Up until eleven years ago I had never heard of Borah Bergman. Priding myself on being aware of many of the avant players and being a devout fan of pianist Cecil Taylor, I should have known about Borah, but I didn't.
Many of my early public performing years were devoted to playing straight-ahead and then to an inside-out approach, and when I thought it was time, I went headfirst into the avant-garde. Although many of my musical friends knew about my avant-gardisim, I pretty much kept it under wraps for years, fearing it would put me out of work.
In 1999, with the release of Finishing Touches and Dialing Privileges (both on CIMP), and then in 2001, under the guise of my own record company, CDM, we released Takin' The Duke Out. I was accepted in the realm of the avant-garde world and pretty much became part of the New York City Downtown Scene. It was what I always wanted, and it was the first time in my life that I felt like I belonged somewhere and I could play the way I always wanted with like- minded musicians. It may have taken thirty years, but at least I got there.
When I decided to write this article I asked myself, should I be honest or should I just write a glitzy tribute and forget about the real man? Since I've been writing for All About Jazz, I've been honest about everything and haven't pulled any punches, so why start now?
I met Borah in 2002, when Jim Eigo, my promo guy, suggested I go to one of Borah's' concerts. I had no idea what to expect; Jimmy said "you'll be amazed.'" My wife, Carol, and I sat through the first set of the opening group and we anxiously waited for Borah to appear. Borah came out onstage, sat quietly at the piano for about 30 seconds. Then he played. With the very first flurry of notes I sat there with my mouth opened. His virtuosity, power, energy and his endless stream of ideas hitting the audience between the eyes staggered me. I had never heard piano played like that before. The forcefulness of his approach made me feel as though I was being lifted out of my seat. It was one of those rare times when you feel the artist is speaking directly to you. It was thrilling, to say the least.
After the concert, I anxiously waited for Borah to come out front. I introduced Carol and myself to him; showered him with praises and gave him a copy of Takin The Duke Out." I told him I would love to play with him sometime. All he said, in a kind of nasty tone, was, "I don't play with guitarists." I was taken aback by his rudeness. After all, I was praising his playing and he dismissed me like a child. A few days later he called and apologized for his behavior. Apparently, after asking around and listening to my CD, he called and asked when we could get together. That was the beginning of an eight-year love-hate relationship.
About a week later I showed up at his studio apartment on the Upper Westside of New York City. There was so much stuff surrounding the door, I could hardly get through with my equipment. I quickly set up, for I was anxious to play. He told me to settle down and "let's talk." So we talked and talked and talked. Two hours went by and we were still talking. We talked about everything, mostly about music and musicians. He critiqued my record, practically note-per-note, and he talked endlessly about his left hand. At first I wasn't getting it. What's the big deal about the left hand? The big deal was that Borah could play a totally different improvised line with his left hand while improvising another line with his right hand. It was like sax and trumpet playing solos at the same time. It was truly an amazing feat.
After more than two hours I asked him if we were going to play at all. He sat at the piano and played. We played for about two minutes and he stopped and talked some more. This time it was to demonstrate exactly what his left hand was doing. Meanwhile I was trying to figure out how to play against the machine gun surge of notes coming from both hands. He stopped to talk again. I left there after three hours only playing about three minutes of music. It was frustrating, to say the least.
For the next month we got together once a week and every time we did, the same thing would happen. Talk, talk, talk, play, talk, talk. Besides all the talking at his place, he would phone me and talk some more, mostly about how his left-hand technique was improving. As frustrating as it was, I hung in there. I knew other musicians were coming over to play too and I soon realized he had dual reasons for this. There wasn't that much work around and although he constantly practiced, he needed to play. The other reason was loneliness. At times Borah was a hard man to get along with. He could be opinionated, abusive and rude, and it was hard for anyone to sit through that and be creative and friendly at the same time. I know many musicians who played with him once and swore "never again!"