I received word today that Bernie Strassberg died earlier this week. I’d heard that he was ill, and if my math is correct, he was about 86 years old, so his passing was not entirely unexpected. Still, when someone looms as large in one’s life as Bernie did in mine, there’s something inherently a little shocking about death. It’s hard to imagine New York City without him.
I met Bernie for the first time when I was still living in Seattle. Bernie was visiting a friend in town, and the two of them came to my gig at Café Campagne. During my set, I sang “Body and Soul” and “The More I See You” and sang the verse up front, a cappella. Afterward, Bernie pulled me aside and rather sternly inquired as to whether I knew what year “Body and Soul” had been written. As it happened, I did—1930, incidentally—which made Bernie happy. He went on to ask me if I knew who Beverly Kenney was, saying that I had channeled her in the verse to “The More I See You.” I had heard only one of her recordings, I admitted, a beatnik-y version (complete with bongoes) of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” on a Gershwin compilation album. My answer seemed to satisfy Bernie, and after he returned to New York, he got in touch with me and told me to make a demo recording, for which he would foot the bill.
With Bernie’s help, I recorded a four-song demo with my Seattle band, and, also thanks to Bernie, the demo found its way to pianist/composer/Dizzy Gillespie alumnus Mike Longo, who became my mentor and teacher when I moved to New York City. My first gigs in town were with Mike’s big band, and through those early gigs, I slowly began to find my footing in the music scene here.
I spent lots of time hanging out at Bernie’s apartment during my first couple of years in New York. He had thousands of albums, and we’d drink wine and listen to June Christy. I remember he always teared up during the ballads. Sometimes Bernie’s cat, Lady (named for Billie Holiday, of course), would sit on my lap while the records played. Once, I came over, crying; I was exhausted, broke, and feeling defeated. Bernie would have none of it. I can still hear his voice: “My money’s on you, kid.”
Bernie’s apartment had a little terrace that overlooked West 57th Street. He had filled the terrace with so many plants that there was hardly room to sit, but sit we did, talking about music and city life on sweltering summer afternoons. Truthfully, it was Bernie who did most of the talking, which was all right with me. He had a lot of opinions and liked to teach me Yiddish and tell stories about his years in the army and concerts he’d seen.
Eventually, Bernie and I had a falling out; in his signature blunt fashion, he harshly criticized a recording project of mine and I was too angry and stubborn to let it go. We didn’t speak for several years, until one night he surprised me by waiting outside the stage door at Come Fly Away. I was singing with a big band in Twyla Tharp’s Broadway homage to Frank Sinatra, and Bernie was tickled pink. “You did great, kid. I’m so proud of you. Whatever went wrong between us in the past, forget it,” he said, dismissing any lingering resentments with a wave of his hand and a hug. It was great to see him.
Bernie spent every Sunday afternoon at Café Loup, eating brunch and listening to live jazz. He invited me several times to meet him there, and I never made it. I sure wish I had.
Bernie Strassberg was a mensch, a real New Yorker and a true friend to jazz, and those are pretty goddamn fine things to be, if you ask me. Rest peacefully, Bernie. Thank you for everything.