In late June, at the club Nublu in Manhattan’s East Village, I sidled up to the musician and bandleader Steven Bernstein at the bar. I said hello and explained that I needed to interview him for an article on the slide trumpet, that obscure brass instrument he’s long been synonymous with. I wasn’t rolling tape, but I’m sure his response went like this: “Oh, man—that is the worst idea for an article I’ve ever heard!” I added that this harebrained concept was among the last story ideas I’d come up with as editor of JazzTimes. Wait for the punch: “No wonder they fired your ass.”
But Bernstein, 56, was smiling and chuckling all the while. (And let the record show that I quit.) You could make a very strong argument that he’s the funniest living person in jazz, and he’s certainly among the music’s few true characters—a torch carrier for Nat Hentoff’s edict that the golden-age jazzmen he knew could have existed in a novel. He’s also a rare musician whose ax channels his personality absolutely, emitting all manner of chortles, wails, and bleeps, not to mention plenty of beautiful melodic playing, touched up with a faintly shimmering vibrato.