Karl Berger, pianist, vibraphonist and avant-garde mentor, dies at 88
Karl Berger, a vibraphonist, pianist, composer, and educator who served as a mentor and father figure for generations of improvising avant-garde musicians, died on April 9 at Albany Medical Center in Albany, NY. He was 10 days past his 88th birthday.
His death was confirmed by Chuck ver Straeten, a former student and longtime family friend who was at Berger’s bedside when he passed. Ver Straeten tells WRTI that the cause of death was complications following gastrointestinal surgery.
Born and raised in Germany, Berger was part of the first wave of European musicians to pursue free jazz in the 1960s. His breakthrough came in ‘65, when as a vibraphonist he joined trumpeter Don Cherry’s band in Paris; the following year he traveled to the United States to perform on Cherry’s album Symphony for Improvisers. He recorded his own self-titled debut a few months later, and made his home in the States for the next six decades.
Along with Cherry, his résumé included work with bassist Dave Holland, drummers Jack DeJohnette and Ed Blackwell, and saxophonists Lee Konitz, Ivo Perelman and Ornette Coleman. Coleman was Berger’s primary inspiration (and later his mentor), an influence apparent in his vibraphone style: hard-swinging, informed by the blues, eschewing chords to tell a story in single-note lines that he sometimes doubled with his voice.
Berger was also an accomplished pianist, playing the keys with a more chordal and pensive style — but no less exploratory or melodic. “His musicianship was off the charts,” bassist Michael Bisio, another frequent collaborator, tells WRTI. “He was absolutely one of the most underrated musicians, maybe of all time.”
Berger’s most far-reaching achievement, however, was as an educator. Together with his wife, vocalist Ingrid Sertso, and Coleman, he co-founded the Creative Music Studio, producing workshops and concerts throughout the Woodstock area before purchasing a resort property in the Catskill foothills. CMS, which Berger served as longtime director, focuses on teaching improvising musicians to develop their own aesthetics, and to draw and mesh ideas from across genres, traditions, and international borders. From 1972 to 1984, it offered instructional workshops, master classes, multi-week intensives, and hundreds of live performances. In its prime it was considered a premiere school of contemporary creative music.
The organization’s facility in Woodstock, New York closed in 1984, but CMS survived in the forms of “World Jazz Encounters” workshops held throughout the world; Sertso Recording Studio in Woodstock (which Berger and Sertso founded in 2004); and more than 500 CMS concert recordings that are now archived at Columbia University Library.
Berger also taught at the New School, the Frankfurt University of Music and Performing Arts, and University of Massachusetts Dartmouth for many years before reviving CMS in 2013, with Sertso as his co-artistic director. “What Karl and Ingrid created was such a unique place,” says ver Straeten. “It really brought together people from all over the world, created such a brotherhood and sisterhood. Karl was incredibly encouraging to everyone to just go exploring.”
“It’s a world,” Berger explained of his concept of music in a 2014 interview with Monk Rowe. “And once you go there, you’re in the world of spontaneity, and you’re no longer in the thinking world…. But everybody can go there. Everybody, whether you play or not.”
Karl Hans Berger was born on March 30, 1935, in Heidelberg, Germany. He began playing classical piano when he was 10, though encountering a live jam session by American musicians at age 14 redirected his interests.
In his twenties he landed a gig as house pianist at Heidelberg’s Club 54, where he got lessons in modern jazz from American soldiers. “The surrounding Army and Air Force stations had all bands,” he told Rowe. “In those bands played a few jazz musicians who later became pretty well known, such as Cedar Walton, or Lex Humphries, and Don Ellis. And they would all come to that club … and we would be playing every night ‘til five in the morning.”
After earning a PhD in musicology from the University of Berlin in 1963, Berger played with the likes of multi-reedist Eric Dolphy and saxophonist Steve Lacy before moving to Paris in 1965. After settling in New York with Sertso in 1966, he became a key figure in the avant-garde music scene, working behind Cherry, Roswell Rudd, Carla Bley, and John McLaughlin. He also built his own career as a leader in earnest, putting together multiple ensembles in both the US and Europe.
During his educational endeavors, Berger never ceased activity as a working musician. He went on a world tour in 1985, and did copious work as a sideman; as a composer and arranger for hire; and as a bandleader of all varieties. (He even had some brushes with pop success, writing orchestrations for Jeff Buckley, Natalie Merchant, and Bootsy Collins, among others.) He also worked frequently in a duo with Sertso, who served as his co-artistic director of both the original and revived CMS.
In addition to Sertso, he is survived by his daughter, Savia, a dancer and choreographer.
Berger and Sertso retired as co-directors of CMS in 2017; the organization’s current executive director is Billy Martin, best known as the drummer in Medeski Martin & Wood. And while Berger stepped down from that defining post, he remained musically productive for the rest of his life. His final album, Heart is a Melody — featuring a quartet jointly led by cornetist Kirk Knuffke — was released last fall.