Spacial Improvisation
& Jerry Berg

When I was 17 I used to live happily by myself in a small rented room which had a beautiful stone fireplace and stained glass windows.  I would always have my electric bass with me, whether walking, on the street car, on my bicycle.  This took some effort to carry due to its heavy duty suitcase- like construction.  At the time it just seemed like a necessity, since I was frequently on my way to a lesson or a rehearsal or a session of some kind, and did not have a car.  One of the clasps of the bass case was broken, so there was a rawhide belt holding part of the case together.  The belt had a huge "peace sign" buckle.

Often I'd be on the 504 street car which went from downtown along King street to Parkdale, the neighborhood I grew up in,  then it turned and went up Roncesvalles, the Polish/European area, full of fruit & vegetable stores & delicatessens - kolbassa , schnitzel, jelly filled donuts, newspapers from Warsaw, and cafés serving beer from Krakow and dumpling soups.

Although it was a mostly working people's neighbourhood, many of the homes along Roncesvalles and the cross streets were actually mansions more or less.  Brick houses with fireplaces, stained glass windows and coach houses in the back. At that point, around the late seventies, many of these were occupied by single families who lived on the first floor, with rooms for rent above, some of which were gorgeous accommodations, in decently kept homes.

It put me in mind of Herman Hesse's Stepponwolf, and at times I felt I was living parts of that novel.  The house I rented a room in had several tenants, one of whom was Lucien Miller, a curious middle aged man who worked at the post office, kept to himself and occasionally blared music from a multitrack reel to reel tape recorder on which he seemed to be editing.  Personally identifying in part with the main character from the novel, Harry, the "Wolf of the Steppes", I felt that somewhere between myself and Lucien the Stepponwolf was among us.

So I'd be leaving my mansion, carrying out my bass from the beautiful little room I rented for fourteen dollars a week, and I'd walk through the wet leaves, plentiful on the sidewalks, taking the route beside High Park, then up High Park Boulevard, past the stone gates at Roncesvalles where I'd wait for the street car.  And who did I see for the third time in two weeks - that tall slim guy with blushed cheeks, carrying his trumpet case.  He looked like a jazz musician, very smart with alert blue eyes and wavy hair.  He seemed not to have a style really, not like the rest of us.  As though he had no interest in being a "hippy" or an anything.  Another person who seemed like he spent a lot of time alone, thinking about his work -  generic in style and hungry for personal progress.
So we struck up a conversation.  It turns out he was studying music at Humber as well as privately, and was concerned with this process called "spacial improvisation."

He seemed quite advanced in his knowledge of harmony and music basics - far ahead of me in terms of theory and technique from what I could gather.  I was still struggling with some of that, and felt a bit constrained when it came to improvising.  I mean, I did improvise on a regular basis -both alone and with various other musicians, but often in rock / pop / blues or completely free style genres - not really in the advanced discipline of the jazz /bop repertoire.  My usual  crowd just happened to be exploring other,  less "classic" styles.

So I sort of really admired this guy and was excited to learn anything I could from him, and just soak up the feeling of what it's like when you dedicate yourself to that degree of hard work and development in a focussed genre.  I had aspirations to do all of that myself sooner or later and was happy to observe a glimpse of something that could be in  my potential future.

His name was Jerry.  As I say he was a slim guy, good looking, calm and sort of timeless.  Had something unique about his cheeks,  perhaps they were a bit more elastic looking than most peoples', and specifically pink-ish.  It only occurred to me much later that many hours of playing the trumpet would probably cause this.  I had sat less than thirty feet away from some of the masters like Dizzy Gillespie, Maynard Ferguson and others, at the Colonial Tavern on Yonge Street.  Thinking back to how these masters looked, and pictures I'd seen of Lous Armstrong -yeah, it was a lot of pressure on the cheeks the way a trumpet player puffs up like that. 

So, It was Jerry - Jerry Berg, and we're sitting on the streetcar.  We were well into an extended conversation, comparing notes on our vastly different musical experiences and then began to focus on this subject of spacial improvisation.  So here I'm thinking of Jerry as rather studied and technical and he's saying that all it means is you sit in a room, sitting very far apart from each other and just blow. There was more to it, but basically that was the idea he was presenting. That you stop thinking as much about form and structure, and play the room acoustics as a big part of the process.

It suddenly occurred to me that I had access to an ideal place to experiment with such a thing.  The music group I mostly played with, Haivein, kept our equipment in a huge warehouse in the west end, which had been granted to us for a year by the Etobicoke Arts Council, and I had a set of keys on me.  Haivein rehearsed three times a week there, in the evenings and I'd basically never been there when it was light outside.  Here it was about 3 p.m. and the idea of going into this huge dark space with 50 foot ceilings to spacially improvise seemed intriguing.  When I described the possibility to Jerry he was like, let's just go there right now - so we did.

Upon arrival we set up as far away from each other as possible.  The overhead garage door was closed except for maybe a foot from the floor to let in a bit of light.  Other than that we kept the lights off.  Besides having fifty foot ceilings, the warehouse was perhaps seventy feet long by a hundred feet wide of empty darkness.  We were facing each other, initially sixty feet apart or so, not quite so we could see each other.  Jerry used no amplification, just his trumpet.  I had a small GBX amplifier with 4X10" speakers in an air sealed reflex cabinet, with my 1967 fender jazz bass and nice fresh strings.

Normally in a  fresh experience opportunity such as this, the ritual would likely involve some drugs in sensible moderation.  Right about now one of us would procure some wet, gummy lamb's breath marijuana or some black Lebanese hash  and we'd have a little smoke, get into a flow with each other then proceed.  But Jerry - he was sort of apart from all that.  He was really focussed on getting this done and we stayed right on path without any tangents.
There was no discussion of the content we were to play, and had never played together before.  Just, he'd start by holding a note, I'd play another note and off we'd go from there, playing with the delicious and swirly rich echoes and reverbs of the room.  Jerry would naturally evoke jazz phrases here and there, and I would naturally draw from other areas of expression, and due to our relaxed states, positive chemistry and sensitivity level we experienced something that was in some way meaningful, at least to me, as I remember, and Jerry seemed inspired.  Of course it was a bit hard to tell with him.  He was a very "even" type of personality, quite self absorbed and one got the feeling he held himself in an esteemed, "advanced of most others" kind of position, in a way that you didn't expect to be able to impress him with much.  This didn't seem pretentious or arrogant to me.  It was like, yes, it's true and he probably has more advanced experiences of this nature on a daily basis, so we're just playing around here, as best as I can keep up with him.

Then on the other hand I didn't really know if that would be his point of view, that was just my perception.  It also could have been that, my having come from quite different roots, maybe I was putting out things that were wildly outside of his usual experience, and perhaps my own enigmatic way of delivering my ideas was making him feel that I was as much a driver here.  It's a bit of a nebulous thing between players sometimes - so much unspoken communication.

Later I brought back my friend Drew Irwin who played flute, and we repeated the exercise  again to inspiring results.  One dynamic variable, we discovered, was that the brain seems to be constantly comparing the "direct" sound one is hearing (particularly of the other player) to the reflected sound of the room.  This is one of  the ways  we calculate how far away something is.  This ties in with defensive animal instinct, flight or fight, etc., but also provides a simple playful gap to consider as one moves through the experience.  The gap I refer to is that between what one first hears of each note (the direct sound) and then all the versions of reflection that occur afterward (of the same note), which come at differing times, from various directions, at various loudnesses and with various tonal colorations, depending on which surface they are reflecting from and how they combine/overlap with other reflections at that micro moment.  This can be a very complex thing, quite a study in time and space and being and nowness, etc

I didn't see Jerry after that until much later.  Decades went by.  I went on to support myself soley from playing music, eventually forming bands of my own, becoming a singer, a teacher, and other adventures.  Then I decided to augment my musical activiteis / income by working in interesting restaurants, mostly as a waiter.  Many years into that, and still doing music, I'm working at Bar Italia, a gorgeous restaurant frequented by well known authors and other creative personalites. I used to like to do a few daytime shifts during each week , and saw a number of people regularly- mostly attractive middle-aged Italian men and women, who would come and have an espresso at the bar, perhaps with an amaro. One day, while I was still new there, and still learning to identify the "regulars" -  I walked in and saw a man with very long grey hair and a floppy black overcoat, looking solitary, poised and very settled, as though he does this  often - sits quitely at the bar, with a newspaper, having a coffee, rolling cigarettes from drum tobacco and jotting down some notes in a notebook.  He looked like a professor who had dropped out of the system, or a composer, very mature, lines on his face from much thinking, slightly baggy, reddish cheeks - oh my....it's Jerry Berg!

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