Jerry Bergonzi - The saxophone master

Jerry Bergonzi is recalling his student days at Lowell University. Back then, the saxophonist from Boston, Massachusetts was so keen to improve his playing that he’d commandeer a practice cubicle at 6am and get down to serious blowing.
The sounds he made didn’t go down well and after a year of being continually thrown out of these cubicles for playing jazz, he left Lowell. Or as Bergonzi puts it, "I got a request … but I didn’t stop, I just changed venues."
Fast forward some thirty years and the results of his dedication came to light in an interview given by the late Michael Brecker, who at the time was widely held to be the most influential tenor saxophonist of the age. How does it feel, the interviewer asked Brecker, to be the king of the tenor saxophone? To which Brecker replied, "I don’t know, you’d better ask Jerry Bergonzi."
Brecker wasn’t – and isn’t – alone. Among saxophone players Bergonzi is revered, not just for the awesome technique that he built up over years of playing at every opportunity, but also for his innovation, energy, total command, resonant tone and inner fire. Yet in America, Bergonzi is a prophet without honour in his homeland.
"I can’t get arrested in New York," he says with a tone of resignation mixed with humour. "Well, I could if I tried really hard but I don’t want to do that, at least not until my kids are grown up. But I’m not complaining because I have a good job teaching at the New England Conservatory that allows me to tour Europe, where most of my gigs are, and go back and resume working with my students."
Bergonzi is by no means the first American musician to find Europeans more receptive to jazz than audiences at home. It’s a situation almost as old as jazz itself, despite massive sales figures for albums by some stars and a college concert circuit that has thrived through several decades.
"I think it’s the word jazz itself that’s the problem," says Bergonzi. "There are people who know what they like in jazz, be it Louis Armstrong, Kenny G, big band music or whatever, and that’s fine. But there are many more people who think that jazz is only one of the many styles of music that the word harbours these days, because that’s what they’ve heard and they didn’t like it, so they don’t like jazz. I think we need some new handles. You know, rock music has punk, grunge, and all that. And yes, jazz has terms that become fashionable then unfashionable, but most of us aren’t trying to be fashionable, we’re just doing what we do."
Bergonzi began doing what he does at the age of eight, playing clarinet and listening to Duke Ellington and Count Basie. An uncle, who was a jazz musician, lived upstairs and used to write down solos from records for the youngster to play. By his early teenage years, Bergonzi, by now playing alto saxophone and soon to switch to tenor, was gigging in a local group, the Stardusters, as well as playing in school bands.
"I just wanted to play jazz," he says. "It was all I was interested in really. John LaPorta, who’d played sax and clarinet with Woody Herman, Lennie Tristano and Charles Mingus, had a youth orchestra in Boston, and I joined that. It was great experience because John told it like it was. He’d stop the band to let you know your shortcomings, and I didn’t want to repeat that embarrassment too often, so I practised my socks off."
When he moved to New York in 1972, after studying at Berklee as well as Lowell and playing bass backing singers, strippers and comedians to raise the funds, Bergonzi got what he calls his real college education. He rented a loft and started inviting musicians round to jam. Soon this became the gang hut for all the up and coming musicians in town of the time. Saxophonists Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman, Michael Brecker and Bob Berg, guitarist John Scofield and drummer Victor Lewis are just some of the graduates from sessions where Bergonzi would invite a handful of players and find half of New York ringing his doorbell.
"That was a really important point in my playing," he says. "Because I was among my peers and to hear them really inspired me to learn all the stuff I needed to progress. There was a great camaraderie among everybody, too, and that was great because we were all pretty much at the same point in our development, just beginning to get gigs that would take us up a rung or two and get us noticed."
One of the real turning points in Bergonzi’s career was touring with Dave Brubeck, first with Two Generations of Brubeck, where he played with the great pianist’s sons, then later, spending three years with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, where he followed in saxophonist Paul Desmond’s considerable footsteps.
"If I had played anything like Paul in style, that might have been daunting," he says. "But I actually got to play about a dozen gigs with him and he was such an inspiration, not competitive at all. I played with Gerry Mulligan, too, and boy was he competitive, although not in a bad way. But Paul was so laid back. He told me that he’d decided early on that he didn’t want to have to practise too much, so he’d invented a style that didn’t need much technique. I thought that was wonderful."
Aside from Brubeck, Bergonzi has worked with a roll call of other great jazz musicians, including Gil Evans, Roy Haynes, Charlie Mariano, John Abercrombie and Pat Martino, to name but a few. He has recorded under his own name for Blue Note Records and more recently amassed quite a discography with European labels while keeping busy in his role as a jazz educator. He has published a six volume series of books on improvising and saxophone technique and travels frequently, giving jazz clinics around the world and slotting in tours with his group as often as possible.
"I love both sides of my work," he says. "Teaching, especially when you’re working with exciting young talents, can be so rewarding, and getting up on stage to play is still as much fun now as it was when I started. My band’s half European: the drummer, Andrea Michelutti, lives in Paris and the pianist, Renato Chicco, is based at the Graz Conservatoire in Austria. We’ve been playing together for six years now and that makes it easy, like a conversation between friends. The bassist, Dave Santoro, and me just fly over and pick up where we left off with the other two."

From The Herald, November 1, 2007.

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