Shelton Berg: How the Spiritual and the Technical Come Together to Make Art

July 9, 2010

Shelton BergShelton Berg, dean of the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, is a classically trained pianist who has had one heck of a jazz career. “I’ve played with a lot of the people that I never dreamed I’d get to play with,” he says. Berg worked his way through college playing six nights a week in Top 40 bands. “We played country, disco, salsa music, jazz everything you could think of,” says Berg. From there he went on to record and play with everyone from Freddy Hubbard and Randy Brecker to KISS, Chicago, Steve Miller and Joe Cocker. Berg has scored music for film, television and even written a few jingles, all while maintaining a successful teaching career. To get a better handle on what makes Shelton tick, JAZZed sat down with Shelton to discuss how he got to where he is today, where he thinks jazz education is headed, and his work at the Frost School of Music.

JAZZed: Many jazz teachers today look down on the “Pop” world, yet you have had a very successful career, not only in jazz, but in other styles as well. Do you encourage your students to study “non-academic” styles?

Shelton Berg: Absolutely, and I do it for a number of reasons. First of all ,I think the large pools of opportunity are not so large anymore. I’m living in Miami and thirty years ago, if you could put your horn together there was a gig for you in the city, but those pools are drying up but I believe that they’re being replaced by infinitely more puddles of opportunity. I think if you’re a broadly trained musician and you have a lot of skills, you can work and you can have a viable career. The flipside of that is, I think I bring some of that to my jazz performance and I think that those influences have their place.

JAZZed: How did you get your start playing music?

SB: I began playing by ear when I was three or four years old. I don’t have a memory of not being a musician. On top of that my father was a very, very good musician he was a jazz trumpet player. He always had a separate career, but he had played with Charlie Parker and Sonny Stitt and continued to play the last time he played was a month before he died. So there was constantly music in my house and my father, recognizing that I had an interest, was very attentive to that.

JAZZed: Who were some of your early influences as a player?

SB: The first one undeniably, was Oscar Peterson. My dad played me Oscar Peterson recordings and I just felt that there was something infectious about the swing, the joy of it, the way it bowls you over and I thought: I have to do that. In fact, in the mid #149;90s I did an Oscar Peterson tribute CD with Oscar Peterson and Ed Thigpen. I had to pay Oscar that tribute and I’m glad I did.

Then along the way, like a lot of jazz pianists, I was very influenced by Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and then later Keith Jarret. Cannonball Adderley was a big influence on me, as was Milt Jackson, so it wasn’t just necessarily pianists.

JAZZed: Were there any teachers who influenced the way that you teach?

SB: There were a few and they were actually classical teachers. I had a piano professor in college named Albert Hersch. Rudolf Zirkin told me, “There’s nobody better than Albert Hersch.” He could do anything on the instrument, and his ability to illicit emotion was amazing. But, what I learned from him more than anything was that every problem has a root and it’s not enough to identify a problem as a teacher you have to get at the root, like a weed. And Albert Hersch always structured his teaching around that question: “What’s the root of the problem you’re having?” So he was huge.

I also had a composition teacher named Tom Benjamin who taught me how to edit, edit, edit, edit. And, that there is an essence to everything that you’re trying to do and you’ve got to understand the essence before you can get to all the stuff that goes around it.

JAZZed: How did you start teaching?

SB: Teaching is something else that I think I just naturally gravitated towards. By the time I was 13 or 14, I was giving piano lessons to younger kids and even as an undergraduate I was student conducting the choir and the orchestra. In fact, in high school I was student conducting the choir, so I think I’ve naturally gravitated towards it. When I got my undergraduate degree from the University of Houston, the theory faculty came to me and said, “Would you be a TA for us?” So I taught theory and ear training classes and it really gave me the bug. When I graduated with my Masters Degree I went out and looked for a job and got a job teaching at a community college and went on from there. I think it helps that I have a natural inquisitiveness about how things work and how the spiritual and the technical come together to make art.

JAZZed: How do you reconcile the spiritual and the technical in your own teaching?

SB: Well, I like to say that we have two wells. We have a spiritual well and a technical well and we fill the technical well up with “stuff.” The stuff that we practice, the stuff that we learn about. If we’re a jazz artist, we’re talking about scales and arpeggios and diminished and augmented and upper structures and textures that can be played and so forth. To me, all of those things are technical things but they have spiritual implications. A II7#11 is very hopeful, a bIIIdim is very mysterious. There are sounds imbedded in the songs that we play that have very, very, strong connections to the emotions. So, it’s important to learn those technical things, but to also learn how they connect.

The spiritual well is that well which we fill with our imagination. It’s everything that we can feel and experience and know. To me, as a musician the idea is to foster the ability in students so that they can live in the spiritual well and unconsciously draw from the technical well those building blocks and devices that illuminate the things that they’re feeling.

Shelton BergJAZZed: Can you tell us a little bit about the Frost School of Music?

SB: I think that Frost is an amazing music school because we have so many programs. There’s probably not another school in the country that has as many music programs as we do and we’ve been considered as one of the top five jazz programs since the very beginning of jazz education. The faculty is not a “who’s who” of players like some schools, but people flock here to study with them because they’re brilliant and they’re very, very hands on. They’re here they’re here working with the students. We probably have more visiting artists and guest artists than any other school in the country. Now that we’re the home of the Henry Mancini Institute, our jazz students are working with our classical players. This past year we did an album with Dave Grusin, Gary Burton, Arturo Sandoval and other guest artists. We also did an HBO special this year, so our jazz students are not only doing what jazz students do at other schools but as part of the Henry Mancini Institute they’re working with classical musicians and broadening what they can do as well.

JAZZed: What are the benefits of attending a University as opposed to a Conservatory for music education?

SB: I may get in trouble for saying this but my feeling is, if you’re really smart and inquisitive as a person, then you’re best off at a University where you can tap into a variety of things. In our case, we’re a very broad music school inside of a very small and selective University that’s also very broad. If you’re interests are to learn about things that are beyond just playing your instrument, to sort of fill out the whole person, and if you’re really smart and inquisitive, then a University with a really good music school is a good choice. If you’re not particularly bookish or that interested in things beyond music, then you’re probably better off going to someplace where that’s the only focus. We have a jazz major who’s double majoring in math. He’s carrying a 4.0 and he’s growing tremendously as a jazz artist and I love to be in an environment that can foster that.

JAZZed: Jazz is relatively new to the academic world. What’s your advice to colleges that are trying to build a jazz program?

SB: I guess my advice is that jazz is not some separate appendage. It’s really something that is at the core of learning music in America. We have our classical students engaged at things at the Mancini Institute and I think for a small school or a school that is new to jazz, the idea is that jazz is something that’s an important part of everybody’s education. When jazz education first stared, I think it was all about big band but really skills in music are probably honed most effectively in small ensembles. So if you’re a small school or you’re just getting started, build your program around small groups where people have to write, and improvise and play in tune, play together, so that everything they do matters. In this school we’re now building the whole school around chamber ensembles. People who are classical students will be composing and ear training and gaining all their skills in their string quartets and brass quintets, not just in orchestra.

JAZZed: Do you have any advice for students who are looking at going to music school?

SB: I do. I think it’s important to know what you’re looking for. There are schools like Berklee that are just huge and you have this critical mass where you’re going to be around hundreds and hundreds of other players. Then there are other schools that are pretty small, where you have to be very self motivated because you’re not going to be pushed by hundreds of other students, but you may have a very good teacher and a lot of hands on guidance. I think it’s important who you study with that the right chemistry is there. I think it’s important to know the opportunities that you will have to grow, to play and to be involved in the school you’re in and I think it’s important to understand the overall education that you’re trying to get.

A lot of jazz students want to flock to New York. That’s great, but the opportunities in New York have diminished exponentially in the last thirty years. It’s not the only place to go. It’s a great city, but it will always be there, so I don’t think it’s important for everybody to rush to New York, because it’s not the same city that they’re dreaming about. Don’t go somewhere where even your teacher doesn’t have a gig!

Our students are working like crazy here. It’s a broad scene, but our school trains people broadly. If I try to line students up for something and I call four of my piano students, sometimes it could be a Tuesday night and they’ll all have a gig. So they are working here and I think it’s fantastic.

JAZZed: Do you have any advice for your fellow teachers?

SB: Well, I call music the mortar of humanity. Because when a performance is radiating out something that all of us feel some universal emotion then it binds us all together because we’re all feeling some version of the same thing based upon the power of that performance. It’s so easy for teaching to become about the “things.” Can you play this scale? Can you play this chord? And all that’s well and good, but it’s all meaningless if it’s not creating some transcendent experience that binds the audience together. So my best advice for teachers is that our constant quest is to help our students mine those things that are going to make performances transcendent in that way.

JAZZed: Anyone can teach guide tones and scales, but the emotional element that you’re talking about are often difficult. Can those aspects really be taught?

SB: There’s definitely a way to teach it. You just have to start unlocking people in a different way. We get so concerned about a thousand notes that we forget about one note. I’ll often stop a student after a performance and ask them what their longest rest was. They won’t know and I’ll tell them “Oh, it was about a beat.” What was your longest note? It was a quarter note! So, having a student daydream their solo to where they hear the chord change and they have to think up the note that sort of creates the emotion or the word: “Ok, here’s the chord change, I want a note that says regret.” If you can play the note that says regret, then all the other notes are either going to lead to that regret, or they’re going to sum it up.

The other thing is, there’s a yin and yang to this music. Let’s talk about the Great American Songbook. I teach students that there are thirteen harmonic idioms. For instance, II-V-I is going to be in 100 percent of all the songs. II-V to the IV chord is going to be in 75 percent of songs and so forth. So, one way of looking at it is, “Ok, I have thirteen harmonic idioms and once I learn them all I can play all the songs.” But the Yang of that Yin is that every great standard is a completely unique expression of something we want to talk about in music. So, somehow the way the lyric, the melody, the harmony and the form all come together to create a unique expression. It’s really important in teaching and in learning to understand what makes Stella By Starlight completely different from Just Friends. They both have a II-V to the IV chord but they’re completely different tunes. So many musicians play Just Friends as another happy song when it’s really a sad tune. Similarly, a lot of people play Stella without thinking about the lyric. It’s about the mysteriousness of falling in love and what makes these tunes different from one another is in the journey of each chorus. Where is it hopeful? Where is it not? Then they can start using the tools that they’ve been learning to create that story, that narrative, each time. So it can definitely be learned. But, if it’s all about this scale going with that chord, then you’re never getting to the essence of music.

Shelton Berg, dean of the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, is a classically trained pianist who has had one heck of a jazz career. JAZZed: Jazz is no longer in it’s “golden age” and there are those who think that it’s even “irrelevant” at this point. What are your thoughts on the state of modern jazz?

SB: I think that jazz is more relevant than it’s ever been. Music is healing and as I said, it’s binding and it’s unifying. And, because jazz is an improvised art, I think it has the greatest power of any music to heal and to bind people together. I played with a very famous artist a few weeks ago who shall remain nameless and he said to me: “I never consider the audience when I play.” Well, to me, jazz becomes irrelevant when you don’t consider the audience. I don’t want anybody to pander to an audience but when you invite the audience in to that journey that is a jazz solo, you’re changing lives. I don’t care if they think they like jazz or don’t like jazz — if you do it with honesty, they’re going to love jazz and they’re going to know that somehow their life is better because they heard your performance. I think that you’ll talk to people that will lament that there are no gigs and then you’ll talk to people who you can’t hire because they’re busy playing gigs. I think that when your music has something to say and it’s truly compelling, you’re going to have a career.

JAZZed: Outside of your own teaching, how do you feel about the state of jazz education today?

SB: Well, I think that jazz in academia keeps getting better and better. At first there people that studied it in school and were teaching it, there were people that decided they wanted another gig because they’re playing was diminishing, but along the way, the good ones — we’ve grown up. I think we’ve been around long enough that the actual state of jazz teaching is probably the best it’s ever been. I think because of YouTube and other avenues the ability for people to check stuff out has been more than it’s ever been. The access to materials that people have now is just tremendous. I’m very encouraged about the Jazz Education Network starting there’s now an association for us all to get together with. So I think that jazz education is in a very good place right now.

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