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Trumpeter Steven Bernstein On Nyack’s Mardi Gras Redux

by Melanie Rock
Venerable jazz trumpeter and musical director/arranger Steven Bernstein will be fronting a blazing house band on Saturday March 2 at The Nyack Center when ArtsRock presents its second annual Mardi Gras celebration. Known for his work with Levon Helm, John Lurie and the Lounge Lizards, the late Henry Butler, and his own super-groups Sex Mob and Millennial Territory Orchestra, Bernstein brings a seasoned panache to his signature fusion of funk, rock, and jazz. He’s also known to riff on his many passions, such as the music of New Orleans, cinema, and his connection to Nyack.

Whose idea was it to have a Mardi Gras party in Nyack?
I guess it was the year before last, when Elliott Forrest had been to a smaller Mardi Gras at one of the Nyack churches, and he liked the idea for ArtsRock so he asked me to take it on. At the time, I was playing with Henry Butler, one of the greatest proponents of New Orleans roots jazz music. And no offense, but I wasn’t sure about doing a local gig with local musicians. I just didn’t know what level the band would be at. But my wife Karen said, “Listen, this is about being part of a community. This is what you do.” And I was amazed when I got to rehearsal, the musicians were so great. I was able to help out with repertoire, with some incredible New Orleans songs that you don’t usually hear outside of New Orleans. There’s the sound–the clarinet and trombone–but it’s really all about the rhythm. It’s really specific, and playing with Henry Butler, I had that New Orleans rhythm drilled in me. So I brought that. Once it gets going, it’s unstoppable.
I think of it almost like a pump. It has this up, down, up, down feel.
Yeah. Unlike a rock rhythm, which is like a straight rhythm, the New Orleans rhythm is a circular rhythm that keeps looping on itself, and that’s why people can’t stop dancing. When we did the Mardi Gras gig last year, I was like, “We’re in Nyack, it’s not New Orleans, it’s not ninety degrees, most people haven’t been drinking since eleven in the morning…” But halfway through the first tune, people started dancing and, man, everyone danced all night!
I missed it last year because it was sold out!
It was sold out, and people danced and danced and never stopped.

Let The Good Times Roll!

Mardi Gras at the Nyack Center

Music, Food, Drink, Dance!
Saturday, March 2, 2019 at 8p
Steven Bernstein, trumpets
Erik Lawrence, saxes
Mark Sganga, guitars
Tom Artin, trombone
James Kimak, sax
Sue Williams, bass
Jeff Doctorow, guitar
Jonathon, Peretz, drums
Loren Korevec, keyboards
Lorena Mann, vocals
Food is included in the $45 ticket price. Wine and beer available for purchase. The Nyack Center is located at 58 Depew Ave in Nyack.

So you didn’t put the band together?
No. It was given to me. I added some of my guys: Erik Lawrence on sax, and this drummer Jonathan Peretz who I used to work with a long, long time ago in a funk band–man, he tears it up. But it’s mainly the band Elliott had heard the year before, and he put me up in front–which was kind of uncomfortable, because it’s like “Here’s the new boss!” But they’re great. Mark Sganga and Jeff Doctorow, both on guitars, they’re both locals, and Sue Williams on bass is from around here, and Loren Korevec plays keyboards with The Band Band, and he’s from the area too. James Kimak is on sax, and we’ll have a different singer this year, Lorena Mann. Just like last year, we’re going to nail it in one rehearsal, because everyone’s that good. We’ll go through a lot of songs, we’ll end up with too many songs, and we’ll have to cut back. Tom Artin is from Nyack, he’s on trombone. In the seventies he was playing with Roy Eldridge in this traditional Dixieland scene, so he brings that side. The trombone’s countermelodies are probably the most important part.
How did you end up living in Nyack?
My wife, Karen Close, has always loved to explore. Way back, before we had kids, we were living on the Upper West Side and we kind of inherited a little Honda Civic. Karen had Mondays off, and she loved to take the car and a map and go find the closest big green space. That meant she ended up at Harriman. She always took random routes home, and one day she told me she’d found the cutest town.
Part two of the story is that I was making a little money doing films with John Lurie, and I had a small inheritance from my grandma, and we had little kids, and I suddenly thought, ‘I’ve been paying rent for 20 years. That’s a lot of money to be giving away.’ A friend told Karen she should drive up with the kids and take a look at this town called Nyack. So she comes back and says, “It’s the same cute little town on the water that I told you about before!” I was on the road a lot then, so Karen kept going up to look without me. And finally she had me go with her to this cute house with a back apartment that was perfect for me to do music, and a yard that already had a swing set. I said, “If we can afford this, let’s do it right now!” So we bought it.
And what year was that?
My daughter Olive was three, so it was 1997. Our friends in the city thought we would regret it. But the only time I questioned the decision was one night, really late, I was taking out the garbage and the streets were totally empty, too quiet, and I got really paranoid that someone would jump out and attack me. That was the only thing that gave me second thoughts. That, and the crazy November fog at two in the morning on the Palisades Parkway!
I always feel good about Nyack. People in Nyack are ready to party. And everyone needs a reason to party.
What other projects are you working on?
Right now I’m working on some orchestral arrangements for Warren Haynes. We did the “Garcia Symphony,” which is all Grateful Dead tunes, and now we’re doing a retrospective of Warren’s work. It’ll be a show, and a recording for Blue Note, and some touring. I have a nice gig in September for Monterey Jazz Festival, with the west coast version of Millennial Territory Orchestra. And I’m about to go on the road with Little Feat. I love that they like to improvise! Most rock musicians are used to things being set, and that’s how they always do it. But with jazz, the whole idea is that we go with what we’re feeling right then, and that’s how we play it. There’s this incredible flow that happens. So Little Feat, they’ll get into one of their three-minute songs and in the middle of it there can be another ten minutes before that melody comes back in! It’s super fun for me.
I basically thought my rock and roll days were over when Levon died, and Lou Reed died. I hadn’t even realized what a big fan base Lou Reed had. I worked with him the last ten years of his life, on his last three or four records. I did tons of arrangements for him, and tons of shows. I played with the two coolest rock and roll guys ever, so who am I going to play with?
Hopefully, in the early summer, I’m going into the studio with a rotating cast of characters to record ten years of my arrangements. A lot of them only get played once, and I feel like I need to document this stuff. Someone came through with the financing, and now’s the time to do this.
Lately I’ve become aware of how little time we each have here. After Henry died, I realized how much music I’d written for him that never got recorded. So I’ll have to repurpose it with different musicians. I did the whole Bob Dylan concert at Town Hall, and I want to do something with those arrangements. I have so much, I can’t even tell you. Catherine Russell, Bettye LaVette, Lisa Fischer… even Coretta Scott King, when she sang Negro spirituals at Town Hall. It’s ambitious, but that’s the big thing I’m trying to do now.
I’m not really focused on getting gigs in New York, because they don’t really pay any money unless you’re at a certain level. I’m more focused on living my life, and recording instead of hustling. So if people present me with things, I do them.
And you’re teaching?
I had to cancel this semester because of family stuff but yes, I’ve been at the New School, where they put together a large ensemble to play my arrangements. And I told them, “There are plenty of people who can teach Jazz Orthodoxy as I call it. I want to teach what I know, which comes from playing in front of audiences on the road for 40 years, doing music for the greatest musicians in the world for 40 years. I want to teach that–how all music is connected.” You obviously need to learn how to play your instrument, and know how the notes fit the chord. But it’s really about finding the connective tissue in all kinds of music, and finding the joy in it, and expressing that. It’s a real difference from teachers who say, “Here’s the notes that you’re going to play in this chord.” I’m not interested in teaching that.
I got to bring a bunch of musicians in to talk to the students, all kinds of people who’d found their own way in the field, from Billy Martin to Arturo O’Farrill to Jim Thirlwell to Skerik. Just to say there’s all these different ways to create your own reality in the music world. It’s about having the vision and the energy to see it through.
I have a lot of opportunities, and I’m at an interesting stage of life right now. I am officially an elder! Because what happens when all of your elders die?
You become the remaining elder.
That’s where I am now. I’ve had to accept that. I ask myself what it means. I musical-directed Henry Butler’s memorial, and Roswell Rudd’s memorial. Roswell was really important to me, as was Henry. I lost them, and Levon, Lou, Bernie Worrell. Those were my teachers, my guys. I made records with them, toured with them. So it’s my job to carry that spirit with me in everything I do.

Melanie Rock is a writer and musician. She lives with her family in Nyack, NY.

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