Overton Berry: Classic Entertainer

Jazz pianist Overton Berry 
is an instrument 
of music.

Dapper, refined, 77-year-old Overton Berry is a Seattle treasure, a dazzling jazz pianist with a resonant baritone and gentlemanly manner seldom seen in these parts—or this era. After graduating from Garfield High in 1949, teenaged Berry played up and down the famed Jackson Street jazz scene. In the ’70s, his regular trio gigs at Tukwila’s Doubletree Inn brought him (and the fledgling hotel chain) national acclaim. Berry later toured the U.S. and played extended residencies in China and Hong Kong. More recently, Light in the Attic reissued his At Seattle’s Doubletree Inn and The Overton Berry Experience albums on vinyl, and he’s been a fixture at the Sorrento Hotel’s Fireside Room, a gregarious entertainer in one of the city’s most elegant lounges. Berry plays this month as part of the 25th anniversary of the Earshot Jazz Festival.

Have you played Earshot before?

I remember us doing something about “Seattle Jazz Legends.” Much to my surprise, [Earshot director] John Gilbreath called me and asked me to come to this awards thing they had a couple years ago. It was at the Triple Door and it was an incredible event. And I was sitting there talking with a friend of mine, and [jazz radio personality] Jim Wilke was at the podium and my friend says, “Overton, he just called your name!” I said, “What?” They gave me this award, which was a really nice thing.

The way I view it, it’s more a tribute to all the people who taught me and I learned from than it was just for me. I consider myself a conglomerate of everything I’ve ever heard and been taught by musicians over the years.

You’re playing Earshot with Evan Flory-Barnes and D’Vonne Lewis, right?

Yeah. I have a hard time keeping up with those guys! We played together for a HistoryLink luncheon a couple weeks ago. Those guys, first off, are extremely talented. But also I had written to Evan before and said, “I’ll send you a list of songs, but I only know four songs and I only know the titles of two of them.” And he wrote me back and says, “You know twice as many as I do!” So it’s a wonderful, warm, cordial relationship.

I seem to recall playing another Earshot, but I can’t remember. And I saw Keith Jarrett the other night. He opened this year’s Earshot, playing with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette. These are all masters. But playing like they’re in their 20s, with that kind of enthusiasm, that kind of fire.

You’re probably the same age as them. Do you relate to that kind of playing?

I relate to it fine. Music is very inspiring to me anyway, both playing and listening to it. I consider myself more of a music listener than a music payer. I love playing music; one reason is because I can listen to the interplay of the other guys. It’s amazing—I’m 77 years old, and when I’m at the piano and we’re in the groove, it’s all fired up for me. It’s about allowing the music to flow through you. You never consider yourself to be the source of music, rather another instrument of the music. So you’re always keeping yourself in as good shape you can, both health-wise and technically speaking, so you’re able to process what’s going on. In that sense, I tend to approach the performance—even though it’s something maybe I’ve done before—as something totally fresh and totally new. And sort of invite the Lady Music in. “Come on, do your thing! I’m just here.”

One night I was playing at the Sorrento and a guy came up to me at the end of the performance and said, “I wish I could make music like that!” And suddenly it came to me. I said to him, “Well, you just did.” He said, “But I don’t play an instrument.” I said, “No, but you were part of this music.” I consider the people—you, anybody else—part of the music. Your vibe, your spirit is part of this whole conglomeration that goes on. So I said, “I should be thanking you!” That’s the way I tend to look at it. It’s an incorporation of a trip within everybody. We’re all going someplace. All I know is the starting point. I have no idea what we’re gonna see and feel on this journey.

Overton Berry plays on Nov. 15 at the Royal Room.

Illustration by Shannon Perry