Sunday, February 09, 2014

Dick Berk 1939-2014

Just learned that the drummer Dick Berk has died. He was best known for being Billy Holliday's last drummer; he is also on recordings by Ted Curson, Nick Brignola, Milt Jackson, George Duke, Cal Tjader, Jean-Luc Ponty, Bobby Shew, Pete Christlieb, as well as his own bands. He seemed to know, and to have played with, everybody; he knew Mingus, knew the comedian Lenny Bruce, subbed with Ornette Coleman's band in LA, and had an apparently long-running, good-natured feud with Mel Lewis. He also had small roles in Martin Scorcese's Raging Bull and New York, New York. I'm sure that's just the tip of the iceberg [UPDATE: It's true.]— I didn't get to hang with him as much as a lot of other people in town did, and not at all in recent years.

In addition to living in LA, Boston, and New York, Dick was a leading figure in the Portland jazz scene for many years, and I learned a lot from watching him— his playing was a direct line back to jazz the way it was played in the 50's. He played his ride cymbal strongly, and was not afraid of spontaneously conducting Mingus-style stops and tempo changes. Seeing him play the Les McCann beat was a real education in grooving. He was also a great example for younger players by always being out making the hang— consistently being out in the clubs for something like 55+ years. He once told me, after he finally got married in his 40s or 50s, that part of the arrangement was that he would be out most nights— the hang was non-negotiable.

I once expressed to him some doubts about how I would compete with some flashier players around, and his response, coming from such a forceful, New-Yorkish cat, was memorable: “Music's not a competition.”

Here he is playing with Nick Brignola— my old USC combo leader, pianist Dwight Dickerson, is also on this recording:

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