Borah Bergman: His Fatha’s Son

Borah Bergman

You hear how I talk? I get revved up sometimes, right? Like a stream of consciousness,” pianist Borah Bergman says. “I always liked Bud Powell. He was the epitome of greatness, after Earl Hines. Well, Bud Powell played fast. I tried to play faster. I just liked it. I liked the speed of it.”

Borah Bergman can play fast, there is no doubt: the sheer velocity and strength of his playing is stunning. “When I heard ‘Chasin’ the Trane,’ that was it,” Berman says. “Fantastic influence on me. What I did was take it and play it at 45 RPM and practice with it.”

More impressive than his speed, however, is the grace and efficiency he brings to bear in his playing. Even at his fastest, the pianist displays a profound regard for touch and dynamics, for rhythm, and the ebb and flow of musical phrases. His thorny, decidedly nontonal approach might distract one from the essential jazz elements of his playing, but listen to his contours and textures, the variability of his touch. Like Earl “Fatha” Hines, jazz’s first great pianist, and Bud Powell, the sine qua non of bebop piano, Bergman digs beneath the keys and uncovers the music within.

Since Bergman began his recording career in the mid-1970s-then in his 40s and a fully formed free-jazz virtuoso-much has been made of his formidable technique, especially the extraordinary dexterity of his left hand. Less has been said of his total musicality and his connection to the jazz-piano tradition. His manner of phrasing and articulation and his relationship to rhythm place him solidly within the continuum of great jazz pianists. So does his commitment to pursuing a unique musical vision.

Borah Bergman was born in New York City on December 13, 1926, a son of Russian immigrants. His family was musical: his mother sang and played piano, his sister was a folksinger and his father played the mandolin. “On my mother’s side, everybody was in-tune with music,” Bergman says, “some of them were professional-they played piano, played violin, sang, stuff like that.” His father was a dentist by profession, but played mandolin on the side. “My father was very analytical, always making lists of things to do-he reminds me of myself. He actually played in a mandolin orchestra. My mother used to play harp sounds on the piano when I was going to sleep, by Weber or somebody. I used to hear Bach all the time. When I was a kid, I think it had an influence on me.” One female cousin was a cantor. Another cousin, pianist Sammy Prager, played piano with bandleader Ben Pollack in the early 1920s, in a band that also included Jack Teagarden and Benny Goodman. Prager went on to become actor Danny Kaye’s accompanist. “I’ve still got an old folio of his around here somewhere, 50 Licks by Sammy Prager,” he laughs.

Bergman began piano lessons at a young age. “I liked music, but I didn’t like to practice. I was never a finisher. For me to finish a Beethoven sonata, forget it.” His introduction to jazz came at summer day camp when he was about 12, when a counselor played him Louis Armstrong’s “Potato Head Blues.” Armstrong’s pianist, Earl Hines, especially affected Bergman. “He was just a genius. His left and right hand, how he’d get those phrases? I always thought he was greater than Art Tatum. Tatum was great in that he had that technique, and the way he put everything together, but I never heard any pianist who had what Earl Hines had.”

In his mid-teens-while attending a concert by the classical pianist Paul Wittgenstein-Bergman first became intrigued by the possibilities of a strong left hand. “He was wearing this big cape, and he was gyrating all over the piano-and I didn’t know at first that he only had one hand! The left hand-Ravel wrote a concerto for the left hand for him. I said, ‘Man, this is something to hear.'”

From age 14, however, Bergman’s main instrument was clarinet. He studied with the renowned instructor Leon Russianoff before being inducted into the Army, where he played in a band among other duties. “When they took you into the Army, they gave you these tests to see what you were good at, and guess what I scored through the roof on? Morse code. I guess because I was musical or something. I figured they’d put me in the signal corps or something. So where did they put me? Tanks!” he laughs.

After the Army, Bergman attended New York University, where he received a master’s degree in English and took some music courses. “I took the Schillinger System for a couple of months; I wrote songs and I thought I wanted to be a composer-I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t really playing piano.”

Bergman went on to teach English and music in New York public schools, and it wasn’t until he was almost 25 that he got serious about the piano. “I was walking down the street one day, and I’m hearing this pianist, Bud Powell, playing ‘Body and Soul,’ and then it hit me. I said ‘I’m going to do this.'” He picked up bebop pretty quickly, but with a twist: “I’m a jerk,” he laughs. “I decided to do it with my left hand. It’s enough to do with the right hand when you’re starting late, but here I’m doing it with the left hand, too. So I got stuck for 20-something years.”

Bergman took lessons from Daniel Hurd, a Lennie Tristano disciple, and the great swing-era pianist Teddy Wilson. Jazz promoter and writer Bob Reisner eventually got Bergman his first gig, at the Music Inn in Lenox, Mass. Reisner used to hold sessions in New York at a place called the Open Door, and Bergman attended regularly as a listener. “Brew Moore was there. Monk came down, Charlie Parker came down, Blakey,” Bergman says. “I had more balls in those days. I used to sit down at the piano and mess around during intermission sometimes. I remember asking [Jazz Messengers bassist] Doug Watkins one time to move his bass aside so I could play,” he chuckles. “Mostly I was learning by myself. I was a very solitary character.”

For much of the next 20-plus years Bergman was a schoolteacher while also working in and around New York City in bands and as a solo pianist. “I was in the Catskills a few times, and played with some guys during the years that nobody knew I existed,” he says. “But I was really working on my own sound most of the time. I was obsessed with the practicing and playing. I was teaching school to make some money-but I made a mistake and retired too early so I’m not really making much of a pension now.”

While he was playing out, he wasn’t recording. “First of all, there weren’t many record companies in the ’70s. I mean, today a kid can go and make a record in two seconds. You couldn’t do this in the ’70s. I didn’t really know how good I was. Then I met Hank O’Neal,” who runs the Chiaroscuro label. A fan of traditional jazz, O’Neal nonetheless recorded a few avant-garde players of the era, including the baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett. In 1975 he offered to record Bergman. “He must’ve heard some-well, I think there’s still some stride in my playing,” the pianist says. Bergman went into the studio immediately after one of his idols, Earl Hines, who was also doing a record for Chiaroscuro at the time. “Luckily, he left some of his energy in the keys for me,” he says.

Discovery, Bergman’s first album, was followed in 1976 by Bursts of Joy, also on Chiaroscuro. The two solo piano LPs received positive reviews and garnered the pianist a measure of acclaim. They weren’t heavily promoted, however, and Bergman “was incognito. Then I decided to send those first two records to Italy, in 1980, maybe a little before.” Bergman mailed the records to the Italian magazine Musica Jazz, and the magazine’s editor encouraged Bergman to contact Giovanni Bonandrini, owner of the Black Saint and Soul Note labels. Bonandrini liked what he heard, and Bergman went to Italy to record. His first Soul Note album, A New Frontier, came out in 1983. “I was really laid back in the ’80s. I made believe that I knew everything, but when I got there I was in a state of shock. I still have the stuff they wrote about me: ‘The greatest white pianist since Lennie Tristano.’ What? ‘A giant of jazz!’ I didn’t know what to do.”

Bergman remained based in New York, but he would tour and teach in Europe throughout the ’80s. He went on to record seven more albums for Soul Note. The first several were solo recordings, but in 1990 he recorded The Fire Tale with soprano saxophonist Evan Parker. Bergman then began collaborating with other top-drawer saxophonists: Roscoe Mitchell, Oliver Lake, Thomas Chapin, Peter Brotzmann and Anthony Braxton, among them. Since 1990 he’s been the leader or co-leader on 20 albums for a variety of record companies. His latest, Acts of Love (Mutable), features the veteran British musicians Lol Coxhill on soprano sax and Paul Hession on drums. “I decided to call it Acts of Love, because I really feel that in the music,” Bergman says.

The three men certainly share an extraordinary empathy. Bergman’s affection for Coxhill is evident. “Lol Coxhill, he will blow your mind,” Bergman emphasizes. “He has the greatest sense of humor, is totally unpretentious.” Coxhill’s playing bears that out. There’s nothing at all comical about his playing, but there is a palpable warmth and good humor. Coxhill is a master of the subtlest aspects of playing soprano. Like Bergman, he has the chops to play fast and hard, but he also has the innate musicality to know when to bring things up and when to bring them down.

There’s an almost compositional logic to these improvised performances. Forms evolve organically. Motives are established and shared; intros performed by the full ensemble give way naturally to solo passages, which might in turn melt into duos or more solos, followed by a return to the trio. Hession is the perfect drummer for this group, a sensitive accompanist who is well capable of interacting on equal footing with Bergman and Coxhill. Bergman’s playing encompasses unsentimental lyricism and raw aggression, and every shade of gray in between. His fast playing is intricate but never ornamental; every note sings, no matter how quickly it may pass from hearing. Bergman connects with Coxhill perhaps more profoundly than he has with any other musician with whom he’s recorded. Acts of Love is on par with the best work Bergman has done.

It won’t stop there. Bergman is still an inveterate practicer, a seeker of new ways. For several years he’s used a crossed-hands technique when playing ballads-the bass in the right hand, the treble in the left. It makes him think differently, helps him bring fresh voicings and new patterns to his playing. Only someone with so strong a left hand could get away with it. Another method was inspired in part by Evan Parker’s cyclical playing: “I’m going to start practicing the circular phrases: holding down one or two fingers-like the one and five-then playing other notes with the other three fingers,” Bergman says. “It’s like a classical exercise. It strengthens your fingers.” To Bergman, practice is merely a way of eliminating any blocks to creativity. After all, says Bergman, “All technique does is reveal the ideas that are in your brain, right?”

All that practicing has made Bergman into something much more than just the fastest gun in the west. It’s allowed him to express himself as clearly as an artist can. And while he’ll always venerate giants like Hines and Powell, in the end, it’s the cultivation of his own voice that concerns him most. “Originality is the great equalizer,” he says. “If you’ve got something of your own, do it.” It’s what the greats have always done.