Discussing Steve Grossman (4): Interview with Jerry Bergonzi

From the generation of Michael Brecker, George Garzone, Bob Mintzer, Dave Liebman and Bob Berg, Steve Grossman is frequently thought of as the greatest; he is certainly the most forgotten. And yet his story continues to resonate among his surviving friends and contemporaries.

Another player often touted as the best of the post-Coltrane generation, if such a title exists, is Boston-based saxophonist and educator Jerry Bergonzi. Indeed, Michael Brecker was once asked how it felt to be ‘king of the tenor sax’ and famously responded “I don’t know, you’d better ask Jerry Bergonzi.” Though Bergonzi is clear in his belief that ‘no one can be king of the tenor sax’, he has enjoyed an exceptional career in jazz, working with such players as Dave Brubeck, Dick Oatts and Mulgrew Miller. Now 74 years old, Bergonzi looks back on the career of his old friend Steve Grossman.

This conversation is the fourth of a five-part series about Steve Grossman. Interview by Charles Rees.

L: Steve Grossman (photo by Maurizio Zorzi) / R: Jerry Bergonzi (photo by Antonio Porcar Cano)

London Jazz News: How did you first encounter Steve Grossman?

Jerry Bergonzi: I first encountered Steve because I knew his brother Hal Grossman, who was a trumpet player. Hal was always talking about his younger brother, how he was a great saxophone player; he was playing alto and he was transcribing this and transcribing that. Hal said he sounded kind of like Cannonball on alto. 

Then, finally, I flew to New York with Hal – it was the first time I’d flown anywhere – and we hung out with Steve. By that time he was playing tenor, and we went to different clubs, hearing people play and sitting in. I remember we sat in at this place with Jimmy Lovelace on drums and Jymie Merritt on bass. Just bass and drums. It was a learning experience for me. At that time, Steve was really kind of upbeat. He was totally straight!!

Then there was a bass player, Don Pate, used to play with a lot of people, and I played for his senior recital at New England Conservatory. He had Webster Lewis on organ, Lenny White on drums, this other drummer… He had two of every instrument except bass; it was myself and Steve Grossman on tenor saxophone. By that time, Steve was already playing with Miles and I could see a shift in his demeanour.

LJN: What did that shift in his demeanour look like?

JB: He was more withdrawn. I could tell he wasn’t as extroverted or as enthusiastic.

Later I moved to New York City and he came over to my loft with Greg Herbert. They were both tripping, and Steve slugged down a pint of I.W. Harper bourbon in record time. Other times he would come over looking for a mouthpiece he could sell. I could tell you so many weird stories about Steve Grossman, but that’s not the point. The point is Steve had his issues but always sounded amazing. He was a great player. 

LJN: What was it about his playing that you admired?

JB: He really had great time feel, great technique, played with great authority and energy….he was just a natural saxophone player. I know he took lessons with Joe Allard and all that stuff, but so did a lot of people. You could tell he’d put in his time studying the jazz language. I never heard anything of him playing that I disliked. I didn’t care if he was trying to sound like Sonny Rollins or whatever, he just sounded great. Everybody admired Steve.

LJN: Some have observed that you picked up elements of Grossman in your playing. Do you feel that’s the case?

JB: Oh, for sure. But it wasn’t like I got it from Steve Grossman. I got it from the people we all listened to: Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter….and of course Dexter Gordon, Hank Mobley, Sonny Stitt, Stanley Turrentine… But yeah, everybody was influenced by Steve Grossman. He was on the top of his game. He was playing with Miles [Davis], Elvin [Jones] and making records, so he always had a lot of notoriety. There was a time where I really checked out Steve, like I checked out this person and that person. You know, you just keep checking people out and finding out how it fits into your artistic, musical scheme of things.

LJN: Is there a particular recording of his that stands out to you?

JB: Probably the one I used to have – I lost the tape – was at a club called Sonny’s Place, with Andy LaVerne on piano. They played standards all night and he just sounded so great playing them.

LJN: Do you remember what year that came out?

JB: It was probably around 1973, ’74. That period.

There’s also a great recording live in Boston with Steve Grossman, Masabumi Kikuchi on piano, Gene Perla on bass, and Elvin. It’s a quartet and just sounds outrageous. It’s Steve at the top of his game….yeah, I never heard Steve sound better than that, really. He’s still early twenties at that point.

I think that some people peak early. Like, to me, Stan Getz: there’s nothing I like more than early Stan. Early Steve….ridiculous! But the thing is, I don’t really think Steve got any better at a certain point. Unfortunately he had a problem with drugs. He always sounded great, but I wonder, had Steve been a bit more mature and didn’t have the drug problem, where could he have gone with his music? I know Bob Berg was into drugs: he stopped. Mike Brecker: he stopped. Bob Mintzer: he stopped. But Steve said “I want to live the Bird book”. Cool, but that’s a short-lived book…

Steve Grossman. Photo credit: Jacky Lepage

LJN: Dave Liebman has said several times that Grossman was ‘the best’ of the post-Coltrane generation. Is that something you agree with?

JB: Yeah, he would say that. I mean, it’s a hard thing to say who’s the best; I don’t view things like that. There’s things I like about Liebman more than Grossman, like his creativity and the fact that he doesn’t play clichés. Steve, you know, had his favourite clichés that, no matter where he is in the tune, he’ll just pick one out and play no matter what the chord is. But he was on that echelon of tenor players out of New York, on the top of list.

LJN: That’s pretty much the unanimous perspective among your generation. But you have a unique insight into the younger generation as a long-time educator also. Do you hear your students discussing Grossman at all?

JB: Not many. They don’t know who Steve Grossman is compared to Mike Brecker; everybody’s talking about Mike, and for good reason. I do have one student now who just idolises Steve Grossman; all he wants to do his play like him. And, having heard it, I did kind of get tired of listening to it. It’s hard to recreate something like that because that’s what was happening back then. Steve was bringing out the Coltrane language at that time, and the fusion-y, modal language, which he played great.

LJN: Would you care to speculate as to why they remember Brecker but not Grossman?

JB: Steve Grossman was not exactly the nicest guy in the world at times. That’s not the case with Mike Brecker: When you meet Mike Brecker you just love him from the get go. He was a great, encouraging person.

LJN: So you think it’s more to do with personality than art?

JB: Yeah, I think he peaked too young. He needed to grow up in some respects, and get more human. But I know that when you have a drug habit, it’s stronger than you are. Drugs can make anybody nasty.

LJN: This year is the fiftieth anniversary of Live at the Lighthouse. You are joining Gene and Dave Liebman – the surviving members of the quartet – and Adam Nussbaum for a celebratory tour, in a sense sitting-in for Grossman. It it an honour to be asked to do that?

JB: Well first, nobody could sit in for Steve Grossman, so I don’t even think about that. Nobody could play like that….Steve Grossman is Steve Grossman. I’m sitting in for me. I can only play as good as I can play; that’s hard enough for me (laughs). But yeah, it’s an honour, definitely.

LJN: What is Steve Grossman’s ultimate legacy in your opinion?

JB: He had a great feel. Authentic, for the most part. Later on I think that it could be a little bit derivative sometimes, compared to early Steve Grossman where he was playing language that we hadn’t heard. He had his own take on it, but he kind of abandoned it. I wonder if people just pigeon-holed him as a Coltrane disciple, so he decided not to go in that direction. But anyway, Steve Grossman’s legacy is his playing; not the fact that he was a drug addict. When they made that motion picture about Charlie Parker, all they did was talk about his drug habit… Man, he just made great music. Well it’s the same with Steve Grossman: he sounded fantastic.


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