A Reluctant ‘Jazz’ Hero: An Interview with Trumpeter, Composer, and Arranger Steven Bernstein

Steve Bernstein — the leader of the band Sex Mob and denizen of the New York “downtown scene” for 20 years — is one of the most exciting musicians on the planet. Funny, brilliant, about half-scholarly and half-profane, he is not afraid to say it like he sees it. Late this summer, he talked to me on a beautiful Sunday morning.

Who Wants to Be a “Jazz” Musician Anyway?

Though he plays the trumpet and his favorite musicians are Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, Bernstein didn’t want to be called a “jazz” musician. Bernstein did not see himself as part of that world.

“For the first 15 years I was working as a musician in New York, I purposely did not describe myself as a jazz musician, even though Duke Ellington is my mother’s milk,” Bernstein says. “Why? I felt like my personality didn’t fit that. Everyone was defining jazz in a very small way. I felt: this is not who I am.”

Rather, Bernstein was a cat, a downtown guy, a wide-ranging musician who was part of a “downtown scene” before there really seemed to be a downtown scene. “This is before the Knitting Factory. We played at the Danceateria, the Mud Club, in lofts — more of an art scene, where avant-garde met funk music.

“I didn’t fit anyone’s caricature of a jazz musician. I was a Jewish hippie guy from Berkeley, California who grew up in the ’60s. I didn’t grow up in New Orleans. I loved Art Blakey, but when I came to New York, I came to play with John Lurie and Sam Rivers and Hal Wilner. My bands were opening for Shudder to Think and They Might Be Giants, and I was hanging with punk rockers and making the hip-hop scene.” Making it as a jazz musician was the farthest thing from his mind.

“Then Hal Wilner called me to some arrangements for Robert Altman’s movie, Kansas City.” Wilner is the music supervisor for Saturday Night Live and a famed producer of innovative tribute albums to the likes of Nina Rota, Charlie Mingus, Walt Disney, and many others. Bernstein had been doing arrangements for Wilner, and the Altman movie was going to be set among the territory bands of the ’30s US Midwest. Jazz terrain if ever there was.

“There I was, surrounded by Joshua Redman, Nicholas Payton, Geri Allen, and James Carter, who were all playing for the film. And I said, ‘Hal, I don’t know how comfortable I feel telling these jazz guys what to do.’ He said, ‘Steven — you ARE a jazz musician. Deal with it.’ It was interesting — it took a guy who doesn’t come from the jazz world and looks at it from the outside to tell me that’s what I am.”

Wilner, of course, was right. But Steve Bernstein is decidedly his own kind of jazz musician.

2006: A Year of Prolific Bernstein Madness

The last year has certainly shown off the full range of Steve Bernstein’s distinctive taste in jazz. He had three major releases come out on the same day in August: one by his genre-bending band Sex Mob, one by his wild ‘n’ wooly Millennial Territory Orchestra, and — dig! — an album of jazz arrangements of children’s tunes, Baby Loves Jazz. Add to this his recent work on the soundtrack to the Leonard Cohen documentary I’m Your Man and you’ve got a veritable armada of new, invincibly diverse, music.

The Millennial Territory Orchestra is a maverick band in every respect. Playing tunes that go back to the start of jazz and up-to-the-minute pop tunes, the band harnesses the power and excitement of today to the colors and arrangement strategies of the early swing bands. Loose, raucous, and a ton of fun, the band bridges tradition, daring edge, and a postmodern wink into a seamless whole. MTO, Volume One (Sunnyside) is uniformly astonishing, but particularly check out the version of Prince’s “Darling Nikki” that creeps up on you slow as can be.

When Bernstein talks about playing with the MTO, his excitement burns through the phone wire. “These days I have more of a jazz audience. But until recently my whole audience was 22 year-olds, just having a great time. Even now, my favorite moments at an MTO concert are when some 21 year-old college girl comes up and says, ‘I was crying. I had tears in my eyes.’ They want to go out in New York and experience something and they’ve never really experienced live music before — and when they feel that thing where something is actually happening in front of them, it gives you that emotion, that feeling that you can’t get from TV or from a computer.”

Which is not to say that Bernstein isn’t up to date. The latest release from Sex Mob, Sexotica (Thirsty Ear), combines Ornette Coleman-style jazz with the exotic pop rhythms of Martin Denny from the ’50s — by incorporating the electronica talents of producers Good ‘n’ Evil. The result is like little else on the market. “They’re old friends of mine — they did a remix with the first Sex Mob material. They said, ‘hey, let’s make a record.’ I wanted to make an electro-acoustic record, 50-50. I wanted the whole thing to breathe, and I think we successfully did that — a real integration of the two forms of music.”

But it’s Bernstein’s live music with Sex Mob that may be most exciting. “I loved it when Sex Mob used to do the ABBA tune ‘Fernando’ with this long introduction. It was a really stretched-out thing, and then there was this one moment where people would realize what tune it was. Everyone was in this mysterious place, and then suddenly they realize what they’re hearing. That’s what jazz has always been about — the sense of sex, where you get into that zone where you don’t know where you are or what’s going to happen, a sense of rhythm and sensuality and letting the moment take you over. That is what’s missing from a lot of the music that people call jazz now.”

Bernstein’s jazz, however, has sex — mystery, excitement, and release — in spades.

A Maverick in the Making

Steve Bernstein’s youth was rich in creativity. “Growing up in Berkeley was the most amazing thing. Listen to the musicians who went to my high school: Josh Redman, Peter Apfelbaum, Lenny Pickett, Craig Handy, Benny Green. The guy who ran the jazz program, Phil Hardymon, was incredible; he starting teaching kids to improvise in fourth grade. My English teacher had fallen in love with Lester Young in the ’40s, and she would play Lester Young or Coltrane for us at the start of class every day.

“There was incredible music in the ’70s in the Bay Area. By the time I was in high school, I’d already seen Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Duke Ellington, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sam Rivers, Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, Egberto Gismonti, Eddie Henderson, Eddie Harris, Nana Vasconcelos — incredible music. I’m a ’70s guy — I came through that whole thing.”

An elemental spirit of this music infected Bernstein from the start: serious fun. At a time when rock seemed to have the corner on good times and too much “serious” jazz was forbidding, Bernstein was developing role models who saw the music as joyous. “There are two guys: Lester Bowie and Don Cherry. I knew them when I was in tenth or 11th grade. They were friends. I used to see Rahsaan all the time, and those concerts were unbelievably serious, energetic, fun, crazy, anything-goes. It’s right there. That’s where I come from.”

When Bernstein came to New York, he was absorbed into a “downtown scene” that had little to do with traditional jazz. Which was fine with him. “Before any jazz critic knew who I was, I had a band called Spanish Fly — a collective. We would open for Shudder to Think or They Might Be Giants. We were getting up there with tuba, slide guitar, and trumpet in front of real indie-rock audiences, and people were flipping out. That’s always been my modus operandi. This ‘jazz’ thing is just icing on the cake because that was never really my intention.”

Bernstein’s first prominent gig was with the second generation version of John Lurie’s “fake jazz” group, the Lounge Lizards. “I wasn’t in the original version of the band but joined later when he hired ‘real musicians’. John was completely self-taught; he didn’t know the first thing about anything except that he was a great artist. But, you know, the Art Ensemble was not unlike this. Except for Lester, those guys weren’t traditional jazz musicians. They were good on their instruments, but they couldn’t play like Lester Young or play a Marty Paitch arrangement in a sax session.” Bernstein was quickly integrated into a scene where traditional jazz credibility was the less the point than a more general sense of artistry. He excelled at both.

Sex Mob — formed over a decade ago — was a way of marrying jazz to nontraditional improvising. “I didn’t want to be called a jazz musician, but eventually I had to accept that was who I was. I win jazz polls, but I’ve never been hired for a week at a jazz club in my life. I’ve barely ever been called to play a US jazz festival, though I’ve headlined every jazz major jazz festival in Europe. I’m not seen as not part of the New York ‘jazz’ world, and that’s OK with me — I never wanted to be part of that world. I created my own world. And that’s every musician’s job.”

The Fringe Becomes Mainstream, or Vice Versa

While Bernstein was founding Sex Mob and gathering downtown cred, the major labels were signing some young jazz musicians to significant contracts. He not only has no regrets about missing this gravy train, but it seems that he is now ahead of the game.

“One of the things that nobody wants to say is that the Marsalises bankrupted Columbia Jazz — the emperor has no clothes. Wynton’s budgets were huge. He was selling ten or twenty thousand records and he was getting a minimum $100,000 to make a record. In the end, when he left, they closed Columbia Jazz. I don’t believe in coincidences. Duke didn’t bankrupt it, and Woody Shaw didn’t bankrupt it, and Dave Brubeck didn’t bankrupt it, and Arthur Blythe didn’t bankrupt it.

“As the corporate structure of the record business failed, jazz musicians like me and Dave Douglas have come out alright. We did it on our own and put out our own records for years. Now everyone is being forced to do independent records and these other guys are trying to figure out how to do it. I’ve never had a record label — I’ve never been signed to anything, and I’ve never had a budget. I’ve always done everything on my own. And being around punk rockers really helped because that’s how they did things. Now it’s like an even playing field — we all sell the same amount of records, there is no corporate music, so it’s like: how does the music stand up on its own aside from whether you had a budget?”

Bernstein makes ends meet by varying the music he makes and keeping busy. “To make it as a creative musician, you have to keep multiple balls up in the air. I own a house, a couple cars, I have two kids, but I work every day. I play with Levon Helm’s band for his ‘Midnight Rambles’ and I do a lot of studio work. One of the interesting things about playing in all those bands that played downtown for so long is that these people were fans of mine in their early 20s now have jobs in advertising. All it takes is one or two jobs a year doing a jingle on TV or radio — that’s the kind of stuff that pays the bills.

“I’m one of the few trumpet players that understands different styles of music. In my date book you’ll see Lou Reed, Sex Mob, MTO, Roswell Rudd, Levon Helm, and I did Trey Anastasio’s last record. This year alone I had to turn down Bruce Springsteen and Jay-Z. That’s how busy I am.”

All that work seems to grow Bernstein’s ears and interests. “Levon has certainly changed the way I think about music. When I first toured with They Might Be Giants 13 years ago was when I really got to understand rock music. Being around rock musicians for an extended period of time, guys who felt as strongly about rock as I feel about jazz, broadened me. Being around Levon — as a rock ‘n’ roll musician and an Americana musician, but [one who] loves Cannonball Adderley and horn solos — can’t help but make you better.”

A Jazz Educator of Sorts

The musical eclecticism and integration that is elemental to Bernstein’s music makes him, indirectly, as much a “jazz educator” as Wynton. “People who pick up a Sex Mob album are going to learn about Count Basie and Sun Ra by listening to an ABBA song. They may not know it at the time, but the next time they accidentally hear Sun Ra or Count Basie, they’re going have a better understanding of what that music is. Or maybe they’ll search it out.

“I would like to become an educator because I feel like a lot of people who are educators aren’t teaching the right lessons. My teachers were older musicians. Jimmy Maxwell was a legend in NY who would be 85 now. He replaced Harry James in Benny Goodman’s band, which was like being in the Beatles — playing with Teddy Wilson, Cootie Williams, and Charlie Christian. I have a responsibility to pass on what he taught me about the music, which is more about truth and emotion than anything else.”

The ultimate lesson that Bernstein preaches is this: great music is a direct reflection of the musician. “What’s missing in jazz today is too often a sense of personal authenticity. Sure, it’s all the right notes — people take notes from Freddie Hubbbard or Clifford Brown, some Coltrane notes, Dexter Gordon, but they weren’t the children of those people’s mothers, so it doesn’t make any sense. The person who originally played those notes — it was because that’s who they were. There’s not that urgency, that primal thing. What I try to do is to get back to that primal feeling of what music was originally about — communicating with people and taking them along for the ride.”

Bernstein sees some great musicians as lacking in an elemental way. “Steve Coleman [alto saxophonist, composer, and founder of the M-BASE collective] is a genius, but he’s been dull forever. No offense, but Coleman’s music is true to him. It’s like Wynton and his music — it’s just the way he is. Coleman is a great musician, and Wynton is probably the greatest trumpet player ever. But their music is a true reflection of their personality just like mine is. If you don’t like their music, you probably won’t like them that much as a person. If you would like a person like me, you would probably like my music.”

Accepting Himself As a Jazz Musician

If Wilner is right, then Bernstein’s music is most certainly jazz — as he is decidedly a jazz musician. Rockers who reject “jazz” as too slick or too staid are missing the point. “Jazz”, Bernstein says, is the very essence of personal authenticity.

“Are those rock guys who don’t like ‘jazz’ saying they don’t like the Hot Five, they don’t like Duke Ellington from 1940? I just think that statement is either some kind of posturing or totally ignorant of what the word ‘jazz’ means. I mean, are they talking about some kid who’s 23 who has a huge record deal on Columbia who’s playing some bullshit or are they talking about Milt Jackson playing the blues? There’s nothing earthier than that. I feel like that’s what people like about rock ‘n’ roll. But that’s jazz too. People who say they don’t like jazz, they don’t even know what they’re talking about because the music they like is jazz. Everything comes from jazz — the Rolling Stones come from jazz, the Beatles come from jazz, it all comes from New Orleans marching rhythms. When you really hear the music and it has that build and it starts from one place — it inevitably goes toward that sense of mystery and release. That’s what I’m shooting for. That’s jazz.”

On to the Next

Bernstein is not a guy to stand still. He’s currently getting ready to tour Europe and the West Coast with Sex Mob. He and the Millennial Territory Orchestra were recently featured on NPR and are also on an Amstel Light commercial, of all things. Bernstein recently did horn arrangements for a record called The Harlem Experiment by the guy who did The Philadelphia Experiment. And a second volume of MTO material could be recorded soon.

“Something I’ve always wanted to do is make a real guitar record with drummer Charlie Drayton, bassist Melvin Gibbs, keyboard guy John Medeski, guitarist Vernon Reid, and some others. Then there’s Julian Priester, the great trombonist I knew growing up in the Bay Area. He’s an amazing guy who has played with everybody: Dave Holland, Herbie Hancock, Eric Dolphy, Sun Ra, Coltrane, Max Roach, Duke Ellington. He’s been living in Seattle for 20 years, and he’s leaving teaching. I’d like to do something with him.”

Talking to Bernstein, you get the sense that playing music for a living — as hard as it can be — is the greatest of all joys. As Bernstein lets his mind wander over the other possibilities of playing for the coming year, you can practically hear his neurons firing with pleasure. Music, to Steve Bernstein, is just a matter of living your life and letting it all come out. The joy in one becomes the joy in the other.

It’s not a bad philosophy for anyone, but for a jazz musician, however reluctantly he accepted the label, well, it seems like a way to live your life: seriously but with the very widest of grins.