A tribute to Karl Berger

Volume 123, No. 5May, 2023

John Pietaro

Karl Berger conducting at the Stone, circa 2011 or 2012. John Pietaro is standing in back row in black shirt, near the edge of the white stage door. Photo by Don Mount.

I was terribly moved to learn of the passing on April 10 of Karl Berger, whom I’d known and had the pleasure of working with for several years. The reputation of this brilliant vibraphonist/pianist/composer (and Local 802 member) as founder of the Creative Music Studio, and a longtime musical partner of Don Cherry, had long been known to me, so in 1989 when he facilitated a lengthy New York City CMS workshop series, I leapt into it.

Karl was born on March 30, 1935. His career began in the late 1950s in his native Germany. However, it wasn’t until the mid-60s after he’d moved to Paris that he met Don Cherry, the revolutionary trumpet player who’d shaped free jazz as a member of the Ornette Coleman Quartet. Berger was quickly brought into the Cherry ensemble touring Europe which included a young Gato Barbieri on tenor saxophone, bassist Bo Stief, and drummer Aldo Romano. These historic performances, thankfully, were well documented on the multiple volumes of “Live at Cafe Montmartre, 1966” and it was on the strength of this communion that Berger, along with his wife, the vocalist and poet Ingrid Sertso, relocated to New York. In the years since, Karl’s discography, in particular, is storied with ongoing of dates as a leader as well as sessions for Charles Mingus, John McLaughlin, Carla Bley, Lee Konitz and many more.

Settling in the upstate community of Woodstock, plans were laid for a school of improvisational music. Working closely with Cherry and Ornette Coleman, who’d become a great friend and collaborator, Karl and Ingrid devised the Creative Music Studio. Countless artists came through the program, both students and as teachers–often one grew into the other — encompassing the immense realm of new music, free jazz and world music. In the early 1980s, with a vast diminishment in federal funding under the Reagan Administration’s “culture wars”, the Creative Music Studio was tragically shuttered. Berger and Sertso established a similar program in Turkey, a nation which held the pair in highest esteem, and toured frequently through Europe. As Karl explained, his pool of knowledge only broadened in this period, playing music all over the planet in every imaginable genre. His work as a creative guiding spirit, however, remained a calling.

In every phase of CMS, including the 1989 series in Manhattan, Karl’s teachings were so valuable, so authentic, that the art of improvisation was lifted beyond consciousness. Within the small class lasting six months, I could feel the swell of growth to a near overwhelming point. It was indeed life changing. We had sporadic contact following this, then in 2010, when Karl began weekly performances with what became his Improvisers Orchestra at John Zorn’s original Stone performance space on Avenue C, I inquired into becoming the percussionist of this amazing ensemble. “Yes”, Karl replied. “Come down and let’s try it out.” That first Monday, with an outstanding array of improvisers about me, the experience became infectious. I worked with this Stone Workshop Orchestra as it was then known every Monday night for a full season, followed by another at the Jazz Gallery (it’s old location on Varick). Once this series ended, Karl moved the entire operation to El Taller Latino Americano (when it was still on upper Broadway) with a number of additional gigs at ShapeShifter Lab in Brooklyn. I was also able to book Karl, Ingrid and bassist Ken Filiano for a very special performance at the Brecht Forum as part of my Dissident Arts Festival in 2013.

Over a four year-period, I was honored to be immersed in the music as well as the philosophy of both Karl and Ingrid, and by extension, Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman. Perhaps more than the dozens of gigs with the Improvisers Orchestra, having Karl and Ingrid as guests to my fiftieth birthday party, held at a cabin up in Woodstock, 2012, was most memorable. I’ll cherish the hand-made wooden wind chimes they brought me at least as much as the memories of playing in a steamy club flanked by Warren Smith or Lou Grassi on drums, guitarist Kenny Wessel, among others, and bassists Filiano, Hill Green and many more, driving an orchestra of up to 26 members strong.

Following is an excerpt of an article I wrote a dozen or so years ago, capturing the moments in the thickened air of the Stone…

Karl Berger and Ingrid Sertso enter the room, gently reaching out to the musicians sitting in a double-rowed semi-circle. The band responds in kind, offering greetings, brief bits of humorous tales and other chitchat. But this is not a mere social call. Soon Karl seats himself caddy-corner at the piano and offers some basic ideas as to what the music will be like tonight. In some cases choosing pieces he’s played with the Orchestra before, in others, introducing brand new ones without warning, of course.

The compositions are often his own but just as likely penned by Ornette Coleman or Don Cherry, or other past collaborators. Many are drawn from the repertoire of world folk songs (Karl is especially fond of Turkish music). But it can never be said that there is anything assumed or pre-planned about this band’s music. There is NEVER a written score and when the band needs to learn a jazz head or other melody, it’s simply played at the piano, slowly and repetitively, until the musicians are comfortable with what’s to come.

Karl offers some info on the particular mode or the tradition in which the piece was developed as his hands lightly run over piano keys. The musicians are all veterans and adept at this kind of performance, but Karl’s advice and philosophical guidance are never taken begrudgingly. “Please let’s remember to pay close attention to dynamics in this passage,” Karl is wont to explain as he demonstrates the importance of the phrasing in a piece. Standing now, he raises a hand and gently fans it downward: “You can almost leave that last note out completely. In fact, I would like some of you to fade the phrase just before it ends to really exaggerate the emotion. Deeee-da. Deeee-da”. And the music, already inspired and executed beautifully, comes fully alive. By design, this band is geared toward the highest level of creativity, and the tools of such creativity–free improvisation, on-the-spot composition, modernist harmonies, world rhythms, technical expertise, and latter-day angst — are in constant demand here.

The Stone Workshop Orchestra’s sound is born of the moment, founded by the players’ instincts, skill and need to emote—-and it’s then organized by Karl’s artful hand and facial expressions. Sculptor-like, he molds and shapes the aural force emanating from this collection of brass, reeds, strings and percussion set before him. Refusing to consider his part in this as conduction (“really, this is not so specific, I just cue and offer guidance, you do the rest…”), Berger none the less has developed an incredible language of his own; without losing sight of the musicians’ individuality, he plays the orchestra. Karl’s unique hand signals–and welcoming eye contact—bring in sections, soloists or the tutti ensemble, and in doing so, establishes range, tempo, volume, timbre and vibe.

Through his cues the band knows the direction and shape as well as the duration of the notes to be played—but the specific notes remain our own. He guides orchestral accents behind the force of a soloist’s excursion, adding to the soundscape and fierce intensity. Karl then layers one solo over another and calls on this or that accompaniment — which ultimately is seen as just an important a voice in the mix and may very well take over the spotlight. Feel is paramount and interpretation is demanded. Its clearly there in the leader’s eyes each time he becomes engulfed in the tapestry. Leaning back into the sound in a moment of particularly rich improvised harmony, Karl adds: “It took Gil Evans two years to write a chord like that!”

The echo of musical liberation descends over the luxury condos and gourmet delis, declaring the legacy of fearless creativity. And in its resonance, the music tears away the cloud of conformity and clears the path for further generations of New Music.


Excerpted from

John Pietaro is Local 802’s director of organizing as well as a published poet and journalist. You can reach him at or (212) 245-4802, ext. 230