Behind the hubbub, though, there’s a silently echoing presence, an invisibly imposing backdrop. Stand in the temple-like main space, and ghostly electric vibrations rise up through the soles of your feet until they float through the roof of your skull, rustling the air just outside your ears. Long ago, artistic events of a much different kind happened in this space, on these grounds. Events that forever reshaped the spheres of jazz, experimental, and world music; events that continue to resonate loudly today.
Twenty-four years ago, this place was the last official incarnation of the renowned Creative Music Studio, an institution begun in 1971 by composer, vibraphonist, and pianist Karl Berger, his wife, vocalist Ingrid Sertso, and jazz legend Ornette Coleman as a haven for the intimate study of improvised music. The collective energy of the incredible names who taught, studied, and performed here—Cecil Taylor, Donald Cherry, Anthony Braxton, Lee Konitz, Abdullah Ibrahim, Jack DeJohnette, Jimmy Giuffre, Carla Bley, Babatunde Olatunji, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and many others—is hot enough to melt the needle right off the meter. The musicians and students lived side by side for weeks, sometimes months, at a time in the guest rooms and cabins. They collaborated on music outside of the classroom, ate meals together, socialized, and gave free outdoor concerts in the surrounding towns and on the old athletic field across the road. As former student Robert E. Sweet describes it in his 1996 book on the retreat, Music Universe, Music Mind (Arborville Publishing), CMS, which closed due to lack of funding in 1986, sounds like it was pretty much heaven on Earth for jazz lovers.
“It was a very special place,” says Berger in his Woodstock dining room today. “There was music everywhere. It wasn’t really a school, with all of those dusty old music teachers pushing exercises and charts. It was more like a workshop, where you had people like Braxton and [Miles Davis bassist] Dave Holland coming in fresh off the road to teach and play with the students. And we would record everything. ‘Practice, record, listen’—that was the process. Every Monday night we’d have listening sessions, where we would go back and study the tapes we’d made the week before.”
It’s these very tapes of classroom sessions, along with those of numerous CMS-related concerts, that make up the nearly 400 audio and video archival recordings slated for digitization by engineer Ted Orr and eventual release by the Creative Music Foundation, a group set up by Berger, Sertso, and the Planet Arts label to preserve CMS’s recorded legacy. To raise the $120,000 needed for this mammoth effort, the foundation is drawing on funding from grants, private contributions, and benefit concerts like the one that will take place this month in Woodstock. “In the 1970s and ’80s, the music industry dictated what artists could play on their records,” explains Berger. “But when these same musicians were at CMS they could play whatever they wanted to play. So there are whole bodies of work by these artists that consist of music that was only done in the moment, music that is not represented on the records they made at the time. [The archive project] is a way to rewrite that history.”
Berger’s own history begins in his childhood home of Heidelberg, Germany, where he was born Karlhanns Berger in 1935. “[Heidelberg] is a beautiful place,” he says. “The American forces wanted it for their post-war headquarters, so they didn’t bomb it up too badly.” When the military bases moved in, with them came weekend jazz clubs that featured visiting US artists. “It was like growing up in New York, getting to meet and play with all of these amazing musicians,” Berger recalls.
One amazing musician Berger met at the time was Sertso, who hailed from Munich. Among other commonalities, the two shared a love of the revolutionary new free music of Ornette Coleman, and when they learned that frequent Coleman sideman Donald Cherry was performing in Paris they quickly lit out for the European jazz mecca. In a stroke of made-for-TV scripting, the driven Berger met Cherry the day the couple arrived and was playing in the trumpeter’s band the next night. Sertso and Berger soon forged a deep alliance with Cherry, who introduced them to Buddhism and in 1966 brought them to New York, where they found steady work in the clubs and in another, perhaps unexpected, area: the public school system. In a program called Young Audiences, which also included John Coltrane bassist Reggie Workman and saxophone innovator Sam Rivers, Berger played for sixth-graders and demonstrated improvisation by working off melodies the students supplied. Next, after hearing that the iconic composer John Cage (a future CMS guest instructor, coincidentally) was about to give up his position teaching “chance composition” at the New School of Social Research, Berger conceived a course on improvisation, pitched it in a letter to the college, and was accepted as a teacher. He taught the course for five semesters, an experience that by 1971 led him to a new mission.