Passionate educator tells of his New Orleans heritage, gigs with Buddy Rich and Woody Herman and teaching music at the University of Miami
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
January 7, 2013
Jazz bassist and composer Chuck Bergeron is considered one of the most innovative musicians working in the jazz field today. A native of New Orleans, Chuck’s unique compositional style and approach to improvisation reflect a wide variety of musical influences, underscoring a deep commitment to the rich polyrhythmic characteristics of his musical and cultural heritage.
Chuck has toured with jazz legends Buddy Rich and Woody Herman and has performed and/or recorded with music luminaries Joe Williams, Randy Brecker, Steve Gadd, Dave Grusin, Adam Nussbaum, Stan Getz, Jon Hendricks, Dave Weckl, Joey Calderazzo, Larry Coryell and many others. From 2000 to 2007, Chuck toured with Warner Bros. recording artist Kevin Mahogany. As a leader, Bergeron has released five CDs of original compositions on Double-Time and Gayle Force Records and has received three ASCAP Writers Awards.
Chuck is currently Professor of Jazz Bass and Jazz History, as well as Program Coordinator at the University of Miami. He also directs the South Florida Jazz Orchestra, a critically-acclaimed modern big band, which he co-founded.
FBPO: How would you describe your musical upbringing?
CB: My parents were not musicians, but they were both very appreciative of music, having grown up during the Big Band Era. They also had a pretty good record collection and we would listen all the time. I was very fortunate to have grown up in a time where music programs were a rich part of the school system. We had bands in elementary, junior and senior high schools throughout Louisiana. Some of the strongest influences on my life were the band directors I knew while growing up in Louisiana.
FBPO: What led you to the bass?
CB: I had played the drums and guitar throughout school, but at the end of my sophomore year in high school, my band director told me I was going to play bass the next year. We had other drummers that were better than I, but we had no bass player. While I was initially devastated at not being able to continue on drums, my parents were very supportive and bought me an Epiphone electric bass. I practiced over the summer and in September I won the bass chair in the inaugural Louisiana All-State Jazz Band. I got a scholarship to college in music and in my freshman year Bill Evans came to my school with his trio – Marc Johnson and Joe LaBarbera. It was, for me, one of those defining moments.
The next day I went to the school’s orchestra director and asked to check out an acoustic bass. I was given a bass, a bow and a copy of the Simandl method, but there was no bass teacher. So the next year I transferred to Loyola University in New Orleans, where the great Bill Huntington taught me how to play the acoustic bass.
FBPO: How do you think growing up in New Orleans affected you, musically? You must have jazz in your blood!
CB: I remember there was always music around. You could hear live musicians everywhere – schools, churches, parades, walking through the French Quarter in the afternoon, restaurants and cafeterias, etc. I think we looked at music differently then. It wasn’t a source of entertainment as a separate commodity or a destination event, but a natural part of the environment and culture of our community.
FBPO: At what point did your career begin to take off? Can you identify a defining moment?
CB: That’s tough to say. I guess joining Woody’s band for the first time would be one of those moments, but I remember feeling that I was starting to understand more about playing jazz music during the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans. I had met a great musician from Detroit named Rick Margitza and we were doing a lot of gigging together for the Fair. I learned a lot about music from Rick and later I would record with him and John Hart for Blue Note Records.
FBPO: Everybody who’s ever played with Buddy Rich has a “Buddy story.” What’s yours?
CB: Well, we all have “those” stories, but I also have one that has helped me as a bass player and an educator. One afternoon, after a couple of nights of feeling that he wasn’t happy with where I was placing the beat, I asked Buddy if he wanted me to play a little more “on top.” He put a hand at the top of his head and the other at his waist and said “I don’t want it here and I don’t want it here – I want it RIGHT HERE, right down the middle” – pointing at his heart. What I learned from that statement is that everyone has a different opinion of where “on top” or “on the backside” of the beat is and the only definitive place to put the time is right down the middle and with conviction.
FBPO: You mentioned Woody Herman. I remember when you got that gig back in the ’80s. That must have been a very special experience.
CB: I had always wanted to play with that band and it was an honor to become part of the historical lineage of bassists who played with the Thundering Herd. It also gave me a wealth of experience that I wish my students could be given. It was great traveling around the world playing music with such great musicians, but we also paid a lot of dues. Not every gig was a glamorous event. For every concert hall or professional stage we would play, there were also a multitude of high school gyms and dances and other functions and you had to learn how to turn it on every night, regardless of the circumstances. I learned a great deal from those experiences, plus made some lifelong friends. Our alumni band concerts are some of the most fun events I do each year.
FBPO: It’s good to see that you’re back at the University of Miami. How does the music program there compare to those of other colleges and universities?
CB: I believe we have one of the strongest and most exciting programs in the country. Our full-time faculty of professional educators has recently been augmented to include Brian Lynch, John Hart and a great piano player named Martin Bejerano, who works with Roy Haynes’ band.
In addition, I manage a yearly rotating guest artist series for the program that includes a residency with the great Dave Holland. We offer a wide variety of performing ensembles in many different musical styles and strive to maintain an open-minded approach with our students. Classes in music technology and the music business help prepare our students for careers in the real world and our graduation rate and career placement success is exceptional.
FBPO: You seem pretty “jazzed” about the South Florida Jazz Orchestra. What’s that all about?
CB: Yes, I am very excited about this group. We have a new CD out that had been in the Top 10 on the jazz radio charts for over a month and I am proud of what we have accomplished so far. I put the band together about five years ago while I was working with Arturo Sandoval. Arturo had a club in Miami and we played there regularly as we started to develop our sound and repertoire. In 2008 we released our debut CD with Arturo, Kevin Mahogany and Charles Pillow as guests. We have several writers in the band, as well as some great players, and we feature a lot of guests with the band when we perform. The new CD is called Trumpet Summit and features guest soloists Wayne Bergeron – no relation – and GRAMMY-winner Brian Lynch. Half the record is my writing, some is Brian Lynch’s and two more arrangements are by the head of the Studio Jazz Writing program at UM, Gary Lindsay.
FBPO: How about the future? What else would you like to do that you haven’t already accomplished?
CB: Many things. I am currently working on a doctoral degree in education and am hoping to run the jazz department at UM as chair. I am also starting to plan and write for the next South Florida Jazz Orchestra CD, which will probably focus on the saxophone, after the success of our Trumpet Summit recording.
Time permitting, what I really want to work on is my writing. I really enjoy writing and arranging for my band, plus I have some ideas for other ensembles that I would like to explore. Finding the time is the biggest challenge.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?
CB: In my younger days I probably would have listed something exotic, like helicopter pilot or scuba instructor. At this point in my life, I have the best “outside of music” job you can have – father to an adorable two-year-old son named Jackson.