On Chris Bergson’s tenth birthday, his parents gave the young guitar prodigy a pile of record albums. They included Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf’s Muddy and the Wolf, the Waters, Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield and Otis Spann collaboration, Fathers and Sons, a Thelonious Monk disc and a couple of albums by Miles Davis. Bergson, who started taking classical guitar lessons at the age of seven, had just learned the modern blues scale so he could play along with Muddy and copy some Bloomfield riffs.
“Hearing all that music at the same time had a really powerful effect on me,” he said.
If you listen to Bergson’s CDs such as Fall Changes and Imitate the Sun, it’s obvious that he learned his lessons from the masters well – both those he heard on vinyl and those he had the privilege to know and play alongside. But you also hear a musician with the fire and intelligence to chart his own path and resist being classified as any one particular genre. That independence and drive has made him the beloved leader of a band that has played regularly at venues including Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble and New York City clubs from Jazz Standard to the Rodeo Bar.
Bergson’s journey through musical styles began early. “I didn’t stick with classical guitar for very long,” he said. “I was more interested in playing Beatles or Led Zeppelin songs, but I did learn how to read music, which has been a good thing.”
Born in New York City, Bergson moved with his family to the Boston area when he was very young, eventually settling in Somerville, where his father was general counsel for Boston University. His parent were both music lovers and he discovered The Beatles as a preschooler and remembers that he was always making up songs. His first guitar, a Spanish nylon-string classical guitar, was handed down from his uncle. Along with encouraging his own musical talent, Bergson’s parents took every opportunity to expose him to the best players.
“They took me to hear a lot of jazz and blues greats when they came through Boston. I heard Dizzy Gillespie play when I was in the fifth grade, Miles Davis around that same time. When I was a little older, my dad took me to the Benson and Hedges Blues Festival at the Beacon Theatre in NYC. The bill that night was Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and John Lee Hooker. It was an amazing concert. He was pretty cool, my dad.”
“I heard Dizzy Gillespie play when I was in the fifth grade,
Miles Davis around that same time.”
Bergson’s school had a jazz band for eighth graders and above, but he was allowed to audition while still in seventh grade. He is convinced that it was his Pete Townsend moves that sealed the deal.
“After I played my solo, word spread and I gained some respect,” he laughed.
The older brother of one of his classmates asked him to join his band, The Lipstick Traces and soon his father was driving him to join the high school boys at weeknight gigs around Boston.
“I’ve always really enjoyed playing live, but I ended up leaving that band after a couple of years, as I was getting more and more into blues and blues-based rock like the Allman Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zepplin.”
Blues to Jazz and Back Again
In high school, Bergson started studying jazz more seriously and began playing gigs around Boston, again with older players. As a senior, he got his first regular weekly spot playing at a local Ground Round in a jazz trio, where he quickly had to learn a repertoire of more than 50 jazz standards.
After high school, he attended Vassar College for one semester, thinking he would get a liberal arts degree and play music on the side. But he soon decided he wanted to become a fulltime musician.
“I just started just getting deeper and deeper into playing music until it became my career goal. I ended up gigging quite a bit when I was at Vassar. My grandmother was living in New York City and had a spare room. So I took some time off and moved to Manhattan, studying jazz fulltime and playing with real master jazz guitarists. It was a really exciting period to be in New York.”
He didn’t return to Vassar, but accepted a scholarship to Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio which he attended for a year, and then transferred to the Manhattan School of Music.
“I ended up gigging a lot when I was at school, so it was a pretty smooth transition from being in school to being able to support myself as a jazz guitarist.”
Another important milestone occurred in February 1999, when he met actor/director Kate Ross, who later became his wife. At the time, Ross was working on Wall Street and appearing in showcases, one of which Bergson attended with his 92-year-old grandmother.
“My grandmother was really incredible. She was immersed in the cultural life of the city until she died at 93. She had arthritis and I think it physically hurt for her to play the piano. But when I was living with her, she played every day for an hour. It was a pretty inspiring lesson.”
Ross immediately became Bergson’s biggest fan and supporter and helped find his first regular gig at Vintage, a restaurant on 9th Avenue, where he was hired to lead a trio two nights a week backing up singers including Norah Jones. The band became popular with the Broadway theater set who packed the club. Later, he had a weekly show with an organ trio at the Smoke jazz club on New York’s Upper West Side, where he recorded a live EP.
Anyone who has heard Bergson deliver a soulful blues vocal may find it hard to believe that singing wasn’t always part of his performance, but throughout this time period, Bergson was strictly a jazz guitar player. Ross is due some credit for convincing him that he should incorporate singing into his shows.
“One night in our apartment, he had a friend over and he played and sang an old Robert Johnson tune and our jaws nearly fell on the floor,” Ross said. “I said, ‘Why on earth are you not doing that?’ So that was the beginning of his focus on blues and on singing.”
Around this time, Bergson began seriously writing songs.
“I started getting really heavily into Freddie King and started checking out people like Son House, Lightning Hopkins, and Skip James. My first songs were just my own lyrics over more standard blues and gospel riffs and it stayed like that for a couple of years.”
Around that same time, Bergson made a few connections that proved to be pivotal in his career. Jay Collins had a reputation in New York City as a hot jazz saxophone player and Bergson had heard him play a few times. One night the two were on a gig together and had a conversation about Albert King in which Collins revealed that he had transcribed some of King’s solos.
“My first songs were just my own lyrics
over more standard blues and gospel riffs.“
“A lot of the jazz musicians that I knew didn’t seem to be that deep into the blues,” Bergson said. “It was like a breath of fresh air to me to meet a jazz player like Jay and we quickly found that we had a lot in common. We had also both just started to write original songs.”
In many ways, it was a perfect fit.
“I’m a jazz saxophone player who’s actually very familiar with a lot of blues guitar stuff because my stepdad played blues guitar,” Collins said. “I grew up with a lot of blues guitar records, so I already knew a lot of the stuff that Chris was into. I think we kind of clicked there. And then I moved into the same building as him and we got to practice a lot, work on vocal stuff, get that all a lot tighter.”
Collins had his own outfit, The Jay Collins Band, but before long, he was also playing in Bergson’s band. In the fall of 2004, they were given a residency at Jazz Standard. Every Monday night for most of the fall, Bergson and Collins, with Chris Berger on acoustic bass and Matt Wilson or Tony Mason on drums, would play instrumental jazz, as well as blues where Bergson would test out his vocal chops.
Collins recalled, “His band was kind of somewhere in between a jazz group and a rock group. We were still doing a lot of jazz tunes with a lot of improvising and no singing, and then we would pull out one of his vocal songs. He was still trying to figure out what kind of rhythm section he wanted and what kind of drummer, and I think I made him a little more aware of what was going on in the rhythm section and what kind of a sound he could go for.”
Collins’ gorgeous saxophone elevates many tracks on Chris Bergson records, and he still plays at Bergson’s gigs when not busy with his own band or other projects.
The Jazz Standard gigs were an especially important time for Bergson.
“We were able to really develop as a band and that’s when I really started writing,” he said. “We recorded the album, Another Day right at the end of our residency. It documented the tunes that we had been playing every week, and that was really the start of the Chris Bergson Band.”
Bergson credits the influence of The Band’s music for inspiring “High Above the Morning,” the first of seven original songs he wrote for Another Day. The beautiful love song was played at the Bergson/Ross wedding in May 2004 at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture. By this time, Ross had also become a writing partner, contributing lyrics and arrangement suggestions to songs like “Three Sisters.”
“High Above the Morning” however was a total Chris Bergson creation. “I remember writing that very quickly,” he said. “It came in its entirety, which isn’t always the case with writing. The Band’s music just opened up a whole world in songwriting.”
Woodstock and Levon Helm
The next “seismic event,” according to Bergson, was meeting and playing music with Levon Helm. As luck would have it, Collins had begun dating Helm’s daughter Amy, who played and sang in her own roots/gospel group, Ollabelle, and came to some of their Jazz Standard shows. When Bergson was looking for a place to record the band’s next CD, she suggested Helm’s barn/studio. In the fall of 2006, the band, which now included drummer Tony Leone, also a member of Ollabelle, rented a house upstate and recorded Fall Changes in Woodstock at Helm’s studio. During those sessions, Helm heard Bergson play and hired him as a guitar sub for those nights when Larry Campbell and Jimmy Vivino weren’t available to play with the Levon Helm Band.
“That’s what we really loved about The Band,
how they took so many strands of American music,
blues, R&B, jazz, rock and roll, and put it all
together. Never anything flashy, just incredible.”
“I started subbing quite a bit and it just an incredible experience,” Bergson said. “There was something so pure about what he wanted from the guitar, real straight down the pike rhythm guitar. His groove is so deep, so powerful. It was sort of the beginning of his comeback and a great time. He had such an amazing group of musicians, and it was a place where all my favorite music kind of came together. That’s what we really loved about The Band, how they took so many strands of American music, blues, R&B, jazz, rock and roll, and put it all together. Never anything flashy, just incredible. I feel like I learned and grew so much.”
At a New Year’s Eve Ramble, he played for the first time with keyboard wizard Bruce Katz, who he used to hear as a teenager in Boston playing with Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters. Katz’s brilliant organ can he heard on many tracks of Fall Changes.
Fall Changes was released to critical acclaim, and was named Mojo magazine’s Number 1 Blues Album of 2008. The fascinatingly moody title track was coauthored by Bergson and Ross. Ross also suggested including a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” Many characters from the couple’s Brooklyn neighborhood appear in songs like “Gowanus Heights.”
“Although I enjoy music, I’m not a musical person,” Ross said. “I would never have thought of writing a song. What would I have done with it? But Chris and I would always listen to music together and I credit him with opening my ears. I think one of the reasons that our collaborations work so well is that it’s very clear that they are his songs. If he doesn’t like an idea, that’s that.”
The Chris Bergson Band, now including Matt Clohesy on bass, began touring in Europe and was increasingly invited to play festivals in the U.S. and abroad.
“We felt like we all took a great step forward as a band on that first European tour,” Bergson said. “We played on bigger stages for bigger audiences, so we had to adjust a bit. I learned a lot as a bandleader.”
Another big step forward for the Bergson/Ross family was the birth of daughter Chloe in 2008. Like her father, the 4-year-old likes to sing and make up her own songs and has her own imaginary band, which includes Dora the Explorer.
Hubert Sumlin and Overseas Tours
Having played with one of his heroes, it was only a matter of time before Bergson was playing guitar beside another.
“The two people who I always really hoped I’d get to play with someday were Levon and Hubert Sumlin,” he said. Bergson first got the chance to play with Sumlin at a Bearsville Theater show in 2009 commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival. A friend put together a band that could play Howlin’ Wolf material behind Sumlin and asked Bergson to participate. After that first show, Sumlin called on him again to back him up on shows and even occasionally sat in at Chris Bergson Band gigs.
“It was an amazing experience,” Bergson said. “Hubert was one of my all-time favorite guitar players and getting to watch him play up close was just incredible. His sound and the way he approached playing was totally unique. A total improviser and also one of the sweetest people I ever met, just a joy to be around. With both Hubert and Levon, I feel very blessed that I got to play with them.”
Bergson and his band recorded their third CD, Imitate the Sun, upon returning from their last European tour, where they notably opened for Bettye Lavette at the Blues in Hell Festival in Norway. They worked out some of the tunes at some club shows in the Netherlands, then went into the studio at Excello Recording in Brooklyn. The CD, which features five original numbers and covers of songs by artists from Bessie Smith to Bob Dylan, was named Number 2 Blues Album of the year for 2011 by Mojo magazine.
A more recent release is Play Date, a collection of jazz originals and a few covers with bass player Neal Miner, who Bergson first played with in 1995 at Birdland in New York City.
“It’s been really nice to go back and revisit some of these jazz tunes after so many years,” Bergson said. “Neal and I have been playing together for over 16 years now and it’s a complete joy playing with him. He’s a very soulful player, has an incredible deep groove and always a beautiful choice of notes.”
What’s cooking now is a new Chris Bergson Band CD
and other projects, including a collaboration with
soul singer Tami Lynn.
There is no shortage of musicians anxious to play with Bergson, who has a reputation as both highly professional and relentlessly positive. Drummer Tony Leone is particularly grateful for his years in Bergson’s band.
“He’s one of the most genuine people I know,” he said. “With the two records and the amount of gigs we’ve done together, we’ve developed a rapport that’s as strong as anything I’ve ever been a part of. Playing with Chris has provided a place for me to discover some things about myself as a musician in a comfortable space, just trying to make every night better than the last. When we play, we just go for broke every time.
“I think we have really developed together. He certainly has developed as a writer, as a player and singer. And as a bandleader, he’s just fearless, he’s always got stuff cooking.”
What’s cooking now is a new Chris Bergson Band CD and other projects, including a collaboration with soul singer Tami Lynn, recently a featured guest at Dr. John’s New Orleans Revue at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
“I’m a big fan of hers,” Bergson said. “One of the things that’s cool about her is that she sounds equally incredible singing jazz or R&B or blues, so I feel like she’s interested in going in a different direction.”
Bergson is also writing songs with Craig Dreyer, who plays organ and saxophone with the band when Collins is otherwise engaged. Bergson also plays the occasional club date with Collins, as he can jump in at a moment’s notice.
Wherever he’s playing and whoever he’s playing alongside, Bergson has only one basic requirement: “It’s all just honest music with soul,” he said. “That’s what we’re going for.”
Featured image by Ahron R. Foster
Kay Cordtz has been fascinated by music and musicians since elementary school when she ran home from school every day to watch American Bandstand. Since then, she has been a newspaper reporter, political spokeswoman, government science writer and freelance chronicler of local music scenes during a 30+-year career. She is a graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism