By Chris Gray
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In 1939, when a teenage Oscar Peterson was starting to get a bit of an ego about his piano playing, his father sat him down and introduced him to an Art Tatum recording. Awestruck by Tatum's technique and mastery, Peterson insisted he was hearing two pianists, not one. When he finally admitted to himself that there was only one, Peterson felt defeated. He didn't touch a piano for weeks.
Peterson eventually rebounded, determined to be just as good as, if not better than, Tatum. In his prime, Peterson's technique was unmatched by anyone -- except, of course, Tatum in his prime. Over time, Peterson evolved into one of the most influential and respected men ever to touch the 88s. His recordings and live performances have simultaneously inspired pianists and sent them back to the shed. No wonder they call him Big O.
A few decades after Peterson met his match in the form of Tatum, a preteen pianist named Shelly Berg was introduced to an Oscar Peterson recording by his father, trumpeter Jay Berg. The older Berg wanted his son, who was studying classical music at the time, to appreciate jazz. "Since he was a classical musician, the first thing that he realized was that this was a jazz man playing [with] the technique of [Vladimir] Horowitz," Jay Berg says. "He had to appreciate the technique basically at first. I insisted that he hear the best, and Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson were the two best piano players during my lifetime. And he listened to both."
Floored by Peterson's prowess, Shelly Berg began carrying the Peterson torch, one that would ultimately and brightly illuminate Berg's 1999 release, The Will: A Tribute to Oscar Peterson. But long before that recording, a young Berg devoured Peterson's trio recordings, played Peterson's 33s at 16 rpm so he could transcribe the solos and, when in junior high, performed Peterson's arrangements of standards. The pianist's goal was to learn to swing as hard as Oscar Peterson had. He also wanted to gain knowledge of Tatum's left-hand technique.
"That was a life-altering moment," Berg says of hearing the Big O for the first time. "There's something about swinging like that that it caught hold of me then, and it really turned my life on an axis. I think I've been about [swing] ever since. I think that was the wind in my sails when I began. I love to swing. To me, swinging is like when you are riding a wave when you're a surfer or skiing moguls. When you're swinging, you've caught something and you ride it out as long as you can. I love to play in odd meters. I love the music of Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. I love Bill Evans. But at the core of it is I just love swing."
The elder Berg's influence on his son involved more than playing records. Jay Berg is a respected musician who played trumpet in New York City when 52nd Street was the jazz capital of the world. When he was in Cleveland, Jay Berg (who was also known as Jay Bird for a time) toured with Charlie Parker for a few months, but eventually decided being a jazz musician was no way to support a family. However, he kept playing on the side, often gigging with famous players when they were in town or occasionally venturing up to New York. Legends like Sonny Stitt would often jam at the Bergs' home and spend the night. "Shelly was too young yet to appreciate who they were," Jay Berg says. "But he knew they were good musicians."
Shelly Berg wanted to run with the big dawgs. As an early teen, he tried to sit in with his father and other pros, but says he kept getting kicked off the bandstand -- until January 1970, a month after the Bergs moved to Houston. Jay Berg and Shelly Berg, who was 15 at the time, attended a regularly scheduled jam session at the White House motel on South Main Street. Sitting on the bandstand the evening the Bergs dropped in was saxophonist Arnett Cobb. "I sat in," recalls Shelly Berg, "and I didn't get kicked out."
Every Sunday night throughout high school, Berg jammed at the White House motel with the likes of Cobb, saxophonist Jimmy Ford and whoever else happened to be in town that night; often those players turned out to be members of the Count Basie, Woody Herman or Buddy Rich big bands. Berg says his days at the White House made for a "fabulous" education.
During the mid-1970s, Berg studied at the University of Houston and worked his way through school playing six nights a week in clubs. Sometimes it was jazz; other times it was Top 40 or R&B or salsa or whatever else paid the bills. Berg also produced jingles and played music for fashion shows. He even appeared on two Mickey Gilley albums. He eventually earned his master's degree in classical piano.
Like his father, Berg didn't think playing jazz could support a family. Fresh out of college, he landed a position as director of instrumental music at San Jacinto College, which had just opened a north campus. Berg, comfortable with a day job, became a regular fixture on the Houston jazz scene throughout the '80s. He also became a semiregular in trombonist Bill Watrous's band.