Last week I attended a belated memorial service for the late Borah Bergman who died last October at the age of 85. Led by violinist Jason Kao Hwang who organized the event, many friends, colleagues and family members gathered at Saint Peter’s Church on Lexington Avenue to pay tribute, both through musical performances and speeches, some addressing the gathered remotely via Skype. I knew Borah for only the last eleven years, so it was fascinating, and illuminating, to learn more from the many speakers who knew him through all the stages of his life.
My first encounter with Borah was via the telephone. I had moved to New York City, from California, only a few months earlier and was on my second day of a new job working for Thomas Buckner as the Coordinator of his acclaimed new music series Interpretations. While every conversation I ever had with Borah was notable, this one was particularly notable, not only because it was our first, but for the fact that this day happened to be September 11, 2001. Having emerged from the subway at 28th and Broadway only minutes after the first plane hit, I spent the rest of the day in the Mutable Music office at 109 West 27th Street with my colleague Gladys Serrano trying, like everyone else in the city and the world, to figure out what was happening and what we should do. Thus it was amidst the terror, chaos and confusion of that morning that Borah, who was scheduled to perform on the series in the upcoming season, called from his north-facing studio apartment on West 73rd Street to check-in one some details about his concert.
I don’t recall the exact time of the call, but I think it was at least two hours after the crisis began. I had been on and off the phone with numerous friends and family members updating them on our situation, and when Borah called it took me a minute or two to understand that he was actually unaware of what was happening. He was asking me questions about the piano at Merkin Hall (I think) and other ordinary details about his upcoming concert, and when I interrupted him to explain what was going on, he thought I was kidding. It didn’t take long for him to get it though, and in a voice suddenly deadly serious, he told me he was turning on his TV and abruptly hung up.
Thus, Borah and I were now acquainted. In the months and years that followed we became friends. In addition to assisting him with his concert that season (he did perform solo as scheduled on January 10, 2002), I enjoyed many casual phone conversations in the office about various things musical and otherwise, as he, like many other musicians in Tom’s circle, often called in about various things. At some point I started helping him with his email and computer issues, often over the phone, but increasingly at his apartment where I would sometimes visit after work. This aspect of our relationship continued steadily throughout my tenure at Mutable Music which ended in 2007 and became less frequent after that. As other friends know, computers were not easy for him, but I was able to help him manage his email and documents, sometimes simply just typing and sending messages that had been pending for weeks if not months. In one instance, while helping him with his press materials, he explained that the year commonly printed as his birth year was in fact incorrect, and he sent me to the library in search of an earlier version of The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz that, in addition to being a well-written and accurate bio, listed his correct date of birth. In any case, he was always happy and appreciative for the help and, while I was ostensibly there to help him work, he always played the piano, and we would talk about music and musicians, sometimes scandalously!
At some point, I think fairly early on, he took an interest in my music and I gave him a copy of what at that time was my only CD. It was a duo recording titled trancepatterns that I made in 2000 with saxophonist John Ingle in California. The music was as close to jazz or creative music that I had ever come in my own work and Borah liked it. He was very complimentary, particularly about the rhythmic aspect of the music, something I was largely responsible for as the hammer dulcimer half of the duo, a role that was comparable to being the drummer of the group. I had indeed been a drummer as a teenager and rhythm continued to be my focus, and it was gratifying that Borah, an artist who possessed an astounding command of the rhythmic domain, appreciated this quality in my music. Over these years I attended as many of his concerts as I could, though I can’t say that there were many. I remember at least one other as part of the Interpretations series and just a handful of others, at The Stone for example, and what I believe was has last concert in New York, at the Abrons Arts Center as part of the Vision Festival in 2010. I loved hearing him play. But he also attended some of my concerts. The one I remember most was a solo concert I did at the Cornelia Street Café as part of Frank J. Oteri’s “20th Century Schizoid Music” series that took place there one Monday every month. This was late April 2008, a beautiful spring night and he came with Tom Buckner, and while this was a memorable evening in a number of ways, it was a particular thrill for me to see the two of them in that tiny basement concert space enjoying dinner together while listening to me.
At some point he began suggesting that we play together, even do a concert sometime, and while I was concerned with how our sounds might mesh, I nonetheless expressed my enthusiasm. We continued to talk about it over some weeks and eventually had a tentative plan for a concert that might include bassist Adam Lane who was a mutual friend, but for some reason that didn’t happen. I also began a conversation with Issue Project Room about hosting him in some configuration, and while they were definitely interested, this too never materialized. But we did get together to play at his apartment, twice, the last time on March 4, 2010 when the picture above was taken. I also recorded these jams, something musicians do routinely, but I think my motivation had more to do with knowing that I would probably not be seeing him for much longer and I wanted to have some record of our friendship. Our playing together had its moments and it could quite possibly have developed into something, but we never had the opportunity to continue.
It was about this time that I learned from Gladys that Borah had moved to Massachusetts. Things had been unraveling for some time and it had been clear that something was going to change, so it was not a surprise. Not long after that, Borah came down from Massachusetts to play what I assume was that last New York concert, at Abrons. It was a wonderfully moving and contemplative set played to a very appreciative audience that concluded in a long standing ovation. While he played at times in his usual attacking style, the set consisted mostly of his songs and meditations, the former he had composed earlier in his career (I think) while the latter where characteristic of his recent recordings for Tzadik. The one piece I remember most was a song called Through a Green Wood, a simple haunting chord progression that he ornamented ever so sparsely. Greeting him backstage afterward I asked if I could see the score, a one-page hand-written lead sheet with only the barest of notes and chord symbols. In his hands at the piano earlier the piece spoke to me in a profound way of something deep in Borah’s inner world, and it remains the most enduring memory I have of him and his music. Rest in Peace Borah.