Hot Pursuit

Jazz and blues bassist Matthew Berlin

Photograph of Matthew Berlin
Matthew Berlin
Photograph by Stu Rosner

Matthew Berlin ’89, a jazz and blues bassist who also knocks around in folk, ragtime, and classical and performs sometimes three or four nights a week, is quick to tell people that he’s not a real musician. “A hack,” he insists, half-kidding. His regular job is as a trust and estates lawyer in a Boston firm. But the truth is, he’s been a musician—a serious one—longer than he’s been anything else. “It’s just always been there,” he says.

That comes through in his most recent project, a jazz album released this year: I Just Want to Be Horizontal. Berlin produced it and played bass; the album is a collaboration with two of his oldest friends and bandmates: singer Samoa Wilson and the legendary folk guitarist Jim Kweskin (whose eponymous 1960s jug band attracted imitators including the Grateful Dead and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band; for this album, Kweskin gathered a nine-piece jazz ensemble). The album takes its title, and its inspiration, from the music of swing pianist Teddy Wilson (no relation to Samoa), who ran a studio band in Kansas City during the 1920s and ’30s and played with jazz greats Benny Goodman, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday. “His band was incredibly tight,” Berlin says. “The feel was that they were swinging so hard, and it just was so effortless and clean and dignified and cool.”

That’s a feeling the album tries to replicate: the way the piano intro to a song like “Lover Come Back” opens up into a winsome, easy swing; the way the guitar and bass take their time soaking into the notes of the title track, “I Want to Be Horizontal”—a 1934 jazz ballad transformed here into a modern blues—while Wilson’s voice glides across the melody. Many of the album’s songs were recorded by Teddy Wilson’s band; Berlin and Kweskin made a point of unearthing old verses, lost in the intervening decades, even as they updated some of the arrangements. “So, these old songs that people think they know?” Berlin says. “They often have these beautiful parts that just dropped out over time. We wanted to restore those.”

Berlin’s first instrument was a cello; he started taking lessons when he was six. His parents were accomplished avocational musicians: Gerald Berlin was a prominent civil-rights attorney and a clarinetist who played occasional concerts with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and wrote classical music criticism for The Jewish Advocate; Miriam Berlin, Ph.D. ’57, was an expert in Russian history who taught at Wellesley and Harvard and played piano and flute. “She could sight-read anything,” Matthew Berlin says: “Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok.”

Berlin showed some talent, and his parents pushed him to practice every day, envisioning youth symphonies and conservatory auditions. Instead, he pushed back. “The cello became a focal point of resistance and self-determination,” he recalls. When he was 14, he took the $350 he’d earned during a summer job and bought a bass guitar (a “cheap little Fender knock-off”) and an amp, and started teaching himself licks from Van Halen, Cheap Trick, and Blondie.

At the same time, music became a kind of deliverance. After some rough teenage years, during which he sold his guitar, withdrew from playing, and struggled “basically with how to get along with the rest of the world,” a return to music’s structure and discipline led him back to himself. He fudged his way into a jazz band in tenth grade, pretending he knew more than he did about the upright bass. Then he dove back into classical music, taking classes at the New England Conservatory and considering a professional career.

Tendinitis ended those thoughts (“My arm felt like it was on fire,” he says), and Berlin found solace in a different kind of music, leaving the rigors of the conservatory for the open, easygoing jazz scene in Barcelona. The culture there, he says, recognizes the arts “as a part of the fabric of society, and so you could always get work. Kids like us could put in for a grant and somebody would find the money to put up a stage and lighting for a concert at two o’clock in the morning at some square in the old Barrio Gótico.”

A year later he came back, renewed, to Cambridge and Harvard, where he concentrated in social studies and played with the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, the Bach Society, the Mozart Society, and a handful of campus ensembles and pop-up jazz clubs. “My days were just totally lit up, after the academics, with jazz and classical music.” That was also true after college, when Berlin headed to law school at the University of Oregon: “Eugene has a great music scene.”

Today he plays regularly with half a dozen Boston-area bands with evocative names: the Dixie Cookbook, the Busted Jug Band, Jazz Is in the Air, the Racky Thomas Blues Band. Whenever he puts together an ensemble of his own, he calls it the Berlin Hall Repertory Orchestra, a nod to the juke joint that his grandfather, a Latvian immigrant, ran above the family’s dry-goods store in Newport News, Virginia. For some years, Berlin played and traveled with country-bluesman Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong, “the last of the great black string-band musicians.” When Berlin goes to other cities for work, he tries to set up gigs with musician friends, who are scattered all over. But most of his performances are local: Sinatra standards at a cocktail fundraiser with pianist Shinichi Otsu, or Chicago-style electric blues with the Tall Richard Blues Band at a club on the South Shore. Last October, on one of the late mild evenings of the year, he was in Somerville’s Davis Square, busking with the Dixie Cookbook, which plays early New Orleans jazz. An instrument case stood open for tips at their feet, as the quartet filled the plaza with jaunty syncopation: “My Blue Heaven,” “We’re in the Money,” “Tiger Rag,” “Sweet Sue.” Students and after-work commuters lingered, while children gamboled over from a nearby restaurant’s outdoor tables, dragging their fathers by the hand.

“The more you play a tune, the more dimensions open up....It’s like discovering a cathedral inside something very small.”

“One thing I’ve learned,” Berlin says, “the more you play a tune”—whether an improvisation or rehearsed set pieces—“the more dimensions open up, the more space for interpretation.” In improvised music, “The opportunity for open landscapes is quite extraordinary, but even if you’re playing the same tunes over and over, it’s like you find these little internal structures. It’s like discovering a cathedral inside something very small.”

Read more articles by: Lydialyle Gibson

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