The Amazing Bertons, Part 1: Ralph

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In the spring of 1972, just before my senior year ended, I was at the radio station on the campus of my college while this old geezer named Henry Scarborough was preparing to air one of his programs. For whatever reason, Scarborough was a college student while in his late 60s and, because he had a basic radio engineer’s license, wangled his own half-hour weekly program which he called “Scarborough Fair.” Now, believe me, this guy was about as hip as a lukewarm glass of prune juice, but that didn’t stop him from trying to be hip. He started each program by playing Simon and Garfunkel’s recording of Scarborough Fair, interrupting it after the first two lines to interject his own spoken opening:

Simon & Garfunkel (singing): Are you going to Scarborough Fair? / Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme…

Henry S: “Welcome again to Scarborough Fair!”

S&G: Remember me to one who lives there / She was once a true love of mine.

Henry S: “Don’t stop now, you’re almost there!”

Well, a lot of people stopped right there and turned their radios off or at least switched stations. I used to tease him because he was so un-hip in the “Hippie Era.” But today, of all days, he had a man on his program, nearly as old as he was (60 going on 61), who was there to talk about a book he had written on jazz legend Bix Beiderbecke which was about to be published by Harper & Row. His name was Ralph Berton.

Since I was a huge Bix fan, I stuck around to hear him talk. And I’m glad I did, because Ralph Berton was one of the hippest, most interesting people I ever met in my life. In the long run, he turned out to be one of my best friends for the next 21 years.

Ralph read part of the preface to his book—not only well written, but with poetic alliteration that really impressed me. And he evidently knew his subject, having spent several hours with Beiderbecke when the famed cornetist was 21 years old, then again a few sporadic hours with him in 1927 and ’28 when both of them were in New York. Ralph was the one who introduced me to the music of Chet Baker, introduced me in person to Maynard Ferguson, enhanced my opinion of Bobby Hackett, and told me wonderful stories about Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and dozens of other jazz musicians he had known through the years. He was a walking, talking jazz encyclopedia.

As it turned out, however, Ralph wasn’t the only talented member of his family—not even the most talented. He raved to me about his older brother Eugene, a classical baritone-matin who studied with Jean de Reszke and had been recommended by no less than Nadia Boulanger to perform the songs of the French composers known as “Les Six,” and introduced me (on records) to his even more talented older brother Vic, a virtuoso drummer who was working professionally at the age of six and could play jazz tympani. Of course I never heard Eugene sing—he had died in 1969 and, although Ralph had a recording of him “somewhere around my apartment,” he never could lay his hands on it—until a year after Ralph’s own death, when the tape was finally unearthed, but I heard plenty of Vic and was suitably impressed.

Also as it turned out, Ralph was very controversial within the jazz community, but I only learned this by degrees. Insofar as the Beiderbecke book (Bix: Man and Legend) was concerned, it ticked off a great many trad-jazz buffs and musicians because he suggested that Bix had an affair with his gay brother Gene, and in the jazz world admitting that someone was gay was strictly taboo (to a certain extent, political correctness or not, it still is). But Ralph was also ostracized by his peers because he cut off all development in jazz from 1961 onward. He was diametrically opposed to Ornette Coleman’s and Don Cherry’s “open harmonics,” the Lydian jazz of George Russell, the “free jazz” of late John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders etc., and of course to Miles Davis’ fusion. He once asked me what I thought of Bitches’ Brew, and I said I didn’t know because I hadn’t heard it, so he played it for me. I tried to like it but couldn’t, and he said that was OK because he didn’t like it, either.

As the years rolled on and I eventually worked with Ralph as editor of my own little homemade jazz and classical music magazine, I came to learn some of the reasons why he ticked people off. For one thing, he bristled at the idea of an assignment; if he didn’t want to write about someone he wouldn’t, even if it was someone he liked, because at the moment he was excited about someone or something else. He also had quirky ideas about who was important in jazz and who wasn’t, and in many cases his friends came first. I still recall him insisting on writing a feature article on the obscure trad-jazz trombonist, Big Chief Russell Moore, simply because Moore was an American Indian in jazz and there were very few of them. Forget the fact that Moore made few recordings, and wasn’t considered a really great trombonist; Ralph was an inspirator of political correctness, Russell Moore was one of his pets, and he was going to write about him. I used to send him CDs (at his request) to review, only to get nothing back or not get the review until past the deadline.

So yes, he had his faults. But I’m here to tell you that over the 21 years I knew him, Ralph was not only a staunch and true friend who really cared but also a pretty sharp tack with a terrific memory who had known and talked to a great many jazz giants (and some classical people, too, like the great contralto Marian Anderson, whom he once told at a NAACP dinner that she sang “blanched spirituals”), and he didn’t always paint himself as the hero or the winner in these exchanges. He told me the story of Duke Ellington’s Carnegie Hall premiere of his huge jazz suite, Black, Brown and Beige, which he panned in a newspaper review as being overblown and pretentious. Riding in a cab with Ellington the next evening the great bandleader, not even looking at him but appearing to be looking out the window, said, “If I had been told that Ralph Berton would want me to go back to the plantation, to play the fool in the Cotton Club again, I would never have believed it…” Ralph said that although Ellington was cordial to him after that, their relationship was never the same again. It took guts to admit something like that. He didn’t have to admit it at all.

But this attitude towards a composed suite was symptomatic of one of Ralph’s blind spots in jazz. He wasn’t a huge fan of complex or sophisticated jazz as a rule. He didn’t much like orchestral jazz unless there was a really hot solo on the record (one of his favorites was Roy Eldridge’s opening solo on the 1936 Fletcher Henderson disc of You Can Depend on Me), on which he would focus his entire attention. He didn’t like subtle musicians like Bill Evans, who he complained didn’t swing. And he had an almost “Harlem Renaissance” view towards black jazz and blues records. The more they were “down and dirty,” the more he liked them. In his mind, Ralph still equated jazz with “jass,” the black music of the whorehouses and ghettos, and yet he perfectly described Thelonious Monk as “the Stravinsky of jazz,” referring to his angular rhythms and asymmetric phrase shapes, and was a huge fan of Lester Young and Stan Getz (though he despised Getz for his abrasive personality and his refusal to work with gifted women jazz musicians).

And Ralph really did know his music, from Bach to Bartók. He was a huge fan of Stravinsky, who he called the single most important composer of the 20th century (he also introduced Bix Beiderbecke to Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps in 1929), and an early defender of his music against Philistines who he felt were condescending towards it. Thanks to his brother Gene, he was also an aficionado of lieder and French chansons. And once in a while I could get through to him what it was that I liked in the sophisticated scores of Ellington or Boyd Raeburn. He wasn’t averse to orchestral texture, but it wasn’t what drove him. The “hot solo,” the “irony of a black man in white society” were his horses, and those are the ones he rode.

We should also not forget that Ralph was a pioneer: the first pure jazz radio show host in American history. This came during the period 1940-42 when Berton hosted WNYC’s Metropolitan Review, dedicated to the “finest in recorded hot jazz,” in addition to occasional interviews with old-timers and young jazz and blues musicians. The May 11, 1942 issue of Newsweek opined that “Berton converted listeners by the thousands. His fan mail pyramided to 8,000 letters, outstripping all other regular shows.”[1] Ralph was the pioneer of WNYC’s live jazz programming, bringing the Benny Goodman Sextet into their studios and the Lester Young group to Manhattan Center for a remote. You can listen to the Lester Young aircheck, with Ralph’s announcement, here.

 

 

In later years he also broadcast over WINS, WBNX, KJAZ, WBAI and WFMU on an irregular basis. He edited the music magazine Sound and Fury during the 1960s, where he had the foresight to hire the distinguished classical music critic B.H. Haggin to write for him—and also turned Haggin on to jazz. In his later Listener’s Guides, Haggin made sure that he got a few words in on Bix Beiderbecke and young Louis Armstrong, both of whom impressed him greatly. You can listen to the only known surviving recordings of Ralph Berton on the air by clicking here.

Another of his pets was Marilyn Moore, a white jazz singer who unfortunately sounded like Billie Holiday at a time when Holiday was still alive. (Billie didn’t mind and found it touching, but the jazz critics savaged Moore.) He played me one of her albums once. To be honest, I didn’t care for her much, whether or not she sounded somewhat like Holiday (which she said was inadvertent), but that didn’t stop him from making me listen to the whole album! And if I knew more about someone he was big on and thought was an “unknown” musician, he sloughed it off. Like the time he played me Lionel Hampton’s 1939 pickup band recordings of Rock Hill Special and Down Home Jump featuring the (to him) “unknown” drummer Alvin Burroughs, who really excited him. I pointed out to him that Burroughs wasn’t unknown at all, that he was the star drummer of Earl Hines’ great Grand Terrace band of that time, and in fact could be heard on a number of Hines Orchestra recordings. “Well, I guess he was famous in Chicago,” Ralph conceded, “but I never heard of him!” Well, yeah, Ralph, but the rest of the jazz world did.

Still, I found Ralph to be an absolute fount of information, and in later years when I double-checked his stories, I discovered that he was telling the truth 95% of the time. Like the time he ran across tenor saxist Sonny Rollins, who at the time had dropped out of sight, practicing by himself late at night on the Williamsburg Bridge. This led to Ralph’s famous short story, The Bridge, which he changed to the Brooklyn Bridge in order to keep others from bothering Rollins. Or the time he told me about sitting in on a Jelly Roll Morton recording session when he was about to cut The Pearls. Morton looked up from the piano, winked, and said to him, “This one’s gonna kill ya, kid!” just before giving the downbeat. Or the time he went to interview Miles Davis in the early 1960s and Davis, in one of his ticked-off moods, met him at the door wearing nothing but a chain around his neck. Ralph pretended that everything was normal, went through the whole interview, and then, when Davis saw him to the door, casually remarked, “Oh, by the way, Miles…your fly is open!”

Ralph taught jazz classes sporadically at such venues as the Metropolitan School of Music, Bloomfield College and Middlesex County College. In between he was often unemployed, although he did take temp jobs writing ad copy over the years. But he did his share around the house, being a first-class chef (especially salads…he introduced me to garlic presses and Grey Poupon mustard at a time when they were not yet “hip”) and a (kind of) housekeeper, though he always liked having his apartments look as if a bomb had just hit it. He was definitely a proponent of the saying that “Creativity is better than a neat desk.”

All the members of the Berton family (original name Cohen) had heart problems. Brother Eugene did little or nothing to help himself and died at age 66. Brother Victor burned the candle at both ends, never stopped smoking or having sex with women, and died at 52. Ralph was a health food fanatic, had once been a professional bantamweight boxer, and played tennis into his late years. When he took ill in early 1993 he was convinced that he would pull through, but he didn’t. Say what you want about him, good or ill, but I still miss him terribly. His friendship meant a lot to me, who always struggled for recognition and was rebuffed more often than I care to remember. And now I will endeavor to do justice to his brothers in the next installment.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book: From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed history of the intersection of classical music and jazz

[1] https://www.wnyc.org/story/212476-ralph-berton-university-jazz/

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