How Overton Berry Learned The Most Important Thing In Music — And In Life

May 14, 2014

Editor’s Note: Every jazz musician seems to have a defining moment that led to a lifelong love of the music. KPLU jazz reporter Jason Parker will explore these moments in a three-part series titled How I Came To Jazz.

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Legendary jazz pianist Overton Berry’s “defining moment” story has to do with a brief encounter with a stranger more than 50 years ago. It taught him the a lesson about the most important thing in music — and in life.

Overton moved to Seattle from Texas at 10 years old, in 1945.

“At that time,” he recalled, “I was listening to a lot of radio. The music that I primarily heard that really stuck with me first, and I’m not even sure what show it was, if it was the Bob Hope Show or Jack Benny, but it was Les Brown and His Band of Renown. How that whole band could swing! It was like, ‘How can anybody do this?’”

He soaked up the big bands of the day, and started playing his own music in groups in and out of school. But it was hearing pianist George Shearing’s quintet that really opened his ears.

“I think the first jazz artist I heard that said, ‘OK, we’re really taking off now,” was Shearing’s quintet. This, to me, was just this combination of smoothness, of sound, and I was really impressed with that to the point that, at 16, I had a little trio and we used to go play USO shows, and I was always trying to get this sound,” he said.

‘The Most Important Thing About Playing Music’

Overton was already picking up gigs and hanging out at the Local 493 Musicians Union hall when a chance encounter with a stranger had a huge impact on him as a musician and a human being.

He smiled as he told the story: “I think probably the most instrumental moment came one day [when] I was practicing. And of course, when you are young, you want to play every note in the universe, and you want to play them as fast as you can. You want to play the whole piano, even notes that aren’t there.

“So I’m sitting in this little room in the old 493 union hall, and I’m just playing away, and there’s this old guy standing there. He’s listening to me, probably as long as he could take it, and he said, ‘Hey kid, do you know what’s the most important thing about playing music?’

“And of course, being young, I thought, ‘How dare he interrupt me?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, your technique, your fingers.’ He said, ‘No, this is they key: listening.’ And of course, again being young, I said, ‘I listen, I listen!’ He said, ‘I didn’t say hearing. I said listening.’ And I said ‘What? They’re the same thing.’ And he said, ‘No, you hear with your ears; you listen with your whole being.’

“So he’s leaving the room and he says, ‘By the way kid, it’s the most important thing in life, and it’s a skill you’ll be working on all your life.’

“I wish I could find him today to thank him,” he said.

‘I Let The Music Tell Me What It Wants’

This one encounter all those years ago has stuck with Overton to this day, and shapes the way he approaches the music.

“You know, when you’re a lot younger, you think you’re directing things. These days, I go in open and I let the music tell me what it wants me to do,” he said.

Overton laughed at how many times he’s had to relearn this lesson over the years.

“To me, one of the most interesting periods came when The Beatles first hit the scene,” he said. “My first reaction was, ‘That’s a lot of pop stuff.’ And then a student of mine came in one day with the song ‘Yesterday,’ and I said, ‘Where’d you get this? This is incredible!’ And he said, ‘It’s The Beatles.’”

Overton was reminded of the lesson from the stranger.

“I started thinking, ‘You’re forgetting that lesson of listening. And so I started listening to some of their things. And then I started to recognize that they were recognizing some of the American blues artists and street musicians in their work. And I thought, ‘You know, it’s wide open,’” he said.

‘Do Not Reject Anything’

This idea of listening also impacts Overton’s relationships with students and young musicians.

“That’s one of the things I like to impart to young musicians: do not reject anything. Whether you like it or not isn’t important. Listen to it. It’s like a friend of mine said to me: It’s like vitamins. How do they know where to go? How do they know what to do? And that’s the thing I think about music. You take it in. You ingest it. The chemistry between you and the music comes out,” he said.

As I said, I could’ve listened to Overton’s warm voice tell stories all day. Overton is still actively recording and performing in the Seattle area. Don’t miss a chance to see him play. Visit his website for details. 

This series is a part of KPLU's celebration of the 10th year of School of Jazz

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Jason Parker is a Seattle-based jazz trumpet player, educator and writer. His band, The Jason Parker Quartet, was hailed by Earshot Jazz as "the next generation of Seattle jazz." Find out more about Jason and his music at jasonparkermusic.com