Overton Berry: Essentially Elegant

Originally published in Earshot Jazz May 2012

When pianist Overton Berry accepted his induction into the Earshot Jazz Hall of Fame last month, he turned to the audience and said, “This is a tribute to everyone I have ever listened to. I’m learning from all of you.” Typical Overton Berry – generosity blended with humility that makes everyone listening feel good and like he is speaking directly to them. It looks effortless, but this grace emanates from decades of entertaining audiences.

Many musicians get trapped in a house of mirrors when they focus on building their chops. Berry almost did. He remembers practicing as a youth at the black musicians union hall (Seattle’s white and black musician unions integrated in 1958), working hard to play every note possible.

An older musician stopped him and asked, “What’s the most important thing about music?”

Berry was annoyed to have to stop practicing and blurted, “Technique?”

“No,” replied the sage. “The most important thing is listening.”

“Yeah, sure,” said Berry.

“Not just hearing…” continued the elder.

Now Berry was really annoyed because this guy wasn’t going to let him get back to work.

“…But listening. You hear with your ears and listen with your whole being.”

Berry pondered this lesson while the teacher walked toward the door.

“Hey kid,” he glanced back over his shoulder. “That’s the most important thing in life. And you will be working on it for a long time.”

Born in Houston, Texas on April 13, 1936, Berry lost his mother as a child and was raised by his father’s sister. A cross country road trip with his remarried aunt brought him to Seattle in 1945. After graduating early from Garfield High School in 1949, he studied music at Linfield College in Oregon then transferred to the University of Washington.

His father, remarried but health failing, moved to Seattle. Berry wed during the summer of his junior year in college and had a son. The responsibilities of elder care and raising a child left no room for completing his degree. He needed to work.

Berry gigged at Dave’s Fifth Avenue with a quartet in 1955 then moved to the Colony Club with a trio dubbed “La Hora de Jazz.” He toured Canada with the trio in 1961. When the Seattle World’s Fair opened in 1962, Berry worked as Musical Director at the House of Entertainment. There he met one of his piano heroes, Oscar Peterson.

“I thought he was blind,” said Berry. He explained that his first musical influences were the lushness of George Shearing and the linearity of Lennie Tristano. Because these two great pianists could not see, Berry assumed Peterson was blind too.

As the 1960’s progressed, President Lyndon Johnson’s anti-poverty program established the Office of Economic Opportunity. This funded the Central Area Motivation Program where Berry picked up work as a tutor. To better teach reading, advisors showed him structured but creative ways to uncover underlying skills for decoding symbols. Through his work as a teacher – needing to understand complexity at a child’s level – Berry’s music evolved into clarity distinguished by a profound simplicity.

“Do you ever play anything simple?” Berry once asked saxophonist Joe Brazil. They were playing a concert at the University of Washington and the first song sent Brazil exploring deep into John Coltrane’s dense musical forest. Unfazed, Brazil counted off a blues and proceeded to out-blues Muddy Waters. Brazil turned to Berry after his solo and asked, “Something like that?”

Berry formed a trio with bassist Chuck Metcalf and drummer Bill Kotick in 1968. A manager booked them on a USO tour with singer Gene Stridel. When they learned that the tour would be in Viet Nam, Berry asked, “You mean the war Viet Nam?”

While the band received vaccinations at the University of Washington, Metcalf and Kotick agreed that Berry was crazy to get them into this perilous gig. “I’m crazy?” asked Berry. “You’re standing in line after me, so who is crazy?”

When they landed in Southeast Asia, Berry knew he would die. They played a gig in a wooden frame building. Through the windows they could see red tracer bullets zipping by. This experience deepened Berry’s appreciation for those who serve. It also gave him a close up view of the politics and big business of war.

Back in Washington, the Double Tree Inn in Tukwila was auditioning for entertainment. Berry played a few tunes on piano in the lounge. The manager went upstairs to the office and asked the partners, “What do you think?” In the office, Muzak droned with the sound of violins. The businessmen listened to the piped in music. “Sounds good. Sure, hire him.”

Within three months, there were lines to get in to hear the band. Less than three months after that, the bustling lounge scene spilled over to fill the restaurant and hotel rooms.

Financial success paved the way for expansion. The Tukwila DoubleTree was the chain’s second location – the first was in Arizona. To open more hotels near airports, the DoubleTree needed ten million dollars. So, General Manager Don Cruickshank recorded the band live and handed out the records to investors along with the financial statements. Done. Investors were hooked. Berry became the Entertainment Director to open the Tucson and Phoenix locations.

The Overton Berry Trio at Seattle’s DoubleTree Inn was first released in 1970 but is enjoying a second life. Seattle label Light in the Attic Records included Overton Berry in Wheedle’s Groove, a documentary of Seattle’s 1970’s funk scene. They re-released a double vinyl set of DoubleTree with Berry’s 1972 “T.O.B.E.” last year. A CD version of DoubleTree is now available at overtonberry.com.

Singer Dianne Schuur met Berry at the DoubleTree in 1974. A year later Berry’s son was singing with the trio but fell ill. Schuur got the call to substitute. They worked together for seven years. “Overton is a wonderful musician,” says Schuur. “He’s the best friend I’ve got.”

Berry took Shuur under his wing. “He gave me a lot of tips – how to put on a good show, segue, and dialog between songs.” Berry injected humor into his mentoring. “He said I played so good he wanted to break my arm,” recalls Schuur.

“Overton reminds me of Ramsey Lewis – down home, homespun. No huge jazz clusters. Simple. Elegant. When he comps it’s not complicated.”

Berry’s clear accompaniment caught the ears of another Seattle songstress, Dee Daniels. They worked together on Lopez Island a year after Berry released Live at the Islander in 1986. “I have the highest respect for him as a person and musician,” says Daniels. “He was a trailblazer in Seattle with the type of music he played and the rapport he built with his audience. Overton is an entertainer which is rare for an instrumentalist. Singers are always expected to entertain. He exudes so much radiance and energy behind the keyboard that he has people in the palm of his hand.”

Berry spent much of the 1990’s working in Hong Kong. His first trip was as part of a six piece Rhythm and Blues band but he returned to play solo piano for six months at a stretch.

After a 2000 gig at Thailand’s Peninsula Hotel, Berry returned to the Fireside Lounge at Seattle’s Sorrento Hotel. There he recorded fourteen standards on To Madron: Just Me and the Piano. He followed this with Live at the Admiral in 2005 and Eleven is Forever in 2009.

Berry’s infuses his broad repertoire with effective arrangements - not too much, not too little, just right. From popular covers of “Hey Jude,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and “Color My World” to moody originals to standards “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Our Love is Here to Stay,” and “There Will Never Be Another You,” Berry’s version will include some fresh twist. Berry developed a minimalist arrangement of “Autumn Leaves” with classical guitarist Andre Feirante that evokes French composers Maurice Ravel and Erik Satie.

“I like to work with musicians who have a positive outlook on life, who use music as a way to heal and make the world a better place,” says Feriante. “Overton definitely falls in that category. Overton is simply full of love and humanity and it comes through in his music. He is obviously someone who has lived and evolved to a place of peace regardless of life situations. This is felt in his music as well. I can say that the reason Overton is connecting so deeply with all kinds of people is because of his respect for the world – his joy and his humility.”

In April, Berry celebrated his 76th birthday. He’s still hungry to learn. “Listening to music is like a banquet,” says Berry. And he is generous with his wisdom. “I’ve always liked arranging. The best arrangements are a marriage between the essence of a song and the musicians taking it way beyond.”

You can hear Berry taking it way beyond at Amici Bistro in Mukilteo on May 12 and the Fireside Lounge at the Sorrento Hotel in Seattle on May 19.

Visit https://www.overtonberry.com/ to read more about Overton.

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