Profile: Jerry Bergonzi


Jerry Bergonzi knows all about the struggles that used to face aspiring jazz musicians. The Boston native withdrew from the liberal arts college he was attending after being continually thrown out of practice rooms “so somebody serious about music” could use the space. The young saxophonist also found that many veterans of the period were not inclined to mentor newcomers. “Back then, if somebody knew, they weren’t going to tell you,” he recalls. “`Learn tunes’ and `listen to records’ was the rule. I had to figure it out myself, beginning with studying the bebop language, then expanding from there.”

A quick learner, Bergonzi got his introduction to the wider jazz world through one of its reigning legends. “I had been playing on some avant-garde gigs in Boston with Dave Brubeck’s son Darius, who called me to be in a band that would open for Dave and then close concerts together with Dave’s trio. This was the Two Generations of Brubeck band, which I toured with for three years; then, after a break, I did another three years as the saxophonist in Dave’s quartet.” Bergonzi’s complex, assertive tenor saxophone improvisations brought a more contemporary element into Brubeck’s established style, yet the young sideman quickly grew restless. “Dave never once told me how to play,” Bergonzi emphasizes, “but I didn’t want to be on the road 200 days a year playing someone else’s music. So when Dave cut down to a trio, I just went back to New York, where I was living and had made so many connections, and held a jam session every day in my 28th Street loft that became a real word-of-mouth happening. I’d tell one sax player, and five would show up.”

After returning to Boston in 1978 and forming the band Con Brio, Bergonzi quickly moved to the center of the local jazz scene. Staying true to his DIY approach, he spent the next decade establishing himself as a touring and recording artist on the international jazz scene, as well as a heralded freelance educator who has authored the seven volume series Inside Improvisation and mentored students on a variety of instruments. At one time, he taught in the back of a used furniture store, where he had installed a piano and drum set so that he could provide necessary accompaniment. “Drummers and pianists have been some of my biggest influences, and I still play piano and drums with my students all day long,” he confirms. “It has really changed the way I play the saxophone.”

In sum, Jerry Bergonzi—who still plays two weekly gigs in the Boston area and tours 130 days each year playing his own music—is not your stereotypical conservatory instructor. Yet for the past 20 years he has thrived teaching improvisation and ensemble classes as well as in one-on-one instruction at New England Conservatory. “The thing I love about NEC,” he says, “is that I’m not told what or how to teach. The school has confidence in me doing my thing, which is a focus on rhythmic and intervallic concepts. The challenge for me is being flexible enough in my teaching to recognize that every other teacher on the faculty has great insights of their own to share, and realizing that all of this learning takes years to sink in.”

Through his own experience, Bergonzi has learned how to reach students with a flexible approach. “Everybody told me to listen to Bird [Charlie Parker] and Pres [Lester Young] when I was a kid,” he recalls, “but I wasn’t interested. I wanted to listen to John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, to Joe Henderson and Hank Mobley. I went through my idols, and once I got into their universe I could hear where they came from. Then I really started listening to Bird and Pres. So start with your passion—if you love Mark Turner or Chris Potter, sure, listen to them. If you really listen, you’ll find your way all the way back to Coleman Hawkins.”

Bergonzi is far less laissez-faire in the classroom. “You have to teach with structure,” he insists, “and my structure is to focus on rhythmic and intervallic elements as both improvisational and compositional tools. Students are given one element every week to use in both a tune and an improvisation. Then the class itself becomes a performance session, where everyone can hear what works and what doesn’t work.”

Jerry Bergonzi's NEC faculty bio page