Alan Berliant (1981) Bass
I have been blessed to have a continuous, successful career in music, and when people ask me where I learned to play, I always tell them that it was during my high school years at New Trier West High School. I explain to them that NTW was not an ordinary place for students to learn music and that just as some schools are known for their powerhouse athletic programs, NTW was known for its powerhouse music program.
For me, the beginning was like most kids growing up in Chicago’s North Shore school system. During fifth grade we were allowed to start an instrument. As a little rocker, I wanted to play guitar, but during an assembly where all the instruments were demonstrated, I fell in love with something that looked like a guitar, but not quite ‘the’ bass. In my ten-year-old mind, this particular bass had a very cool eagle embossed on its white finish and I was smitten-it was the bass for me. Luckily, the Junior High band instructor, Mike Jampole, happened to be a very good bassist, and lessons were arranged. What a great teacher-I learned to read music and began learning the basslines of Paul McCartney, a favorite, of mine, to this day.
In middle school, I met Roger Mills for the first time. Mr. Mills would come by the New Trier West ‘feeder’ schools to hear the kids, see if he could provide a loaner instrument where needed (In my case, an acoustic bass twice as big as I was) as well as let us know about the music program that awaited us at New Trier West. By junior high school, Mr. Mills and his Recording Jazz Ensemble were known to all of us budding musos. We had seen them live on the WTTW Soundstage, as well as in concert at the NTW auditorium. To me, they seemed like professionals through and through. There was a hipness to how they played, and to how they carried themselves that felt well beyond the 15- to 17-year-olds that they were. They actually played Frank Zappa’s Peaches En Regalia. How cool is that? NTW Jazz live, as Mr. Mills came out from the side of the stage and counted them off in a manner that I would get to see and hear countless times. He is there snapping a circle with his hand and calling out, “Ah one, ah two…” and man! like a live wire, there the band would be swinging, like mad, playing with such virtuosity that it left me dizzy. These guys were so good that just about every year, they were invited to play overseas: The Montreux International Jazz Festival, Mexico City, Greece, Romania, France, all of which they toured! This was no mere high school band. The Recording Jazz Ensemble had a reputation, and that reputation was that these cats could hang.
The dream for all of us was to get THE CALL from Mr. Mills. At the end of my first semester, sophomore year, it was my turn. “Al, I’m thinking you’re going to be in The Recording Jazz Ensemble next semester, ok?” That meant having your name on a ‘Flag’ in concert, getting to wear the desert boots, the light blue cords, and the colorful shirt, but most of all it meant getting to be a part of this incredible band. These guys were like musical giants to me: Andy ‘Kup’ Kupferberg (1980), Stan Miller (1980), Greg Marsh (1979), Mark Jiaras (1979), Bucky Blomberg (1977), Neal ‘Cowboy’ Levin (1980), Mitch Warren (1979), Rob Bargad (1980). Recording Jazz Ensemble concerts were a huge event at NTW, always a packed house, and always the band playing ‘out of its head,’ great. During my sophomore year, one of the centerpieces for the concert was called, Theme and Variations, highly complex, and with a really killer bass part. Mark Jiaras, the first chair bassist, was of course going to play on that, and so he would rightfully need to rehearse it with the band, but it did not stop me from learning it, because I thought it was so cool. One day during rehearsal, Mr. Mills called up Theme and Variation, and now, some forty years later, I can still hear him say to me, “Al, let’s have you play bass for a bit.” To this day, I am convinced that putting me in the ‘big chair’ for a few minutes had so much to do with making music my career.
During my junior year, Mr. Mills hired me to work filing music in the office. I wanted to try and buy a vintage Jazz Bass, and Mr. Mills did what he could to help me fund the purchase, $800, as I recall for a sweet 1966 sunburst J Bass, a princely sum in 1980. Truth be told, there may be an odd page, or two, of obscure music that I could not locate the right place to file, and it ended up tucked behind the filing cabinet. I assume, and hope, the statute of limitations has passed. During that year, the big buzz was all about an invitation the Jazz Ensemble had received to tour and perform throughout Greece and Romania. It turned out that this was now our turn to add to the NTW Recording Jazz Ensemble’s history. The set showpiece that year was West Side Story which we worked on throughout the year. An adjunct to the NTW Jazz Ensemble was called the Creative Jazz Ensemble. I also became a part of that group, which was yet another thrill for me. The Creative Jazz Ensemble was a smaller group, made up of advanced Jazz Ensemble members, and was like an intensive study in learning how to improvise, along with the then big guys, Andy (Kupferberg), Stan (Miller) and Rob Bargad, all 1980 graduates.
In retrospect, I do remember feeling that a certain amount of stress that seemed to have crept into the music department. I’m not sure why but perhaps the school administration was not quite as supportive as they should have been, regarding the whole jazz program that existed, and in context of the group’s international travels. The NTW Jazz ensemble, was among the most popular things at New Trier. I got the idea that somehow, they didn’t realize that how rare it was to have such a high caliber, and popular, program at the high school level, and one that competed for attention with an array of school activities, not the least of all sports.
However, the overseas trip was full of great memories, even escaping frigid Chicago for sunny warm Greece was a definite plus, and our performances were all very well received. While in Greece, I think the entire band bought Greek fisherman’s hats, a fashion forward look that took some getting used to, I’m sure.
As an aside, while in Romania, we visited the castle of Vlad the Impaler, on whom Bram Stoker based his Dracula novels. The thunderstorm that took place on the bus ride through Transylvania only heightened the mood. We tried to be the proverbial ambassadors for our country and all, but kids will be kids. I know for Mr. Mills and, the other chaperones, it was like herding cats at times. Well, what happens in Greece and Romania stays in Greece and Romania.
Senior year started with a teachers strike, and as I remember, the band rehearsed during that time at the Northfield Community Church. We had all been informed that New Trier West would be permanently closing, and merging, with our sister school New Trier East. As seniors, we would be the last class to graduate before our school folded into a new combined New Trier. That impending loss pervaded senior year, and I did not help the situation by acting like all the ‘know it all’ upper classman. I recall the final New Trier West Jazz Ensemble concert that would close out such a great program of music education. Many Jazz Ensemble alumni had returned to perform in the Jazz Alums, Mr. Mills’ newly created ensemble. They shared the stage with us, and I especially remember Steve Eisen, whose playing was so superb. Then finally, of course, was the final performance of MacArthur Park, by now our theme song, which had added emotional weight, as it was the closing of a remarkable era. Mr. Mills and Phil Smith, arms around each other’s shoulders, holding it together one last time.
Thanks to the amazing guidance, teaching, and patience I received in the NTW music department, I ended up with a scholarship to the Northern Illinois University music performance program. During my time at NIU, I played in the Big Band under the direction of Terry Sawchuck, in the Orchestra, and I studied composition with Frank Mantooth. I was also the bassist in a quintet that won Downbeat Magazine’s best collegiate small group of the year award. We played a version of Stella by Starlight in that group, which actually was written by one of my relatives, Victor Young. After I left NIU, I spent time in several great bands, including Colourtone, with Stevo George from Ministry, Walk West and The Way Moves, a band with its roots in the New Trier West Jazz Ensemble.
All three bands were signed to major label deals, and when the time came to choose one over the others, The Way Moves won out. I was one of the three composers in The Way Moves, which released two albums and toured for several years, during which I met my beautiful future wife, Ranee. After The Way Moves broke up, I began a second career as a jingle bassist in Chicago. During the twilight of the commercial music boom years in Chicago, I played on several hundred jingle sessions a year, recording on various projects in the 2000’s and beyond, including a trio with George McRae, another NTW alum, on a record with Mavis Staples Live with Rachael Yamagata at the University of Illinois Pavilion, Steve Mullen at Radio City Music Hall, and Sinead O’Connor at Metro in Chicago to name a few.
In the mid 2000’s, moved to the composition side of commercial music, and along with my writing partner, Matt Walker, yet another NTW alum, formed Cadre Music. We have written jingle campaigns for Hyundai, L’Oreal, Microsoft among many others. We presently write cues for many television shows, including Teen Mom, Ridiculousness, Rob Deirdek Fear Factory, Catfish and Odd Mom Out. We have also placed original compositions in several films including Johnny Knoxville’s, Being Evel, a documentary on Evel Knievel, and Happy Death Day. In 2015, I reconnected with Tony Magee, a friend and composition major at NIU, and Jim Widlowski, an incredible drummer also from NIU. We toured the world playing Tony’s brand of Americana. I also play in Sons of The Silent Age, a Chicago based band that plays the music of David Bowie. Post pandemic plans are to tour Europe with this band. Home is actually Wilmette, Illinois, again, where my wife Ranee, and I, live with our two children, Rachael and Dylan, and our pup Samantha. My kids are both music maniacs, and they really get it; they feel music with their souls just like I do. My daughter is guitar crazy, and it is so much fun to watch her grow as a player. Rachael and I share a love of indie bands, and will spend hours jamming through Blur, The Strokes, or Cage the Elephant tunes. Blessedly, she loves The Beatles as much as I do as well. My son Dylan has a deep love of music and is considering a career as a studio engineer. He also shares, with me, a love of ’60’s muscle cars. Suffice to say, the love of my life, Ranee puts up with a whole lot of noise in our house.
Throughout my career, the lessons instilled from my 4 years, as a New Trier West Jazz program member, have served me very well. It was there that I learned that music is truly a gift, and should be treated as such, with care and reverence, with attention, with hard work, and with love. To this day, I make sure no matter the gig, I am prepared, on time and with both a good attitude, and open ears… Ok, Mr. Mills, count me in – I’m ready to play!