Mozart composed music at the age of 5. Not far behind him, Shelly Berg entered the Cleveland Institute of Music at the age of 6. For the next 60 years, Shelly has dedicated his life to the piano, music education, arranging, composing and performing.
Since 2011, Shelly has been the Music Director for The Jazz Cruise. During that time, the impact and importance of The Jazz Cruise has grown immensely. Though some of this prominence is due to the attrition of other “straight-ahead” jazz programs, Shelly’s programming, particularly to entice top jazz musicians to share the bandstand together in once in a lifetime combinations, has been an significant factor.
A four-time Grammy nominee, Shelly is currently the Dean of the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, a Steinway artist and radio host of SXM’s Generation Next show. This list does not include his countless contributions to the careers of other musicians, performances around the world and his impressive catalog as an arranger and composer.
At Entertainment Cruise Productions, we say that no job is too big or too small for us to undertake. Shelly fits right into that mold. He can take on projects of enormous importance and complexity, but will never shirk an obligation or favor what others might find trivial. Though his talent is boundless, his feet are always on the ground. The Jazz Cruise is very grateful to call Shelly Berg its Music Director.
Recently, I had the privilege of sitting down with Shelly to talk about various things. Below is a transcript of our discussion.
Lazaroff: Not having seen you in a while, I was wondering how are you doing and what has been your “routine” during the pandemic?
Berg: I feel blessed to have had a reset in the past year, without the hardships that so many of our friends have endured. Even though most of the traveling and performing were put on pause, my responsibilities as Dean of the Frost School became more time intensive. My routine always includes practicing classical and jazz music and I have been collaborating virtually with wonderful artists, all of whom have been on The Jazz Cruise stages.
Lazaroff: I took my first drum lesson at 8. My father was a very skilled saxophonist. Yet, I cannot imagine the intensity of entering a real music school at 6. How did you know that this is what you wanted to do?
Berg: I can’t remember not knowing that I was a musician, and this goes back to when I was 4 years old. So, when I got to the Cleveland Institute as a small child and was able to study not only piano but theory, solfege, chamber music, etc., it was a real thrill!
Lazaroff: I cannot imagine how challenging it must have been, and still is, to direct a school of music at a major university in a city where the pandemic was so prominent. Can you tell us about that?
Berg: I couldn’t be more proud of what we have accomplished at the Frost School. We worked around the clock from mid-March until the fall, first moving everything online for the remainder of the 2020 Spring Semester, and then figuring out how to have in-person school beginning last August. We followed a couple of prominent scientific studies and using their guidelines we resumed playing in orchestras and bands and singing in choirs and combos. Our protocols include special masks for wind players and singers, bell covers for wind instruments, 6 feet or more of distance between musicians, HEPA filters, UV filters, and industrial room scrubbers to exchange the air in rehearsal and concert halls after 30 minutes of music. As a result we have been through most of the academic year now with zero transmission of COVID in any classroom or performance. And, the Frost School has by far the lowest incidence of COVID in our university.
Lazaroff: I have heard a number of tales about how you and The Jazz Cruise hooked up. I know that you were at the beginning of the “performance” aspect of your career. Can you give us the real story as to how you wound up on The Jazz Cruise?
Berg: This story is all about two people, the great trombonist Bill Watrous and your mother, Anita Berry. I had a very low-key jazz career until my early to mid-30s. In 1988, Bill Watrous came as a guest artist with my community college band in Texas. The students told him about my playing, and he asked me to sit in on his performance. I didn’t know if I was ready for prime time, but Bill believed in me and started recommending me to festivals and jazz parties, and he hired me in his quartet. He and I played together at the Elkhart Jazz Festival, and that is where Anita heard me. At that time, she was the main travel agent for The Jazz Cruise on Norwegian Cruise Line’s SS Norway, and she convinced them to hire me! Fortunately, the passengers liked me, and I was asked back. When that cruise ended and Anita took the leap of faith to start The Jazz Cruise, I was in the line-up, and nothing in music makes me happier than to continue that association more than 20 years later.
Lazaroff: Your path to becoming the Music Director is very familiar to me. Not only was I there, but I was the perpetrator of that offer. If you recall, the entire discussion/negotiation took place in a Delicatessen.
Berg: For Jewish people, most good discussions are around a kitchen table! I was so honored by your offer that I would have accepted a less generous contract, but that is not how you do things. All of the musicians love being on The Jazz Cruise because you care about them more than making maximum profit. I have learned a lot working with you, and the biggest lesson is that when you make the performers feel special, the product is better, the vibe is better, the audience has a better time, and the cruise sells to capacity every year.
Lazaroff: You have performed, taught, composed, arranged and so much more in your music career. Is there anything in the world of music or in a different genre altogether, that you would like to do?
Berg: I have been blessed to do so many things in music, including lead one of the world’s great music schools, compose and arrange for television and film, perform at the White House many times, and collaborate with great artists across the spectrum of music. I still have some unmet aspirations. I have had so much fun collaborating, that I have spent relatively little time working on my own career and albums. I would like to spend time thinking about the music I want to write and making the albums I want to make. Also, there are a few artists on my list to play and work with, and the first who come to mind are Pat Metheny and Sting. In music, anything is possible!
Lazaroff: Your performance talents are amazing. Your command and touch are the envy of all. But it is your spirit and your joy that distinguishes you from so many pianists. When you play, there is no angst, anguish or struggle. You can tell that you are enjoying yourself and that you are doing precisely what you want to do and what you believe your were born to do. Do you agree?
Berg: Thank you, Michael. That is the #1 compliment to me, and why my first CD was called “The Joy.” Playing the piano is pure joy for me, and having my hands on the keyboard is what completes me as a person. I know I was born to do this, and when the audience feels the joy from my performance, that is my raison d’etre.
Lazaroff: In closing, on behalf of all of the jazz fans that have sailed on The Jazz Cruise, thank you for your service to the program and for your commitment to music.
Berg: Thank YOU, Michael. No one has done more for the music we love than you. You and I have been teaming up for over a decade on presenting The Jazz Cruise. It is a joy and honor to work with you, and I get to see first-hand all the things you do to make it the world’s greatest jazz festival.