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Sound From Silence

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“[The New School class] and the Young Audiences program had shown me there was so much untapped creative potential in the students,” Berger says. “But it wasn’t being addressed in the educational system at all. [The system] was only about the material aspects [of music]—just the notes, ensemble playing, copying solos, all that. But then, as now, [the system] fails to foster personal creativity when it wants to unfold and flourish.” He and others discussed the concept of starting an organization to do just that, one they wanted to call the Creative Music Foundation. Berger approached Coleman for help, and the saxophonist readily agreed to be a cofounder. “If it wasn’t for Ornette, we wouldn’t have done any of this,” says Berger, stressing the importance of Coleman’s encouragement.

So with the blessing and support of the father of free jazz in hand, Berger went looking for a place to begin holding classes. Early on, he realized it couldn’t be in New York. “[Improvised] music really has to start from silence,” Berger explains. “Of course, people play it in New York and other cities, but when you are just learning it’s best not to have all the noise and distractions of the city around you.” Alto saxophonist Marion Brown introduced Berger and Sertso to Woodstock, and the couple and their two children moved into the converted barn on Witchtree Road that became the Creative Music Studio’s first official site. Through word of mouth and the odd ad in magazines like Coda and Down Beat, CMS’s reputation as a vital center of unique musical study quickly grew, drawing students from around the world. Its facilities also expanded: In addition to the rented barn, workshops were soon being held at an old Lutheran camp in Mount Tremper, and student accommodations were set up in the nearby Ashwood House.

One of the students at this time was bassist John Lindberg, who came to study in 1975 at the age of 16 from a farm town in Michigan. “I had discovered this music pretty early on, and then I found out that [Art Ensemble of Chicago saxophonist] Roscoe Mitchell lived nearby,” says Lindberg. “I started taking lessons from him and it became apparent that I needed to get out of there and do something with the music. He suggested I go and study at CMS and hooked me up with [Berger]. It was an incredible time, and even though most students only came to study for short periods, there are so many musicians that are still connected because of CMS.” Indeed, one such lasting connection is between Lindberg and guitarist and former CMS guiding artist James Emery; after meeting at the center over 30 years ago, the two still perform together in the acclaimed String Trio of New York.

Another key aspect of the CMS legacy is its widely being regarded as the birthplace of world jazz, the cross-pollination and improvisational/compositional expansion of the world’s musical traditions—a phenomena due in no small part to the influx of students and artists from Europe, Canada, South America, India, Turkey, Africa, and East Asia who brought their many indigenous styles with them, eager to share. “Practically everyone that has been significant in exploring [non-Western music] passed through CMS at some point,” says reed player Steve Gorn. But with the ever-growing number of participants, CMS was eventually forced to look for still larger, more accessible environs.

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