Bill Berry: Interview 2
Bill Berry: Interview 3

Bill Berry (1930–2002)

Trumpeter, cornetist and bandleader Berry was born into a musical family in Benton Harbor, Michigan. He took up trumpet as a teenager, worked in territory bands in the mid-west US, studied music formally in the 1950s and then worked with the orchestras of Woody Herman and Maynard Ferguson.

From 1961 to 1964 he was a member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra and appeared in the film ‘Duke Ellington and His Orchestra’ in 1962. Berry gained special note for his inventive obbligato playing behind tap dancer Bunny Briggs on Ellington’s ‘My People’ album in 1963.

In 1970, after moving to Los Angeles, he founded the Ellington-inspired LA Big Band which performed and recorded extensively and featured numerous internationally known soloists. In 1980 he toured England with drummer Louie Bellson’s big band and, in subsequent years into the 1990s, performed with saxophonist Benny Carter.

Biography by Roger Cotterrell


The pros and cons of a part-time band

In Bill Berry’s third (1987) interview he tells Les Tomkins why he switched from trumpet to cornet, what it’s like running a part-time big band, and the experience of working with college jazz bands.


Arthur Birkby

Bill Berry: Interview 3

Image Details

Interview date 1st January 1987
Interview source Jazz Professional
Image source credit
Image source URL
Reference number
Forename Bill
Surname Berry
Quantity 3

Interview Transcription

The band I have in Los Angeles is called, appropriately enough, the L.A. Band, and it’s a part–time band that doesn’t travel. I don’t like the term ‘rehearsal band’, because my band never rehearses; most of the bands I know don’t rehearse—they perform. We rehearse if we have a special kind of job coming up involving music that we wouldn’t play ordinarily.

I think bands like mine are probably higher quality than the road bands used to be, for two reasons. One is that, as in my case, around Los Angeles you can pick what’s really the cream of the crop people you couldn’t afford to hire. Secondly, the full–time road bands, necessarily, are mostly young people; they also have many more changes in personnel than my kind of band, just due to it working so seldom.

The young players of today are better technicians on their instruments but I don’t think that necessarily makes the music any better. Straight technique alone is not as valuable as experience. The real minus side of a band like mine is just that you don’t get to work together every night. If a road band is together long enough, with enough of the same personnel, it’s a positive plus towards what they can deliver.

Nowadays there are so few bands working that I would assume—I’m just guessing this—that the personnel stays more constant than it did in my day. With the exception of Ellington, of course. I know when I played with Woody Herman, he always had great bands, but it was bands, plural, because there was always somebody coming and going—of necessity, you know. There was a new trumpet player or a new saxophone player, almost constantly. So that’s a disadvantage: somebody has to learn the music and learn where they fit in; then about the time that gets accomplished, somebody else has to leave, for whatever reason, and you have to go through the whole process again. But the bands that don’t travel, like mine, don’t have that problem as much. Also we have the advantage of having all those super musicians to pick from if somebody does leave.

Something I very much enjoy too is doing clinics and workshops with the bands in the schools. But the quality there always depends on the band director. A schoolteacher gets out of college—or out of the university himself, gets a job teaching music in a school, and he has then to have the marching band, the symphonic band, the orchestra, perhaps a vocal chorus and, oh, yes the jazz band. If jazz is such a specialised music—not that all music isn’t—but if a teacher doesn’t happen to be involved in jazz himself, then all of a sudden he is the director of the jazz band, and he may not know anything about it. Consequently, the level of the school bands varies tremendously.

I think there’s probably as much talent among the kids anywhere, but it depends always on the instructor to bring it out. Hopefully, if he has a jazz band, he will know something about jazz. Of course, with the economics the way they are, the first thing in the States, at least, that is cut out of the budget is Art of any kind, including music. So a lot of the bands that I have seen have to meet before and after school—it’s extracurricular, in other words. There is no money for it, and it demands a lot of dedication and effort from those who take it on.

At the Monterey Festival, I’m the director every year of what they call the California High School All–Stars. We audition for the various instrumental chairs in May; then I get them for a week before the festival. But that’s the top level in the state. I’ve had some wonderful bands up there, just in a week; they’re so good, so enthusiastic. For that week, we rehearse three hours a day with the kids; so that’s a lot of work on their part, and ours too. Then it pays off when you see somebody two years later playing with the Herman band or the Basie band. You feel you’ve accomplished something.

Of course, the kids themselves are the ones that do the accomplishing but you can give ‘em a push in the right direction. The important thing also is getting to play with others at their level. In a school, usually, you’ll have one or two top–flight players; in this instance, I get the best ones in every chair. So that’s good for them; in this band, nobody’s the best they’re all pretty much equal. That lets them know there’s something else out there too.

What kids get into, playing or listening, is a matter of exposure. You can’t expect a young person to like Lester Young’s playing if he’s never heard him, or never even heard of him. You don’t find that sort of thing on the radio as a rule, and if you don’t know what you’re looking for you can’t even go buy a record. They’ve heard of Chuck Mangione, Maynard Ferguson and Buddy Rich, and that’s about it. They have to be made aware that just because music wasn’t made yesterday it doesn’t mean it isn’t good.

People don’t have any problem realising that Bach and Beethoven is good music, even though it wasn’t made last week, but in jazz they seem to want to change it daily. I think it’s difficult to start out trying to play like John Coltrane, for example, look how long it took him to do that.

Education is not an easy thing. When I was starting to play, I was very fortunate in that my parents were into jazz; so I was raised on it—most people don’t have that advantage. My father is a bass player and my mother plays organ, and they’re both still very much involved—I don’t mean they’re playing professionally or anything, but they’re very involved.

Why do I play the cornet? The answer is very simple. Think of one thing that most cornet players have in common. Take, say, Bobby Hackett, Ruby Braff, Ray Nance they’re all small in physical stature. I like to play with a plunger and so forth, and being as short as I am the end of a trumpet’s a long way away—but the end of a cornet isn’t. With me it’s strictly that it’s more comfortable, more my size. And not having to play in the studios any more being my own boss, so to speak I can get away with it; I don’t have to play the trumpet.

I do own a flugelhorn, and I have played it—in the studios, when I’ve been required to. To me, it’s not just a double; it’s another instrument. I’m still trying to learn how to play the cornet. In the studios, all trumpet players have to play flugelhorn, and you get paid extra to do that; so I’ve done it on numerous occasions. As for doing it as a personal instrument, I don’t have the time or the inclination.

On the question of practice—I don’t know if playing’s ever enough, really. I don’t do nearly as much work on the instrument as I should. With the way I’m making my living now, I spend an awful lot of time on the telephone trying to book jobs, and trying to call my band. As a leader of sorts, there’s a lot more to it than just playing your instrument. No, there isn’t a lot of practice time left. I think music all my waking hours; I’m always subconsciously practising—I find myself moving my imaginary valves, even though I don’t have the horn with me. I guess that’s some sort of practice, but not the physical blowing thing.

I have found, though, that the older I get the more important warming–up becomes. I don’t just pick it up and start playing; I’ll warm up for a couple of half–hour periods before I go to work. It’s a matter of muscles. When I was a young student, I remember somebody making a baseball analogy, pointing out that a pitcher on a team doesn’t go out and start right off throwing fast balls—they warm up their muscles; otherwise you hurt your arm. It’s the same way playing a brass instrument: if you don’t warm up all those hundreds of muscles around your lips there properly, you can damage them. So even though I’m playing more, I still warm up more. And I have a routine that I do, which seems to work for me that’s always personal too. But it’s one of the most important things I could say to any student: you must warm up properly. Now that I’ve got to know some, if you will, classical–type trumpet players, I find that everybody has the same exact problems with playing the instrument. Physically, it takes the same thing to produce music in a jazz band as it does in a symphony.

As to defining what is or isn’t jazz when you hear it: is it improvisation? Well, all music has to be improvised at some point, even if it’s the composer sitting there with a piece of paper and a pencil. One of the differences in jazz is that it’s collective improvisation; it’s always a team effort—it’s very seldom one person. Also, in my opinion and I think that I’m qualified to some extent to say this—they sell a lot of things as jazz today that I don’t think have anything to do with jazz. Aside from my personal taste, I believe they misuse the word.

I always say to young students: “What’s the difference between jazz music and a march or a waltz or a polka or a symphony? Why is one a march and one jazz?” They’ll say: “Oh, a steady beat.” I say: “No, a march has a steady beat—no question about that.” “Well it’s improvised.” I say: “Not necessarily.” After they’ve come up with a few other things, my final answer to them, according to what I believe, is: “The difference is the feeling of what we call swing. That’s what makes jazz different from any other music.” It’s more than syncopation—they have syncopated parts in some symphonies. It’s that indefinable thing swing.

Now, if that is indeed the truth, then if it doesn’t have that feeling of swing, is it jazz? I mean, it can be very good music, it can be improvised, it can have a steady beat or whatever, without having that swinging feeling. If you listen to a great jazz player—Dizzy Gillespie, for example—he’s swinging a ballad as much as he is something up–tempo; whatever the tempo, the feeling of swing is still there. With the straight eighth–note thing of the rock and some of the fusion music, you can certainly get a feeling and it has a lilt to it, but is it swinging? You can tap your foot to it, but you can tap your foot to a march or a waltz too.

I don’t mean it has to sound like the nineteen–forties—that’s not at all what I mean. But no matter how intricate, involved or what–have–you, it should have that feeling. In recent years I’ve learned to enjoy playing three–quarter time, but making it swing.

When you turn on the radio, or hear something playing somewhere, you can tell immediately whether it’s jazz or not, and the reason you know that is because it has that swing feeling. If that just isn’t there, no matter what they call it on the record cover, however excellent and interesting it may be, I can’t consider it jazz myself.

I like the way Shelly Manne defined jazz: “We never play anything the same way once” !

  Copyright © 1987 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.