For more than twenty-five years, Peter Bernstein has been a highly regarded jazz musician in the US and overseas. Both a leader and a member of various combos, he works regularly with keyboardist Larry Goldings and drummer Bill Stewart. Bernstein is also a celebrated sideman who’s very much in demand. His extensive résumé includes playing with Sonny Rollins, Joshua Redman, and Diana Krall, among many others. In addition to the numerous recordings he’s worked on, he has released ten of his own records, with one CD dedicated to the music of Thelonious Monk. Bernstein teaches jazz guitar at NYU and the New School jazz program, where he studied in the late eighties. A recent arrival to Westbeth, Bernstein lives here with his wife, Erin Quinn Purcell, and their two sons, Bruno and Dewey.
Terry Stoller spoke with Peter Bernstein in June 2016 about his introduction to the guitar, his music education and his mentors, his own teaching, his thoughts on telling a story through music, his work as a sideman, his attraction to the music of Thelonious Monk, and his moving to Westbeth with his family.
Terry Stoller: You started with the piano, but switched to the guitar at age 12. What drew you to the guitar?
Peter Bernstein: I saw some kids at school playing it, and it looked like a lot of fun. I had an art class in sixth grade, and the assistant art teacher would bring her guitar to the class and play while we did art. So that was cool. She said she had a guitar that she could sell me and that she could give me some lessons.
Were you playing folk music?
Yeah. She just taught me the basic chords. At that time, I was listening to the Beatles and stuff my parents had on. They had a couple of jazz records and some classical music and Simon & Garfunkel. They weren’t too up on the R&B stuff. My friends and I were listening to everything from Earth, Wind & Fire to Steely Dan to Jimi Hendrix, and we got more into the guitar. Rock was everyone’s introduction to the guitar. The rock guitar players got us back into the blues guitar players. Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton took from Albert King and B.B. King and all those guys. And just being open about music, loving all kinds of music, and reading about guitar players got me into jazz—reading about Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery. And then the younger guys at that time, people like Pat Metheny, who were talking about guys like Kenny Burrell and Jim Hall. I tried to listen to everybody and got into the guitar and got into jazz.
Did you mainly stick with jazz?
Once I got into jazz, I was really serious about that, but still finding other things about other kinds of music, still going back to classical music and R&B and older blues. And once I got into the world of jazz, it extended way beyond the guitar. It got me into the world of the saxophone players and the piano players and the big bands and the singers.
And you found your way to the New School jazz program.
That was a little bit later. After high school, I went to Rutgers for a year and kind of bounced around. That turned out well because I met different musicians in different places. After a few years, I knew a lot of people, my own peers—and also different programs had different teachers.
Did Rutgers have a music program?
Yes. When I was leaving high school, the New School jazz program didn’t exist. There was the Manhattan School of Music in New York. Berklee College of Music was up in Boston, but being from New York City, I didn’t really want to go to Boston. I heard good things about the Rutgers program. The pianist Kenny Barron was teaching there. And this great guitar player and teacher, Ted Dunbar, taught there for years. I went there, but it was a crazy year for me. I was getting exposed to a lot of different musical things, and I wasn’t ready for all of Ted’s concepts. And also it was really hard to play at the school. I ended up staying there only a year. We wanted to play at night and have a place to do that. I went to visit a friend at William Paterson College in New Jersey. They were playing all night, and I heard the drummer Bill Stewart and all these other strong players, so I transferred there and stayed there for a year.
The year I was at William Paterson was the first year of the New School jazz program. On Fridays I didn’t have classes at William Paterson, so I would come to New York City Thursday night and hang out with my friend [keyboardist] Larry Goldings. I had met him before I went to college at a summer jazz workshop at the Eastman School of Music. Larry ended up at the first year of the New School, so I was hanging around there on Fridays and getting a sense of that place.
The same year I went to William Paterson, my family—my brother, mother, and father—moved to Paris. My dad went to Paris for his work with CBS News. They were living in France while I was in school in New Jersey, and they were only going to be there for three years. So I went to Paris after the year at William Paterson and spent nine months there. I was going around to jam sessions, clubs. I didn’t have too many gigs. I was soaking it all in and practicing and playing a lot of sessions. It was a great opportunity to live in an incredible city like that and have the time to think about the two years of school and to work through that stuff that was over my head and coming at me really fast. But then I did feel like New York was where it was happening. Larry was writing me letters, telling me, “We’re starting to play at this place uptown.” I was missing out, so I went back. These were my friends, and they were starting to get out there and play. And Larry was telling me that Jim Hall had started teaching at the New School, and of course I wanted to study with him.
It seems to me there are a lot of jazz clubs in New York now.
It’s a good time. There are a lot of players coming through town. I would say that in the time I was talking about—’88 and ’89—there were more clubs then. There were more gigs going on on a nightly basis in places like Bradley’s. I think there was more live music just because there was less entertainment for people. In those days, there were just a few channels and maybe some cable. So there were more social places; people went out to hear music. There were more joints—and some bigger clubs like the Village Vanguard, which is still here. The Village Gate was a great place. The Bottom Line. They had bigger acts that could fill that room. Sonny Rollins used to play at the Bottom Line.
Now smaller clubs like Smalls are keeping jazz alive for the younger generation. Students can’t go to the Blue Note and pay a $40 cover. Even the Vanguard is expensive. Smalls is keeping it accessible for younger people—so that’s important. I remember little places where there was no cover at all. There was just a bar and a restaurant. You’d just go in there, and there were great people playing. But it’s not a bad time now. There are a lot of students; there is a lot of interest in the music. But I think in terms of venues, there are fewer people making a living playing gigs. Even the top performers still teach.
Is teaching something you feel a calling to do, or is it just a financial consideration?
It’s both. The financial consideration makes it a necessity to do. I really enjoy it, though. I was lucky to have a lot of great teachers. So I can just remember things people told me and pass them along. It’s a kind of responsibility to pass the information along. I think jazz music is a social thing, and there’s a lineage involved in it. So it’s important to teach unless you just can’t or are too busy, or it takes too much out of you.
Do you want to talk about some of your teachers?
Ted Dunbar was a teacher that really organized his knowledge. He had books about the fingerboard of the guitar, about chords. The stuff he told me, I’m still listening to in my head—and thinking about how to be organized. It was a good lesson, very specific things, but just that approach, that kind of mind. Jim Hall was a different kind of teacher. He was more intuitive, and it was more like watching somebody be curious about wanting to keep learning music himself. He would ask a student: “What’s that you’re doing? What are you thinking about? Show me that. That’s pretty cool. How did you arrive at that?” He would take an interest in the one thing that somebody could play. All of us were beginners, and he would play with us and make us sound good. It was a very different type of teaching. I’m lucky to have had both. The thing about Ted Dunbar was that he had both sides. He had the scholarly side, and he also had a lot of intuitive wisdom. What I remember about Ted that’s still in my ear is how to go about learning music and extracting knowledge from music that you learn. I had a lot of great teachers. Gene Bertoncini, who is amazing. Attila Zoller—he was from Hungary and lived in New York for years. It was great studying with these incredible, idiosyncratic, colorful characters—just seeing how their personality, their humanity came out in their playing.
You’re saying you had wonderful teachers and that you learned a lot from them, but then you must have diverged and gone off on your own. In what ways do you think you have done that as a musician?
It’s about taking the things you like from different people and trying to incorporate them in your way. Obviously the goal of everyone is to go toward a personal style, have your own imprimatur, and that’s a synthesis of many things. You’re trying to learn about music and how it works, and then find your own way of expressing those thoughts. It’s just about trying to play to your own strengths, playing to the things that are unique about you, but at the same time not becoming a prisoner of that—trying to expand and learn how to take an idea and expound upon it. That’s really what improvisation is.
You’ve likened playing to telling a story. In theatre, actors also say they’re telling a story, but I think you’re referring to something different—because it’s not linear or literal.
It’s not that different in that it’s supposed to have some kind of narrative flow. There’s supposed to be a reason for the order of the notes.
What is the narrative? When you play a standard, are the lyrics your story?
The lyrics will tell a literal story describing a situation. And of course learning the lyrics helps you understand the balance of the structure of the melody. How many words, how many syllables there are in a phrase corresponds with how many notes there are. So learning melodies, we need to understand how they’re poems also.
But do you appreciate standards for the melody rather than for the lyrics?
I appreciate everything about the song, but not being a singer, knowing the words is just in my head. I can learn about the melody from the words and what the sound is supposed to be about—it gets context. But the melody stands alone as a thing of perfect distribution of balance and weight and how it goes.
Singers are more in touch with how to phrase the song because they’re telling the literal story of the song, what the words are about; so a good singer makes those words musical. I just don’t sing myself and don’t have to deal with that element. But singers influence me. When I learn a song, I want to hear a singer doing it; otherwise I feel like I’m missing out on some important dimension. If it’s a standard, I’ll look up someone like Frank Sinatra or Nat Cole, because they’re faithful to the song.
You’ve said that you’re nervous as a soloist. Is that true?
I might have said there’s fear involved with playing solo guitar. Because it’s all on you. It’s not a conversation. When you’re going to go up there in front of people united with one or more other people, there’s a certain safety in that. We can have our conversation, and the audience can enjoy it or not. When you’re playing by yourself, it’s all on you; you can’t get inspired by somebody. It’s not a social experience. It’s just you staring into the musical void, so there’s a certain fear that goes along with that. But then there are certain possibilities that you have when you’re by yourself. You can do anything. You can make use of that space, that silence. It’s a whole different experience. I love the social part of music, conversing with people and putting something forward together.
I’ve read that sometimes when you’re in a combo, you have to fill in for missing instruments. In last night’s trio at Smalls, with the bass, drums, and the guitar, was there an instrument you were filling in for?
It was on me to play the melody of the song in most cases. There was no piano, and if I wanted to hear some chords, I had to play them myself. So there was a lot of space for the guitar to fill both those roles: an orchestrating role, to a small degree, and also the role of the singer.
You’re famously a sideman as well. What’s that like?
That’s a lot of fun. I’ve been lucky to play with a lot of the great musicians of my generation, but also with the elders and some of my heroes. When you’re a sideman, you just try to serve the music the best way you possibly can, doing what the leader wants to do. But with jazz, there’s always room in most cases for personal expression. So you’re not there to play the guitar facelessly. You’re there to impact the music with whatever you can bring to it.
Would you like to name some of the people you’ve played with as a sideman?
One of my earliest experiences was with Lou Donaldson, an alto saxophone player. I played with him in a group, and he had Dr. Lonnie Smith on organ. Those were two of my heroes, especially when I started getting into organ music and listening to that stuff. That was a great experience getting to play with those guys and hearing how strong they were. That’s the thing about playing with the greats, someone like George Coleman or Bobby Hutcherson, Harold Mabern, Jimmy Cobb—they’re so strong with what they project. That’s the lesson. Sonny Rollins—I got to play with him. It was an incredible experience to be around him and how much courage he has when he plays. He’s free in his thoughts, and he can express that. It’s an intense conversation you’re involved in, and you’re hoping to contribute to it. You want to support that. That’s usually your role as a sideman. You want to support what they’re doing first, and then when they give you space, you can tell your story.
You currently work with more than one jazz organist. Why do you think the guitar is a good instrument for a combo with a jazz organist?
I don’t know—there’s some connection. Maybe it’s the electricity. Maybe the guitar’s being a polyphonic instrument—you can play chords, and with the organ player splitting their brain between playing the bass line and soloing, it’s a place for a guitar to be in between. So there’s a role there. Organ players like guitar. They need somebody to comp [accompany] for them. For me, it’s fun to see how different it feels to play with different organ players, how they approach the instrument differently. If I’m the sideman, it’s how I can enhance what they’re doing and also be myself. You want to be able to be with different people because that means you’re going to learn more and hear more interesting things. But at the same time, you don’t want to blend into the scenery. If you’re knowledgeable about the topic, you can impart your two cents.
Sideman is a rather unfortunate word, isn’t it?
Not necessarily—because it just means that one person is out front. But depending on the leader, a sideman can have lots of freedom. To be a sideman on someone else’s gig means you don’t have to worry about booking the gig, paying the guys. Sideman can be an enviable position because you can focus on the music. But the word side: you’re on the side, but it doesn’t mean that. Miles Davis had great bands. He was a genius in the way he played the trumpet, of course, but he was also a genius in that he knew how to put a band together and let them play. He was strong enough to do that. He was confident enough to get the best people and let them be creative. I learned a lot from different leaders about how to organize people and bring them out, to put together a blend of personalities where you know everyone will be comfortable, but not too comfortable. Comfortable, yet at the same time, people are going to be pushing each other.
One of your albums is devoted to the music of Thelonious Monk. What’s the appeal of his music for you?
I’ve always loved Monk. The first time I ever heard some of his stuff was when I was getting into jazz. But the first music I remember loving was ragtime. When I was growing up in the mid-seventies, there was a bit of a ragtime revival due to that movie The Sting. I was really into that music. I loved Scott Joplin. That’s why I wanted to play the piano, to learn some rags. Then years later, when I heard Monk, it kind of had some of that flavor to me—all the different things he came through, from Duke Ellington and Fats Waller, the Tin Pan Alley songs. There was a little bit of that flavor I heard in Monk that attracted me to him. And I just got into all the different groups he played with and his compositions. I was always studying his music. To me, he’s like a beautiful blend of humor and courage. He was a really brave person. He took a lot of flak for the way he played, that he didn’t play like other people, even of the swing era or even of the new bebop guys. He was very much iconoclastic and encountered a lot of resistance, but he stuck to his guns and played his tunes and played his way. And he represents something important beyond what I can learn from him about music and the incredible way he put things together.
Your playing has been described in the press as having “clear melodic lines,” “a clean tone,” “a beautiful sound.” Can you talk about what you work toward when you play?
It’s a challenge to play music. It’s a challenge to really improvise. Music really happens when people are improvising together, and they’re all in that relevant moment. They’re surprising each other and also laying it down. It’s dealing with tension and release in every way. I’m trying to get a connection to my instrument where I can express those thoughts, and as they come into me, the instrument disappears. With my heroes, the masters, it seems the instrument doesn’t exist. It’s just them. But that’s a lifetime thing.
When did you move to Westbeth, by the way?
Almost two months ago. They called us in March.
You were living in Washington Heights. What made you want to move here?
I got on the list thirteen years ago because we wanted to have some options. The place in the Heights was getting too expensive, so the timing was perfect.
Do you want to talk about your family?
My wife Erin is a writer and a theatre artist. We have two boys: Bruno is going to be 9 in August, and Dewey is 3½.
Are they happy here?
They really seem to enjoy it.
And did you find a community here?
I already knew some people that lived here. There’s definitely a community here. I like that, and being down here in the Village is great. I never thought I would live here.
To hear Peter Bernstein, Larry Goldings, and Bill Stewart at the Village Vanguard, November 2013, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c8A0V60teBI.
(For more about Peter Bernstein, go to peterbernsteinmusic.com.)
Photos courtesy of Peter Bernstein.
Terry Stoller is a Westbeth resident and author of Tales of the Tricycle Theatre.
Profiles in Art, Copyright 2016 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council