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BunnyBass Interview:
Jeff Berlin
August, 2001


Every bass player should know who Jeff Berlin is. His credits include playing with a broad range of contemporary masters - George Benson, Tony WIlliams, Pat Metheny, The Becker Brothers, Toots Thielemans, Bob James, Herbie Mann, Bill Evans, John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell - the list goes on and on. He's also the director of The Players School of Music in Clearwater, Florida and continues to be known (feared!) as an iconoclast music educator. We sat down with Jeff Berlin to discuss the release of his latest CD, "In Harmony's Way," but also to talk about some of the perspectives on bass playing that have made him controversial, but also highly respected as someone who isn't afraid to speak the truth. Of course, before you can say something anything truthful, you have to dare to allow youself to think it. And because he has always taken the care to think honestly about things, we think his words deserve your serious consideration. We hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as we had this opportunity to speak to someone we both respect.
       ~ your friends at bunnybass, jon & mimi

bunnybass:  You were very well known as a bassist before your interests in education became public. Lots of "famous" bass players teach. But why did it become such an important aspect of your life?

Jeff Berlin:  It sort of happened without my planning it. I came from a time in music where there were practically no bass players with technique. It was Jaco, Stanley, and myself (these days EVERYBODY has fantastic technique, but that's another story). Over time, people began to ask me how I did it. Players wanted to study with me and tap into what I knew about music and my instrument. The final result of my teaching skills was the beginning of The Players School of Music in Clearwater [Florida]. I wanted to make a truly meaningful educational situation for guitar players, bass players, drummers and keyboard players. The final impetus to start this school was the diagnosis of my son with lymphoma. While he was receiving his treatments, I decided not to go on the road anymore until he recovered completely from his illness. In order to make a living, I put everything into The Players School. I wanted to make a school that offered players great musical information in an intimate setting. One complaint that I kept hearing from other players was that they sometimes felt lost within the larger school systems. Hearing this inspired me to make an intimate learning environment. This story ended with my son recovering from his cancer, The Players School continuing to grow every year, and my bass career getting bigger all the time.

bunnybass:  What were the fundamental principles that guided you as you developed the curriculum for the Player's School?

Jeff Berlin:  The principles are all based on methods of learning that have been proven to be effective for years. Harmony lessons, ear training lessons, two private instrument lessons each week, five live playing ensembles each week. The concepts at the school were designed to make music, not technique, the carrot to entice and lead young players into new concepts even if they never read music in their lives. We have students who never read a note, and now can read through charts after only one month of studying with us. I don't know of any other school that can make this claim anywhere in the world.

bunnybass:  This scenario is a real one all the time here at bunnybass - and you're probably the perfect person to ask. A 15 year old e-mails us "I want to play bass. Tell me what bass to buy and how I should go about learning to play. I have $500 and that's it." - What would you tell a beginning learner like this?

Jeff Berlin:  I would tell him/her to go and buy their bass, then buy some CD's of their favorite bands, listen to those CD's and imitate what they've heard. It isn't right to ask a pure beginner to dedicate himself to the rigors of studying since they have no idea about what real musical study is all about. If, after a year or two, the beginner player finds that music is a really important part of their lives and that they want to continue learning, then they should contact a really good music teacher and continue from there.

bunnybass:  You've been a controversial figure in the area of music education - everybody should know by now you don't believe in hand strengthening tools, tab, and all that shit. But how do you think your ideas on the purpose and utility of music education differs from, say that of a four-year university type music education, 'taking lessons', or other means of formal learning?

Jeff Berlin:  Probably not much. The major music schools seem to focus on music, not rock or chops as their basic sources of musical information. We are simply a smaller and less expensive version of these larger jazz academies. First of all, The Players School is not accredited. This means that our students do not have to take social studies (as it were) just to satisfy the State's educational requirements when all these students wanted to do in the first place was to come to Florida just to study their keyboard or drums. Because we are a small school, we also have the luxury of taking our time with the students so that they don't have to feel rushed into learning new musical ideas in a hurry. Some guys learn faster than others. You can't penalize the slower guys who will eventually be able to play the new music anyway. The object here is to practice. The learning part will take care of itself. Our teachers have the mindset that the entire school is like one giant private lesson, which allows the students to slowly grow in music if slow growth is their natural way to learn. For the more advanced players, believe me! - we have some lesson concepts here that you might not be able to find anywhere else.

But the general attitude here is there's no rush to learn. Just, do the work and the benefits will follow. Since the major schools have to answer to the government in regards to timetables and schedules overseen by the government, we take the path of least resistance. We teach MUSIC at a more personal pace. Just do the work and you will grow. In fact, it's guaranteed.

bunnybass:  In regards to learning and teaching bass, how do you think you've been most often misunderstood?

Jeff Berlin:  Most of my critics don't read what I really say. One guy wrote a letter to a website stating how he was in stitches because of my arrogance about hating rock music. I wrote him back and asked him to show me anywhere where I said that I hated rock. He never wrote back because nothing like this exists.

Another guy wrote me and told me that he was fuming because he said that I tear down educational concepts and but never make suggestions to replace them. I told him that I regularly write in my columns to practice reading, practice jazz, practice scales, chord tones, harmony and ear training and to find a teacher who will teach these things. I told him that if he read what I said instead of what he thought I said, he wouldn't have had a need to write me in such a pissed off manner. I didn't hear back from this guy either.

I can outright prove any statement that I have made. I do this in my clinics all the time. When I show my critics my points of views and then ask them to show me errors in what I have just demonstrated to them, there is dead silence from those people who now cannot find any faults in what I have just demonstrated to them. It really stops them cold.

bunnybass:  I guess I'm not surprised. It seems like most people would rather believe in a secret (and easy) path from "here to there". From my experiences I can say that it's the same with art ("Can you teach me how to draw like Michelangelo this semester?") and with social change work too ("I've been struggling against racism for FIVE WHOLE YEARS but nothing's changed - forget it."). Seems like as a society we've really become alienated from the traditional meanings and value of the concept of work.

Jeff Berlin:  That's right. This society is raised on fast food, fast service, the fast checkout line, lose weight fast, get rich fast. In music, there are those articles that tell you that they have exercises to help you to play your instrument faster, solo faster, make your chops faster. It's a crock. You will never play faster, you will never learn music faster. It's a lie that is supported by every guitar magazine in the business. Music is a life-long endeavor unless you treat it as a hobby. In this case, you can dick around with music in any capacity you like, just like my miniature golfing or someone else's weekend tennis. But, the minute that you attach more meaning to music in, say, making a career out of it, or learning as much about it so that you can express yourself through your instrument with ease, the rules change. Like it or not, you have to up your ante.

bunnybass:  Let me play devil's advocate for a moment. Some say that art and music educators are in a sense producing a specialized kind of laborer for what can be called an expanded entertainment industry (night clubs, galleries, performance spaces, television and film, and so on). These "cultural workers" generally have a difficult time finding long-term employment, are often under-appreciated and under-paid when they do, compete against each other for an extremely limited pool of financial and support resources from governmental and other agencies, and work in an industry that often seems to value novelty and glamour over artistic mastery or intellectual development. How do you prepare yourself and your students for the fucked up reality that awaits them after leaving your program?

Jeff Berlin:  I rarely discuss employment possibilities because of the constantly changing industry and musical fads that go along with it. It is easier to become a lawyer or a doctor than a steadily working musician. My focus is always on music and the instrument. If my students can learn to read music and play their instruments with some authority, then they will have a chance to stay in this quirky industry because many musicians can't read music and can't play with authority. Styles may change, but a G major chord is forever a G major chord. Learn this fact, and you can always be qualified to remain in music no matter the current popular style. When I try to rev up the general community of musicians and tell them to learn music so they can survive in this industry, some of them reject this as if it was bad advise I was giving them. So, I leave it alone. Fuck it! It's their careers. They'll find out soon enough.

bunnybass:  In your experiences as a teacher, what are the most typical roadblocks to musical and intellectual development that students bring with them when they enter your program?

Jeff Berlin:  By far, the biggest roadblocks are what these players have read in music magazines about learning how to play. Handgrips, metronome studies, major scales exercises that have been re-hashed to death for over 20 years, music magazine articles with titles like "Learn How to Play in a Week" or even "Learn Without Practice" (this one cracked me up because the author was serious), tablature, memorization exercises, alternate picking exercises, slap exercises, rock class, rock bass transcriptions. There isn't a shovel big enough in the world to scoop up all the shit that has been dropped in front of these guys every month for years.

At a clinic one day, a bass player named Steve Bailey actually told a group of young players to use their handgrips while driving their cars. It wasn't even my clinic, yet I walked on the stage, got on the microphone and told those guys to keep both hands on the wheel and pay attention to the road. How can anyone make suggestions like this to impressionable people and then wonder why I get so concerned about the educational farce that is perpetuated on players all the time and from all kinds of sources?

bunnybass:  I'd hate to get killed while driving just because someone wants to play bass faster. I've never heard you talk about this before, but I wanted to ask you anyway - just in case you have anything to say about this: How do you think the performance of music is related to the ethical and spiritual development of a human being?

Jeff Berlin:  Music is a spontaneous outpouring. It comes from knowledge and emotion, skill and focus. I,m not sure if one's ethics and spirit are connected to great music. Maybe it is sometimes, but I don't know. Look at it this way: Wagner was an anti-Semite. Van Gogh had mental disease. Charlie Parker lied and stole from his friends for drugs. Yet, their art was at the absolute highest levels. Maybe one's ethics and spirit can be separate from one's art. I don't really know.

bunnybass:  When I heard that you were a long-time student of boxing, I immediately thought that I'd like to ask you if you could share with us maybe a couple of insights you've learned by simultaneously dedicating yourself to these two passions: bass and boxing...

Jeff Berlin:  I have never had a boxing match. I HAVE sparred loads of times and practiced the skills connected with the sport. I love boxing. This sport requires skill and heart and a ton of stamina and guts. I don't have the heart to be a real fighter because I'm not dedicated enough to giving out or receiving punishment. But, I have sparred some really rough rounds and have learned that I can take a shot and can rely on my skills to dish it out if I have to. I have been in the ring when my gas tank was empty and there was still a minute left in the round. I had to find a way to last because my macho wouldn't permit me to quit in front of the other guys. I don't like to fight. I like to box. Big difference. I love to learn about boxing and I always find out something new whenever I go to the gym to work out. I'm not sure how all this relates to the bass. I can say however that if I learned boxing using the same goofy tricks that some bass players learn music, I would have gotten my face kicked in the first week at the gym. As it stands, I suck as a boxer anyway. But, I enjoy the hang so I do it.

bunnybass:  I'd like to ask you about your latest CD, "In Harmony's Way". Of course it has unbelievable playing on it - it's the kind of CD I can't play as background music. For myself, I'm finding that I have to stop doing everything I'm going and just sit and listen really carefully (I'm getting a lot less work done since I got the disk). What kind of musical themes did you specifically set out to explore on this recording?

Jeff Berlin:  I feel that this CD is my finest work I've done to date. I am so proud of the results of this CD. I can't say that I had a specific plan before I recorded it except to try and do as live sounding recording as I could make. The bass solos are all live. Everything here is practically all first takes which shows how well rehearsed we were before we recorded.

bunnybass:  The dialogue established between yourself and the guest musicians are really... 'wow'. I especially enjoyed "Liebman On a Jet Plane" with Dave Liebman, and you and Mike Stern on the song "Emeril Kicks It Up". Those solos are just totally sick. Do you approach these kinds of guest-soloist situations very differently than from how you would play with, say, musicians you play with very frequently?

Jeff Berlin:  My approach to asking other players to record with me was based entirely on my hearing how great they would sound on my tunes. Every guest musician who recorded on "In Harmony's Way" honored me by playing for me. You have to realize that I view myself not only as this contemporary 48 year old player in the year 2001, but also I have memories of being an unknown young kid who worshipped the musical skills of the maestros who graced my CD. Gary Burton is an especially important guest artist. I knew him when I was a student in 1972, thrilled when he sought me out to be the bass player in his reading classes at Berklee. His agreeing to record for me is the most emotionally satisfying feeling that I have about "In Harmony's Way." I played my ass off on the tune that he played on ("This Is Your Brain on Jazz") because I really wanted his approval about my solo since we have shared the same tune. At least I didn't embarrass myself next to him, because, in musical terms, I'm not worthy to carry his mallet bag.

oooOOOooo!!!
Jeff appears very excited for some reason... is it the new CD?

bunnybass:  Musically speaking, what were you trying to achieve when you were writing, recording, performing this CD? I mean, when you are creating a CD do you lean more towards immersing yourself in the exploration of self-expression, or do you focus more on producing a certain range of responses in your audience?

Jeff Berlin:  I record with the most selfish of intentions. I want to make a CD that I would be proud of in twenty years. I record for myself and play for myself. Yet, my way of entertaining people is to invite them to join me as I explore music my way. Miles Davis did this. He played for himself, but invited people to share the experience. This makes for the most honest music one can make as it comes from a truly honest place.

bunnybass:  This is probably a stupid question: I'm just blown away at the combination of on one hand, the intricacy and level of execution on the CD, and on the other the feeling of ease and intimacy of the recording. Since I don't often hear both feelings co-existing on recordings, I was wondering how you all approached the performance and recording on this particular CD that perhaps may have helped in achieving this.

Jeff Berlin:  If the record sounds effortless, it's because Richard, Danny, and I rehearsed the music for weeks before recording it. We knew our parts. We were hot to trot. We were rehearsed. Put these elements of music together with some coffee inspired hyper-activity and you can create some really fired up performances. Even the ballads have passion.

bunnybass:  I like artists that continue to grow and learn over time, gain complexity. And on this CD your sound appears effortless, the voice of your bass freer. So maybe this is actually a learning question too - what have you done to help yourself continue to grow? You've been widely acclaimed for your abilities for over 25 years already - how have you resisted the urge to become an imitation of the representation that's created of you by others?

Jeff Berlin:  A lot of my musical growth came from out-and-out denial. I denied myself the easy route of imitating other bass players and their particular approaches to their instrument. On purpose, I would avoid any cliché of bass playing that I heard. By denying myself the easy way to play, I had to come up with alternative means to express myself. My focus was 100% on some kind of musical growth, something that I refused to compromise in any way. From this intense focus on music, something special began to develop in my playing, a sort of ease, a new form of melodic outpouring, at least new to the bass instrument. Out of necessity, I began to find new ways to interpret melody and rhythm and harmony so that my bass playing expanded into something new for me. It was a heady time preparing for this recording. Lots of personal bests were happening and I embraced them all as my rewards for my good works, my good intentions in music, honest and true to myself through hard practice and a vision that I have never had before this time, but, finally began to take focus in my heart and my bass.

bunnybass:  You play your own instrument (the Jeff Berlin bass, made by Dean Guitars), have your own distinct musical style-vision, run your own educational institution, produce your own CDs, control the means of distribution of your product (the CD is available only at your website: www.jeffberlinmusic.com). In terms of control, this probably makes you about as independent an artist on the music scene right now (since the death of punk?) - no small achievement. What kind of differences has this attention to control the things you believe in made in your music?

Jeff Berlin:  In my music, very little. In my daily life, Wow! It sure taught me that the music business is more than taking a bass solo. As a bandleader and as the president of a music school and a record company, I have to fill out tax papers, pay bills, balance checkbooks, check inventory, set up promotion and interviews, book gigs, take care of musicians who work for me, deal with the government (both State and Federal), deal with banks, deal with accountants, webmasters, fulfillment people, travel agencies, hotels, pay salaries. PLUS, I teach music, take care of Players School needs, practice my bass, write new material, care for my children, and squeeze out last night's dinner when there's time. I also jog to lose some of the 250 some odd pounds that I put on since last year. Yeah! My plate is FULL. By the way! What's sex like? I can't seem to remember.

bunnybass:  So where are you going next?

Jeff Berlin:  On the road with my band. I've also been booked as the featured musician on Chef Emeril Lagasse's show in September which ought to be fun. Plus, we're making a stab at Jay Leno, Sessions at West 54th, Breakfast with the Arts and any other TV show that would have me as a guest. The Players School is still smoking and my son is healthy as a horse. Life is good. Music is good. It's great to be a bass player.

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You can order Jeff's CD, "In Harmony's Way," only via the internet at Jeff Berlin Music.

You can contact Jeff at:

The Player's School of Music
attn: Jeff Berlin
923 McMullen Booth Road
Clearwater, Florida 33759

Phone: (800) 724-4242


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