In Good Company : Bill Berry Has Played With Jazz's Greats, and Duke Ellington and Maynard Ferguson Top the List

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"If you last long enough, you meet everybody," says bandleader and cornetist Bill Berry as he begins to rattle off a list of the jazz greats he has known over the years. And as far as big bands go, he says: "You name it, I worked for them."

The claim is just about true. Berry's fledgling days in Boston and New York found him blowing trumpet for Woody Herman, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Maynard Ferguson, Herb Pomeroy and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. The association that most marks his career, though, was a stint with Duke Ellington that began in 1961, a job that practically fell into his lap.

"A guy I didn't even know asked me one night if I'd like to go meet Ellington," Berry recalled, on the phone from his home in North Hollywood. "So I said, 'Sure, of course, I would.'

"He took me to the Apollo Theater, and we saw the show, and there was a moment after we'd met the guys in the band (when) someone came up and asked if I could leave town to tour with Ellington in two or three days. It came as a total surprise. They must have heard me play somewhere, but I had no idea."

That was the beginning of a heady time for Berry, who plays Saturday at Kikuya in Huntington Beach. He traveled with Ellington in the early '60s and recorded a dozen albums with him. He gained special notoriety for his exchange with tap dancer Bunny Briggs on Ellington's recording of "My People" (1963).

Two of the Duke's best known employees, Johnny Hodges and Billy Strayhorn, included Berry in their own band that recorded for Verve. Also through Ellington, Berry met saxophonist Coleman Hawkins who tabbed him to play on the 1965 Impulse date "Wrapped Tight."

So it follows that Berry's own ensemble, the L.A. Big Band, not only shows a prevalent Ellington influence but also has featured a few Ellington veterans in its ranks over the years.

Said Berry: "(Saxophonist) Marshall Royal is still in the band. (Trombonist) Buster Cooper, who just moved back to Florida, was with my band. It's no question that Ellington made the biggest impression on me. (He) is the epitome of music; he had the world's greatest band. All the musicians know that. Even Count Basie used to say it was his favorite orchestra."

Still, in terms of playing, it was Berry's early years with fellow trumpeter Ferguson that left a mark.

"It was very hard to be a trumpet player in Maynard's band," he said. "His music was very difficult, and he worked us very hard, but he was a beautiful guy. I played with him this summer in Japan as part of the Monterey Jazz Festival tour. We're old friends."

Berry, who now plays only the cornet ("I like the sound and the size of it"), often has discussed the influences of Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. But there were others who figured in his instrumental style.

"Roy Elridge was a big influence, also Harry James and Bobby Hackett. And eventually, when I got smart enough, Louis Armstrong. There was a time when I was too hip to listen to Armstrong, thought he was too old-fashioned. Luckily, I grew out of that."

All those influences should be on display Saturday night, when Berry will be sitting in with guitarist Doug MacDonald's trio at Kikuya.

"I've worked with Doug many times over the years," Berry said. "He's a great guitar player. We look at things the same way: Music is supposed to be fun and swing."

Berry was born in Benton Harbor, Mich., in 1930. He traveled the Midwest in local bands before spending time in the Air Force in the early '50s. After that, he moved to Boston, where he attended the Berklee College of Music and began breaking into that local scene. He moved to New York to join the Woody Herman band in 1957 and, from there, went on to form his assocations with Ferguson, Ellington and the others.

In the mid-'60s, he turned to studio work, joining "The Merv Griffin Show" band and playing Frank Sinatra Jr.'s trumpet parts for the film "A Man Called Adam." He followed the Griffin show west to Los Angeles and has been here ever since.

He formed his first big band back in New York in 1964. In L.A., he changed its name, and the L.A. Big Band took its place among Southern California's best ensembles. But economics, Berry said, has kept the project down in recent years. The Big Band has only a pair of CDs in circulation--"For Duke," on the Real Time label, and "Hello, Rev," a 1976 date that Concord released two years ago. The group makes infrequent local appearances.

"It costs so much to travel with a big band these days that we haven't gotten out much lately," Berry said. "These guys in my band are the cream of the crop, so they don't work cheap."

But that hasn't stopped Berry from being a frequent flier as a soloist.

"I'm out of town about half the time," he figures. This year there have been two trips each to Japan and Germany and dates in such places as Australia and England, not to mention the jazz cruise he played recently that included such names as saxophonist Ernie Watts and singer Dianne Schuur.

The day before this interview, Berry had been in Monterey working for the city's famous festival as an educator. At one time he was the festival director. Now, "I'm just a trouble-shooter. I go up half a dozen times a year."

The festival "is a nonprofit, educational foundation. That's what they give all their money to. I was up there working with high school kids and their music program."

His other big project is the International Jazz Party, held each year in Monterey and Los Angeles. The party brings together Japanese and American musicians to play invitation-only sessions that rate annually as the hottest jazz tickets in town. Even with this busy schedule, he finds time to play the local clubs when he's in L.A.

"There always seems to be a couple (of clubs) going. People seem to need this kind of music. I know I do." * Bill Berry joins guitarist Doug MacDonald, bassist Jack Prather and drummer Nick Martinis at Kikuya, 8052 Adams Blvd., Huntington Beach, Saturday at 8 p.m. No cover. (714) 536-6665.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
68°