One path through grief is to play music. Another one is to write. I have been called here to the page once more in an attempt to capture and hold onto that speck of light in the dark. The sun has been hiding behind the clouds this past week, and with good reason. Perhaps she can’t look me in the eye after what she’s done. That’s OK; I don’t want to look at her anyway. The great mystery has spoken, and we have lost a man who had music coursing through his veins. As I posted a very short time ago:
Bern Nix just played a chord that plugged in the moon, painted clouds different colors and made the wind visible to the naked eye.
Such was the power of Bern Nix, a deep thinker, an incredibly unique scribe, and one of the great guitarists in jazz history. I first met Master Bern while subbing for the late great Roy Campbell Jr. in a band led by Jemeel Moondoc. My brother Francois was also in his trio for a long time. When I would see Bern, we would inevitably end up talking about being caught up in the all-seeing eye of Ornette, and how to try and see the world afterward, seemingly being altered forever. Our exchange led to him asking me to join his trio making it a quartet. We had a few sessions in Francois kitchen to try it out, and after he found Reggie Sylvester on drums, the band was born, and our friendship truly began.
Many, many hours in Francois kitchen we spent playing Bern’s tunes, exploring every crease and corner for the musically unknown. After playing many years together, Francois and Bern had developed a very personal musical dialogue that was the core of our interaction. Bern’s music was the ultimate environment for me to develop my process of free melodic swing. Playing with him is where I was finally able to find and develop my relationship with music and sound once and for all. Bern gave me the greatest gift of all when I asked for his permission to bring my low clarinets into the group, as flugelhorn was the main idea in the beginning. Bern said no problem- as long as I could hit as hard on them as I could on trumpet. Bern’s response was both a sanction and a direction that became another brick in a foundation I could build my house on. Bern only got mad at me one time, and rightfully so as I quoted A Night In Tunisia for absolutely no known reason. Just because you know something doesn’t mean you have to say it. I have always had a hard time editing myself, and Bern’s way of saying more with less was a direct path of evolution.
I’ve heard that when you find a hole in your heart from losing someone, you should plug it, or fill it in with great memories you shared with that person. My first thought is playing the Iridium with Bern. What a gift, as I never get to play “jazz clubs” but wish I could. Underground daydreams perhaps. That gig, one set, was over a year in the making and meant a great deal to us. Next, a road trip concert in Massachusetts with our dear friend Raymond Bally. The music was great, but what I remember most was Bern watching the band having fun in the hotel pool. One of our last gigs was a great event in a Church in New Jersey, also arranged by Ray. I’ll never forget watching Bern see his music played on the big screen during the bus scene in the movie Tangerine directed by Sean Baker in 2015. Gil Selinger made that happen for Bern.
The New York City of today is a savage and brutal place for an older musician playing creative music with no financial backing. Bern was almost from another time the way he lived in his small room with a landline as his primary source of communication. His tank was on empty for many years after he left Ornette, as he lived just one step above the street. He got a tablet from the JFA and was trying to develop a slight online presence, but he had no electronic press kit to submit to Winter Jazz Fest. I tried to contact WJF for Bern several times, and the back breaker was that they wouldn’t even send us a form letter email saying NO. I told Bern maybe it’s a generational thing, as even I’m too old for that festival it seems. Bern thought that all his years with Ornette could be parlayed into a functioning career, but it never happened. The stereotype of the old jazz man living in a little room, Bern was that guy, and that in itself speaks volumes about the reality of the artist today who is too broke to pay to play. In 2017, you can buy an audience that doesn’t have the time to listen to how Bern could weave musical DNA right before your ears. In the last few years, the situation became so bleak that he would say that his musical way of life was over, and the killer, nobody’s listening. That’s the way you feel when two people show up to your gig, and they’re both girlfriends of guys in the band. Regardless of traveling through this musical purgatory, Bern was not giving up. He let me stream our last concert this past Saturday which was climbing to 1,000 views. The idea of making another quartet record was percolating. A brutal aspect of Bern’s ascension was he was slated to play a Prime Time reunion at Lincoln Center this July. In a final jazz insult, the WBGO obituary by Nate Chinen made harmolodics more important than Bern himself and left out his working quartet entirely. Bern was more than one of Ornette’s guitarists. I called Chinen out on that.
Now that the jazz community has their next victim to mourn and eulogize, I’m slowly peeling away the sorrow. Last night as I walked through Astoria Park just after midnight I looked up to see the night clouds moving quickly through a vast and exceedingly clear sky illuminated by the city. The veil between here and beyond was lowered. I sat down on a bench and sure enough, Bern sat down next to me. Having worked that night and been hauling around an invisible albatross of grief, hearing Bern’s voice allowed me to leave my sword and shield in a nearby beat up park trash can. What made me feel so much better, was that it was Bern. Only Bern had that sound and mannerism, and the things he said could only be from him.
After we had talked about the tragic circumstance, Bern moved into his dry humor. He made two comments that forced laughter from deep within-the kind that of laughter that makes your body tremble. The same way we would be in the kitchen. I said I guess it’s time for the memorial at St. Peter’s and he said, “Yes, I’ve finally made it! The big time!” (Bern was a master at slightly sardonic sarcasm that belied deeper uncomfortable and possibly strange realities). I brought up $100 that I owed him for an interview we were planning, and he said that I should set up a Harmolodics scholarship fund for $100! We had developed an inside humor over the years. Bern graciously spoke to me for almost an hour. As the sky became more overcast and the wind slowed to a faint breeze, our connection pulled back like the tide.
To the stars you travel my friend. You left us your music as a signpost for all of us to reach deeper within ourselves. Playing your music was an honor, for which I’ll always be eternally grateful. Bern, you helped me grow so much. We’re already missing you terribly as Francois said. No more kitchen sessions? What?!
One thing I know- no matter what music project I do from now on, Bern’s music will be a part of it. I’ll be playing Bern’s music in some way for the rest of my life.
Bern, I raise that glass to you one last time. The world just doesn’t make sense without you in it. May you truly know peace.
Now, and forever.
(Rooftop pic: Gil Selinger)