Always on key

Jeremy Berlin truly loves to tickle the ivories.

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Jeremy Berlin shows his jazz face during a performance at the Sweet Life Cafe. — Jeremy Driesen

Over his long musical career, Island pianist Jeremy Berlin has developed his immense passion for playing and performing into a methodology for living life. 

Berlin’s parents were both classical musicians, and made sure he and his brother were involved with music at an early age, although it didn’t take much convincing. He first took piano lessons at the age of 6, and started teaching his childhood friend how to play at age 10.

During the summer, Berlin would travel with his family to Martha’s Vineyard from his home in Cambridge, and could often be found practicing down at the First Congregational Church on a piano they had set up in the rectory.

With some support and encouragement from his parents, Berlin kept playing over the summer, and took piano lessons that allowed him to move beyond the foundational aspects of music theory, and experiment more. 

“I started to make things up and improvise at a pretty young age, but I didn’t have a whole lot of other examples to go off of besides classical music in the house,” Berlin told The Times.

When he was about 18 years old, Berlin discovered bebop and mainstream jazz, and immediately fell in love. “I remember being just absolutely smitten, I had no idea music could look like this and sound like this,” Berlin said.

While on summer break from college, Berlin landed a job on the Vineyard working for jazz musician Jimmy Burgoff, and started sitting in with Burgoff’s band. “I worked for him moving furniture by day and playing piano by night,” Berlin laughed. 

Berlin would play alongside Burgoff and bandmates Lenny Yancey and Ed Larkosh in the Tisbury Jazz All-Stars — in the early 1980s they’d open up a packed Hot Tin Roof for the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Williams, Dave Brubeck, and Ramsey Lewis.

In 1993, Berlin met blues artist Johnny Hoy, and solidified his place in the popular Island band Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish. “I met him in 1993, and I’ve been playing with him ever since,” he said.

With the Bluefish, Berlin was introduced to and immersed in the world of blues — a new musical styling that he said allowed him to extend his range and see his art in a different way. He has traveled all over the world with the band, but said the Bluefish are a Martha’s Vineyard fixture first and foremost. 

Not only did Berlin get to play blues and experiment with his sound, but he continued to be an avid jazz performer while playing with his good friend, Eric Johnson. Johnson, an accomplished jazz guitarist and acoustic bassist, teamed up with Berlin to form a jazz duo that have played regularly at the Offshore Ale House for more than 20 years.

“I got so much flexibility and experience from those experiences,” Berlin said. “I have had the fortune of both being a rock and roll and blues guy and a jazz guy, and have had a great time doing both.”

Recently, Berlin performed some old jazz standards at the West Tisbury library with vocalist Shelagh Hackett, and played an outdoor set at the Sweet Life Cafe with vocalist, songwriter, and guitarist Rose Guerin. 

For Berlin, music is his central conduit to rich experience, and an access point to meaningfulness.

“It has opened up so many places and cultures, and allowed me to connect so much deeper with the world,” Berlin said. “It’s also my emotional therapy and my best way of expressing myself.”

Guerin said she’s always seen Berlin as an intelligent and creative “musical conversationalist,” and the two of them put on some powerhouse shows at Sweet Life,the Ritz, and other venues.

About 30 years ago, Guerin was on and off the Island, often heading out to Boston to perform with her uncle, when she met Berlin’s brother, Matt Berlin. “Matt would always tell me about his brother Jeremy, but I never really knew him,” Guerin said.

But once Guerin started hanging out and performing at the Ritz, she met Berlin, who was in his early Bluefish days. “We got to talking about all the sweet old jazz standards, and decided to get together and learn some,” Guerin said. 

The two would play a jazz brunch at the Ritz from time to time, and were always able to land some nice gigs playing their favorite classics.

It wasn’t until three years ago that Guerin talked with Erin and Hal Ryerson down at Sweet Life Cafe in Oak Bluffs — a whimsical slice of Circuit Avenue with a large patio that’s perfect for year-round performances (it’s heated and sprinkled with fairy lights).

“This was the perfect atmosphere for our jazz performance, and for Mike Tinus and Siren Mayhew and Sean McMahon, and all sorts of other musicians,” Guerin said.

During her time spent playing with Berlin, Guerin said she has been able to learn more about herself as an artist, and about the essential element of musical conversation that takes place during every good show.

“It’s been one of the biggest honors of my life playing with Jeremy — I’ve learned more than I could ever express,” Guerin said. “He is such a quiet but stalwart champion of music here on the Island.” 

Hoy keenly recalls some of his experiences playing with Berlin, and times when Berlin would show up to practice or rehearse, and edify his bandmates with advanced musical know-how.

“He was trying to teach us fancy chords and stuff — he was far more sophisticated,” Hoy laughed.

Apart from being so dedicated to promoting music on Martha’s Vineyard, Hoy said, experiencing Berlin’s presence on stage is like watching a professional athlete. “He is like a rugby player on that piano. He started out as a very refined jazz guy, and although he can still do that, he is really physical when he plays now,” Hoy said. “We commonly play a two-and-a-half-hour set, without stopping — it’s no joke.”

According to Hoy, the Bluefish have been elevated over the years as Berlin acts as a sort of musical director while he plays and makes sure every element of the show is copacetic.

With the same apparent ease and finesse with which Berlin connects to his audience onstage, Hoy said, he is able to communicate and reach people on a deep level in a nonmusical context.

“Jeremy’s a people person. He loves people and he loves music — he’s a mensch.”

For Johnson, Berlin has been a close friend and musical collaborator for more than 20 years,

The two continue to push each other to be better artists, and have formed a strong bond over their shared passions throughout their long Tuesday night residency at Offshore Ale.

Both their Island and occasional off-Island gigs have allowed Johnson to tolerate life as a musician on Martha’s Vineyard.

Johnson also commented on Berlin’s thoughtfulness and wit outside of performing, noting his way with words. “Jeremy, like myself, was an English major in college, and, as all who know him would agree, is very articulate and thoughtful on many subjects,” Johnson wrote in a message. “Many of his admirers probably don’t appreciate what an accomplished jazz musician he is.” 

Even considering all his qualities that make him an effective and powerful performer and communicator, Johnson wrote, the thing that strikes him the most about Berlin is the dedication he has for his family.

“Maybe most importantly is what a great dad he is. His son, Silas, is a fantastically talented pianist in his own right, following his own path,” Johnson said.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Just want to clarify, being a Jazz musician on MV would be intolerable without partners like Jeremy and the late great John Alaimo because it is about musical conversation. Being a musician on MV is a gift.

  2. The gift that island musicians like Jeremy give to all that live here are vast and inspirational. I’ve certainly lost count how many times my evening has been enrichened by his multi-genre keyboard work as he lays it down on a gig. Yet even more fulfilling are the countless times he has strived to support our children as they perform on stage with his passion, encouragement and pure talent pushing them to their best performance that build proud memories. Truly a gift having you here!

  3. I’ve known Jeremy for a long time (1980’s) and am a fair keyboardist myself… so I speak with a certain degree of knowledge of the incredible gift Jeremy displays at the piano! His music vocabulary keeps expanding exponentially and he is my favorite keyboardist to sit down and listen to, and I’m forever amazed at his versatility and being able to seamlessly switch between classical to jazz to blues to rock! Love this guy!

  4. Jeremy is an amazing musician and an all-around great guy! What a nice tribute to him and his well-deserved success.

  5. Jeremy’s versatility always astounds me, his skill, and plus he’s a really nice guy. Good article about him, so sadly the week his fellow pianist, John Alaimo left us, who credited Jeremy for encouraging him on his career. Hope we continue to listen to Jeremy (and the Bluefish, or with Eric, or solo) for a long, long time.

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