicians you play with very frequently?
Jeff Berlin: My approach to asking other players
to record with me was based entirely on my hearing how great
they would sound on my tunes. Every guest musician who recorded
on "In Harmony's Way" honored me by playing for me.
You have to realize that I view myself not only as this contemporary
48 year old player in the year 2001, but also I have memories
of being an unknown young kid who worshipped the musical skills
of the maestros who graced my CD. Gary Burton is an especially
important guest artist. I knew him when I was a student in 1972,
thrilled when he sought me out to be the bass player in his reading
classes at Berklee. His agreeing to record for me is the most
emotionally satisfying feeling that I have about "In Harmony's
Way." I played my ass off on the tune that he played on
("This Is Your Brain on Jazz") because I really wanted
his approval about my solo since we have shared the same tune.
At least I didn't embarrass myself next to him, because, in musical
terms, I'm not worthy to carry his mallet bag.
Jeff appears very excited
for some reason... is it the new CD?
bunnybass: Musically speaking, what were you
trying to achieve when you were writing, recording, performing
this CD? I mean, when you are creating a CD do you lean more
towards immersing yourself in the exploration of self-expression,
or do you focus more on producing a certain range of responses
in your audience?
Jeff Berlin: I record with the most selfish of
intentions. I want to make a CD that I would be proud of in twenty
years. I record for myself and play for myself. Yet, my way of
entertaining people is to invite them to join me as I explore
music my way. Miles Davis did this. He played for himself, but
invited people to share the experience. This makes for the most
honest music one can make as it comes from a truly honest place.
bunnybass: This is probably a stupid question:
I'm just blown away at the combination of on one hand, the intricacy
and level of execution on the CD, and on the other the feeling
of ease and intimacy of the recording. Since I don't often hear
both feelings co-existing on recordings, I was wondering how
you all approached the performance and recording on this particular
CD that perhaps may have helped in achieving this.
Jeff Berlin: If the record sounds effortless,
it's because Richard, Danny, and I rehearsed the music for weeks
before recording it. We knew our parts. We were hot to trot.
We were rehearsed. Put these elements of music together with
some coffee inspired hyper-activity and you can create some really
fired up performances. Even the ballads have passion.
bunnybass: I like artists that continue to grow
and learn over time, gain complexity. And on this CD your sound
appears effortless, the voice of your bass freer. So maybe this
is actually a learning question too - what have you done to help
yourself continue to grow? You've been widely acclaimed for your
abilities for over 25 years already - how have you resisted the
urge to become an imitation of the representation that's created
of you by others?
Jeff Berlin: A lot of my musical growth came
from out-and-out denial. I denied myself the easy route of imitating
other bass players and their particular approaches to their instrument.
On purpose, I would avoid any cliché of bass playing that
I heard. By denying myself the easy way to play, I had to come
up with alternative means to express myself. My focus was 100%
on some kind of musical growth, something that I refused to compromise
in any way. From this intense focus on music, something special
began to develop in my playing, a sort of ease, a new form of
melodic outpouring, at least new to the bass instrument. Out
of necessity, I began to find new ways to interpret melody and
rhythm and harmony so that my bass playing expanded into something
new for me. It was a heady time preparing for this recording.
Lots of personal bests were happening and I embraced them all
as my rewards for my good works, my good intentions in music,
honest and true to myself through hard practice and a vision
that I have never had before this time, but, finally began to
take focus in my heart and my bass.
bunnybass: You play your own instrument (the
Jeff Berlin bass, made by Dean Guitars), have your own distinct
musical style-vision, run your own educational institution, produce
your own CDs, control the means of distribution of your product
(the CD is available only at your website: www.jeffberlinmusic.com).
In terms of control, this probably makes you about as independent
an artist on the music scene right now (since the death of punk?)
- no small achievement. What kind of differences has this attention
to control the things you believe in made in your music?
Jeff Berlin: In my music, very little. In my
daily life, Wow! It sure taught me that the music business is
more than taking a bass solo. As a bandleader and as the president
of a music school and a record company, I have to fill out tax
papers, pay bills, balance checkbooks, check inventory, set up
promotion and interviews, book gigs, take care of musicians who
work for me, deal with the government (both State and Federal),
deal with banks, deal with accountants, webmasters, fulfillment
people, travel agencies, hotels, pay salaries. PLUS, I teach
music, take care of Players School needs, practice my bass, write
new material, care for my children, and squeeze out last night's
dinner when there's time. I also jog to lose some of the 250
some odd pounds that I put on since last year. Yeah! My plate
is FULL. By the way! What's sex like? I can't seem to remember.
bunnybass: So where are you going next?
Jeff Berlin: On the road with my band. I've also
been booked as the featured musician on Chef Emeril Lagasse's
show in September which ought to be fun. Plus, we're making a
stab at Jay Leno, Sessions at West 54th, Breakfast with the Arts
and any other TV show that would have me as a guest. The Players
School is still smoking and my son is healthy as a horse. Life
is good. Music is good. It's great to be a bass player.
You can order Jeff's CD, "In
Harmony's Way," only via the internet at Jeff Berlin Music.
You can contact Jeff at:
The Player's School of Music
attn: Jeff Berlin
923 McMullen Booth Road
Clearwater, Florida 33759
Phone: (800) 724-4242