Inheriting A Jazz Roots Legacy, Twice

Nov 2, 2016

Larry Rosen was always looking for his next big project. A decade ago, he'd recently finished producing a series for PBS, "Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis," but he was not a guy interested in taking a break. The Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts was new and, as usual, Rosen saw an opportunity: bring jazz to the gleaming new concert hall, one with acoustics that could be adjusted to different kinds of music. 

Right out of the gate, the Jazz Roots concert series brought in some serious jazz and blues heavyweights. Sonny Rollins, Dave Brubeck, Al Di Meola, Buddy Guy and Dr. John played during those first few years.  He parlayed the concert series into a radio series here on WLRN (you can hear all of those interviews here and a couple below). Suddenly Rosen, the music producer, concert presenter and erstwhile drummer, was an interviewer -- a damn good one (I was his radio producer). 

Larry Rosen died last year from brain cancer. He was 75. And people still talk about how they can't believe his utterly vibrant energy isn't around anymore. I can vividly see him whizzing down the hallway at our studios. 

Shelly Berg, artistic director for the Jazz Roots concert series, knew he wanted to be a musician when he was 5.

The first Jazz Roots concert of the season is tomorrow (Nov. 4), and it'll be a tribute to Larry Rosen. It's the first season Rosen didn't program. His friend Shelly Berg has taken over as artistic director. Berg's the dean of the University of Miami's Frost School of Music and a formidable pianist who's played with Arturo Sandoval, Bill Watrous, Woody Herman, Aretha Franklin, Gloria Estefan and Queen Latifa. He came to Miami 10 years ago from Los Angeles, and worked with Rosen on developing the Jazz Roots series. 

You can listen to my conversation with Jazz Roots artistic director Shelly Berg here, or read it below. 

SB: Jazz Roots was something that Larry and I worked on from the very beginning, before it even was a reality. So it will continue to bear his imprint more than anything.

AZ: It mattered to him that it was in a concert hall.

SB: It did mean a lot to him, and what you have to realize with Larry is he made these bets throughout his career that you wouldn't necessarily make. He started a jazz record company in the 80s.

AZ: GRP Records.

SB: And it became a huge, major label. And so you think about 2007 and the jazz clubs have been closing around the country, and he says let's put jazz in the concert hall. And then he sells out six concerts a year.  In other words, don't blame the audience. If you do it in the right way, the audience will be there.

AZ: He was definitely something of an impresario with a certain vision -- like putting music on the internet.

SB:  Yeah, he started the first internet music marketing company [N2K] in 1992. I'm trying to remember if I had internet in 1992. Realize he was the first person to really record a lot of music digitally, so when the CD came out he had all the content. I call him the Wayne Gretzky, you know? He doesn't pass the puck to where his teammate is; he passes it to where the teammate will be. And that was Larry all along his career.

AZ: So when you picked up the mantle for this series, what was your vision?

SB: My vision is to not screw up Larry's vision (laughs). We have Chick Corea and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. So that's "Piano Titans." … They're not on tour doing solo concerts right now. Neither of them is.  [They have] similar influences in a lot of ways. … We have the rock star Steve Miller coming in, and you’re like: What’s a rock star doing on Jazz Roots? Steve was Les Paul’s, one of his protégés. He used to play with Les every week in New York until the day Les died. And he's also a blues devotee. So we're going to do a "From Ma Rainey to Miles Davis" blues meets jazz show. Steve Miller plays huge venues playing his hits. He doesn't play 1,800-seat concert halls doing this.

AZ: I was actually Larry's radio producer when he had his series on WLRN. It was such a great privilege, and I learned so much about producing something with music. One thing that he always said, and so I’ll ask you – he always said, “Let's start at the top,” except he said it with his New York accent.

SB: (Laughs). You know jazz found me pretty early. My father was a jazz musician – he was also a classical musician, but he was a jazz trumpet player, and so if he was home there was a jazz recording on. Or he was practicing. Or he was inviting other musicians over. I started playing piano by ear when I was 4. And by the time I was 10 my father was teaching me jazz, and by the time I was 12 I was going out with him to jam sessions.

AZ: Where was this?

SB: Cleveland, Ohio.

AZ:  So was it a pretty straight trajectory? Did you know by 12 that this was it, that you were going to make your life in music, specifically in jazz?

SB: I think I knew by 5 I was going to make my life in music, and then I think that by 15 I had a pretty good sense it was going to be in jazz.

AZ: Did you ever play with your dad?

SB: My dad and I played all the time. In fact the last day we ever spent together we played all day together. … When I lived in Los Angeles he lived in Houston, and I would go there and I would book a jazz club just so my dad and I could play together. So we played together a lot over the years. He passed away about five years ago, but up until the day he died we played together.

AZ: That's so sweet.

You can find the complete schedule for the Jazz Roots concert series here. 

Music heard in the audio interview:

Shelly Berg: "Where or When"

Pat Metheny and Gary Burton: "Tiempos Felice"

Chick Corea and Gonzalo Rubalcaba: "Caravan"

Steve Miller with Les Paul, live at Iridium, NYC