New blood revitalizes Woodstock’s Creative Music Studio

Karl Berger and Ingrid Sertso.

It hardly seems possible but Woodstock’s own Creative Music Studio, that ethereal prodigy of a golden era, has been sent to the gym and returned rippling with muscle. Like the town’s original experiment in freedom (known since 1905 simply as “The Maverick”) CMS remains, first and foremost, a forever tolerant state of mind. So how do “forever tolerant” and “rippling with muscle” coexist? This is how: with a kick-ass new board, a supercharged trio of artistic directors, and the original god-parents of World Music, Karl Berger & Ingrid Sertso, imperturbably at its heart.

From the beginning these two have attempted to reconcile the irreconcilable. In the mid-1950s Berger simultaneously studied classical piano, pursued a Ph.D. in philosophy from the university of Heidelberg, and covertly played jazz in local clubs. His Ph.D. in hand, Berger began teaching philosophy at the university and would answer Ingrid’s daily question of: “Where are you going, Karl?” with: “I am going to work.” Every morning the patient reply was always the same: “That is not your work, Karl Berger.”

Exactly what their work would be was revealed the instant the couple heard the opening bars of the Ornette Coleman Quartet’s 1961 release: This is Our Music, when each turned to the other and said: “This is what we want to do.” The quartet’s trumpeter (and World Music pioneer) Don Cherry, paved the way. Karl encountered him in a Paris cafe. Then, as Karl explains, “I did something I never did before and will probably never do again. I walked up to Don and said: ‘My name is Karl Berger and I want to play with you.’ Don Cherry was a very intuitive cat. He looked me over for a second and said, ‘Rehearsal is at 4:30.’”

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Karl became Cherry’s pianist and eventually appeared in New York City to record Symphony For Improvisers in 1965. Don introduced Karl and Ingrid to Ornette Coleman and a friendship evolved.

(With apologies for this interview not including Ingrid who this day continues to fulfill her commitment at KTD) Karl continues: “In Europe we ate fresh food and intensely interacted with our friends and colleagues. In America people ate out of tin cans and cut themselves off from each other. So actually we were quite miserable here, until Marion Brown insisted upon showing us Woodstock around 1971.” Next, through the example of Carla Bley and an existential exercise in irony otherwise known as a joke, a peaceful revolution was begun. “Let’s start a non-profit musical workshop up in Woodstock,” Karl suggested to Ornette Coleman. “Would you do this with us?” “Sure,” answered the Start Of It All, “you do the non-profit part…and I’ll do the profit.”

Within the year Karl and Ingrid’s growing family rented a barn home on Witch Tree Road and around 1972 the Creative Music studio was born. Hundreds of students, dozens of legendary “guests,” (such as Jack DeJohnette, Karla Bley, Anthony Braxton, Oliver Lake, Marilyn Crispell…) several locations, and more than a decade later, CMS finally fell victim to Reagonamics, but not before seeding music from planet Earth with an astounding sonic awareness. Karl and Ingrid don’t attract “students” so much as they add new members to their sprawling musical family. Actually, the term “teacher and student” aren’t recognized, and the Edenic belief that all human beings have music within them awaiting an awakening remains staunchly rooted in their philosophy. While styles come and go, the “Music Mind” of CMS continually seeks to discover commonality in all traditions. Naturally, this river-of-sound cannot be fixed, even if the techniques and exercises developed by the founders indeed are. Nevertheless it is people who play, share, listen, and love music, and people live and die.

Billy Martin, Peter Apfelbaum and Steve Bernstein.

This truth was dramatically underscored on June 11, 2015, while the CMS family was conducting a four day seminar at the Full Moon Retreat in Big Indian. Rob Saffer (who four or so years earlier had gradually assumed executor directorship) received a call at dawn informing him that Ornette Coleman had just died. By nightfall the shock inspired what insiders today call “CMS 2.0” which is the means through which the cooperative will be passed beyond the lives of its remaining founders. Concerning such, last week’s otherwise admirable New York Times article declared “Creative Music Studio Changes Hands…” More accurately those inspired by Karl and Ingrid now buoy CMS up and on into the future.

Augmenting Karl and Ingrid’s legendary base, those new artistic directors are  Billy Martin, Steve Bernstein and Peter Apfelbaum, whose extensive accomplishments are next ridiculously abbreviated.

Although best known for the extraordinarily versatile Medeski, Martin & Wood, percussionist Billy Martin “came up” performing beside such luminaries as John Scofield, Bob Moses, Bill Frisell, Cyro Baptista, Dave Liebman, Jerome Harris; he worked two years in the mainstream with Chuck Mangione and participating in John Zorn’s Cobra improvisational game pieces, and performing with John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards.

In 1976 at 15 and 16, respectively, Steve Bernstein and Peter Apfelbaum were the youngest participants in CMS history. They grew up together playing Bay Area jazz as much of the rest of America settled for disco. Bernstein, a many times honored arranger, is a trumpeter and multi-instrumentalist best known locally since 2004 as player/arranger for Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles, with horn arrangements on Levon’s Grammy awarded Electric Dirt. Other arranging credits include Lou Reed, Rufus Wainwright, Marianne Faithfull, Elton John, and Marvin Pontiac (as well as on Bill Frisell’s Grammy winning Unspeakable.) His band Sex Mob has won international acclaim since forming in 1995.

Peter Apfelbaum began his professional career with Carla Bley’s band (1978-82), and has performed with Berger since a teen-ager at CMS. He played with Don Cherry’s band “Multikulti” and was its musical director from 1988-1995. The long time leader of the big band New York Hieroglyphics and more recently of the vocal/electronica-driven sextet Sparkler, as saxophonist/pianist/drummer and composer, Peter Apfelbaum’s current music is a mash-up of world music saturated in the aesthetic of the jazz avant-garde.

The thing is this: Martin, Bernstein, and Apfelbaum, while based in the sonic adventure previously known as “jazz,” all continue to make forays into Pop. From a native Woodstocker’s POV, this is of crucial importance since an ingrained piety eschewing “Rock ’n Roll” within the original CMS (though the prejudice was formally shunned by Ingrid and Karl) served — this writer contends — to prevent a full reconciliation between art and commerce. Today, such walls between “schools of music” have largely melted. And so the original CMS goal has been tentatively achieved. Unfortunately, the infrastructure of the music business as a whole has also melted, with the result that a brave new world of musicians is indeed most free to starve.

A brief conversation with the chairman of the board of CMS 2.0, Stuart Leigh, doesn’t state but seems imminently informed by this reality. Ingrid and Karl have only this week returned from a triumphant six night series Karl curated at John Zorn’s prestigious Lower East Side listening space, “The Stone,” featuring the on-fire core of a fully revitalized CMS. Meanwhile Stuart Leigh remains the all-necessary ballast of a small ship superbly speeded by a strong wind (due, largely, to the hugely enthusiastic piece in The New York Times.) Unlike the other members of the team, Leigh doesn’t gush. Reading between the lines of the “bios of the board,” this seems not only a high-powered but also well-heeled group, yet referring to future concerts and workshops untied to actual real estate, Leigh is careful with his claims, and doubtless, cautious with a hard-won budget.

Ironically, this is among the best news yet for CMS, elsewhere filled with evangelists who embody “the living proof” of an ecstatic truth.

For instance, board member Bill Horberg arrived in Woodstock with his children in 2014. Some unfulfilled expectations disappeared upon his meeting Karl and Ingrid. Bill’s email from vacation in Maine includes: “… the thing I unconsciously had been seeking since I dropped out of the Berklee College of Music in 1979 was suddenly right here under my nose…Karl has this way of bringing you into his sphere, of treating beginners and virtuosos equally as people with a voice and something to say…Soon I was hanging out at his studio on weekends, joining in the impromptu musical gatherings happening there, meeting CMS alumni and newcomers…I asked how I could get more involved and help the organization which was starting to enjoy a renaissance under the guidance of Executive Director Rob Saffer.”

Not surprisingly Rob Saffer’s story serves as prequel to Horberg’s.

“I met KB around 2008. Peter Apfelbaum introduced us. We met again when Karl offered a rhythm class here in town. Within one class I knew he was a masterful teacher…playful with words and ideas [with that] impish, mischievous grin. I started volunteering my time on projects and before long got in much deeper…I’ve been executive director for about five or six years. I come from an listener/fan’s point of view — having been to thousands of gigs for decades…But what CMS tries to do is make sure that music communicates deeply, not superficially. We try to help great musicians become great artists, great communicators through music. We want them to learn to use their crafts and considerable talents to reach people’s ears, hearts, minds, bodies. There’s so much interesting and good work out there, but so much of it also leaves me (at least) feeling empty. We’re pushing in the opposite direction.”

It all boils down to an increasingly rare bit of wonderful news. The Creative Music Studio is poised to lead another musical re-awakening. Both Ingrid and Karl feel reborn, their performances and instruction have never been more joy filled and passionate. At a recent private event, Ingrid told rapt listeners, “It is easy to forget this…but it is our duty to remember.” Then she sang “What a Wonderful World.” With tears my eyes, I was tempted to believe her.

“Karl and Ingrid’s warmth and wisdom has touched generations of students and players who now comprise this extended creative music community,” said Horberg. “There is a re-energized mood that comes exactly in reaction to these dark times we are going through culturally and politically…the need for listening, for dialogue, for meaning, which is really at the core of what we do, has never been greater.”

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