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Saxophonist killed in automobile accidentCopyright © 2002
The tragic death of saxophonist Bob Berg in an automobile accident has stunned the jazz community world-wide. Berg was driving with his wife, Arja, through a snowstorm when his car was struck by a cement truck. His wife was thrown clear, and although badly injured, is expected to recover, but the saxophonist was killed in the impact.
Berg was regarded as a major figure in his generation. He served an apprenticeship working with Jack McDuff, Horace Silver and Cedar Walton in the Seventies, then emerged to wider notice as a member of Miles Daviss band from 1984-86. He went on to lead or co-lead his own groups, as well as working with other top names like Chick Corea.
The saxophonist was a strong and highly resourceful improviser in both acoustic and electric jazz settings, and developed a rich, hard-edged and beautifully articulated tenor sound.
He had recently recorded with the Jazz Times Superband, which also featured Randy Brecker, Joey DeFrancesco and Dennis Chambers, and had formed a new group with another top New York musician, vibes player Joe Locke.
Bob Berg grew up in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. He began classical piano lessons at the age of 6, but took up alto saxophone at 13 (later he made tenor saxophone his main instrument), and developed an interest in jazz when a teacher at his high school played him recordings by Cannonball Adderley and Horace Silver.
His family returned to live in Manhattan when he was still a teenager, and he said that the range of jazz he was able to hear in the city was a major influence on his development.
He studied at the High School of Performing Arts in New York for a time, and spent a year at the Juilliard School working on a non-academic music course on classical saxophone.
The example of John Coltrane was a major influence on his playing, and remained at the core of his own style. He was involved in the free jazz scene of the mid-Sixties for a time, but gradually developed a greater interest in earlier jazz styles, notably hard bop.
While still studying at Juilliard, he toured with organist Jack McDuff, an experience which added a funky, soul-jazz style to his armoury. Although he turned eventually to electric jazz, he ignored the jazz-fusion movement of the early Seventies in favour of acoustic jazz, and worked with pianists Horace Silver in 1974-76 and Cedar Walton from 1976-81.
In an interview in 1996, he told this writer that "I feel pretty comfortable moving between different areas of music. Im such an extremist, in the sense that I get so much into whatever Im doing right now that it always feels like that is what I want to do for ever. But then in a little while Ill start to feel the need to try something else."
He lived and worked in Europe in 1981-83, then returned to the USA. Miles Davis had returned to action after a long lay-off in 1981, and Berg was recruited to join his band in 1984. His association with Miles brought him even greater exposure on the international touring and festival circuit, and established his reputation as a significant player.
He formed a popular band with fellow Davis alumni, guitarist Mike Stern, then joined yet another former Davis associate, pianist Chick Corea, in 1992. He recorded the album Time Warp (1995) with Coreas Acoustic Quartet. The pianists high standing in jazz further advanced Bergs own reputation, and he was invited to join an excellent acoustic version of the reformed Steps Ahead with vibraphonist Mike Mainieri in the late Nineties.
He recorded several albums as a leader in both acoustic and electric band formats, including New Birth (1978), Short Stories (1987), Cycles (1988), In The Shadows (1990), Back Roads (1991), Virtual Reality (1992), Enter The Spirit (1993), Riddles (1994), Unchained (1995) and Another Standard (1997).
The saxophonist had recently formed a new group with vibraphone player Joe Locke under the name 4 Walls of Freedom, and they had recorded their debut album for John Priestleys UK-based Sirocco Jazz label.
John Priestley said that "Bob was really enthusiastic about the new project we had put together, and was so looking forward to touring the new recording during 2003. Unselfishly, he had even asked promoters to switch his own quartet bookings to the new band. He was not only a great musician, but one of the good guys as well. He will be missed, and our heartfelt sympathy goes to his family."
In addition to his wife, he is survived by their children, Mia and David, his mother, Annette, and his brother, Jeff.
Saxophonist Bob Berg (photograph by Ronnie James)by Ronnie James
Copyright © 2002 Ronnie James
Ronnie James is a freelance photographer. Visit his website at http://www.ronniejamesphotography.com/
A memory of Bob Berg at New Havenby Scott H. Thompson
Copyright © 2003 Scott H. Thompson
Scott H. Thompson writes:
As co-producer for the New Haven Jazz Festival from 1994-2000, I had the great pleasure of having Bob Berg up twice, once with his band and once with the Mingus Big Band.
Bob was a unique guy. He had a subtle but appreciated sense of humor. He played his ass off! He blew his tenor 'til the veins in his neck bulged out. I mean, he was one of the most deserving of tenor players...of jazz players. If you saw him perform, you know what Miles saw in him.
At the New Haven Jazz Festival (I think it was 1994), Bob Berg pulled up in his Jeep and parked for soundcheck near the stage on the New Haven Green. Right before he was about to go onstage to perform, he was being hassled by parking officials to move his Jeep.
I'm trying to explain to the parking guy and a cop that he's a performer...performing now! After nearly being arrested - in a comical way...he moves it quickly and accidentally backs over a cast-iron bench....pops his tire on it...and limps across the street.
He struggles to the stage with his horn...and with a laugh and a smile looks back at the band while addressing the audience: "Hello New Haven! Great to be here!" Ha! He laughed. The band laughed. I laughed. Anybody who knew what just happened was laughing.
It was comical. He then went on to blow the entire Green away! So much so, that the Cultural Affairs Director said she couldn't pay him what his rate was....she had to double it. Seriously. Thank you Bob. We love you. God Bless You and your family.
Scott H. Thompson
Scott H. Thompson was co-producer for the New Haven Jazz Festival from 1994-2000