On June 25th, 2008, one of the best drummers the world ever had the privilege to hear passed away at the age of 78. Donald “Doggie” Berg played drums with the Hall Brother’s Jazz Band and Bill Evans New Orleans Jazz Band, among others. I had the honor of having played with him for several years, including his last job, the night before he died. There are those who could tell a much more complete story of Doggie: Charlie DeVore and Bill Evans to name two. Charlie and Bill spent decades with him after all. I only managed to be lucky enough to be around for one of those decades, so my story is incomplete, but here’s what I saw.
It’s not uncommon for musicians to use the names of other musicians as adjectives when describing or asking for a certain way of playing. For instance, you might say, “He did that Baby Dodd’s thing!” I will even occasionally turn a guy’s name into a verb, as when I request the Southside Aces drummer, Dave Michael, to “Sammy Penn it up!” You could hear a man long-immersed in the history of jazz whenever Doggie played, but his style was so unique, so much an organic function of the man himself. He did that Doggie Berg thing.
The man himself could also sing the hell out of a song. The stamp he put on certain tunes to this day makes us utter phrases like, “That’s a Doggie song.” A short list of my favorites would include “Sing You Sinners,” “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” “Celito Lindo,” (a tune on which Doggie used his career as a Spanish Professor to great advantage), and finally my all-time favorite, “Winin’ Boy Blues.” I only have my memories of him doing that, but take a listen to “Sing You Sinners” from a Hall Brothers recording:
It was through my association with the Bill Evans New Orleans Jazz Band that I had the great pleasure of Doggie’s friendship and jazz mentorship. In fact, it was he who originally pulled me under the collective wing of that band. This was an act, unbeknownst to him, which would eventually lead this clarinetist to make what is tantamount to a blood oath to play the music as long as I can hold up my horn. Back in August of 1998, my friend Mike and I had just returned from the Bix Beiderbeck Festival in Davenport, Iowa. We possessed a deep need to find a source of the music back here in our hometown. One of the cooks at Chang O’Hara’s on Selby Avenue in St. Paul (nowadays called the Happy Gnome and without music of any sort) told Mike about Sunday afternoons, and this band that seemed to be what we were looking for. We showed up one Sunday and took our seats in a back booth. The music began, and what we heard dropped our jaws. This was one of those moments when a whole new universe opens up in front of you. We had just picked up a new Sunday habit.
The first set finished, and before we could push our jaws back up into our faces, Doggie marched off of the bandstand and right up to our table. You see, if you looked around that room on that day, or any other Sunday during the band’s run there, you would have noticed a distinct lack of folk from Mike’s and my generation. We had at least thirty years of catching up to most of the people there. Doggie certainly noticed how we stuck out, and he wasted no time getting to the bottom of it, “What are you two doing here?”
Those were the first words he ever said to me. It wasn’t the voice of someone accusing you of trespassing; it was the voice of incredulity. What possible reason could two people of our age have to sit ourselves down in front of this band? We told him about Davenport, and how we had developed a real urge to hear the music. He asked us how long we even knew about the music. I said, “Well, I remember when I was about eleven years old [this was twenty years later], my parents took me out to a place called the Emporium of Jazz to hear a band called the Hall Brothers.” He said, “That was us.” My jaw stayed south of my face. I eventually got around to mentioning I played clarinet. “You do?” he said excitedly, “Bring it down here next time. We’ll get you up there.”
And that’s how it started. He invited me into the music without ever having heard a single one of my notes. I began to sit in, first for a couple of tunes at the end of the night, slowly improving until a couple of years later Bill Evans began to hire me. That band patiently saw to my jazz education then, just as they do now. And it all came about on account of Doggie’s curious, gregarious nature.
I haven’t yet mentioned his mischievous sense of humor. Here’s one of my favorites. The aforementioned Dave Michael, drummer for the Southside Aces, had not yet met Doggie. We were invited to a Labor Day pool party at which many of our local traditional jazz luminaries would be present. Dave and his wife Mindy showed up and were standing next to the pool sort of shyly looking around at a lot of people they didn’t know. Dave had hold of a beer he had just opened. Doggie, resplendent in a pair of drawstring trunks and a very tanned shirtlessness, walked up to the couple. “What kind of beer is that?” he said, pointing at Dave’s beer, “Do you mind if I try it?” Dave said “Sure,” and handed it over. Doggie proceeded to tilt the full bottle up and didn’t tilt it down again until every drop had disappeared. “Pretty good,” he said nonchalantly, handing the empty back to Dave. Then he turned left and jumped directly into the pool. Those were the first words Doggie ever said to Dave.
Pontchartrain Owls at MRB in April of 2008
(you can see Doggie's head behind my left hip)
The April before he died we were in New Orleans. Every spring, members of the Bill Evans band, plus musicians from around the world form a once-a-year band called The Pontchartrain Owls for the French Quarter Festival. We were down there playing, eating, and drinking, like you do. One night a few of us were in a joint called Johnny White’s, on St. Peter Street off of Bourbon Street. Doggie kept buying himself, my wife, Claudia, and me shots of Bulleit Bourbon. You can see my nose in the foreground. Well, you can see my nose in most foregrounds. Anyway...
Johnny White's, April of 2008
He and Bill Evans regaled us with stories of the jazz life, and we all traded several jokes of the blue variety. A somewhat honed sense of propriety prevents me from printing them here; you’ll have to approach me sometime to get the full skinny. The upshot though, is that a certain joke told by a certain wife of mine burrowed in to Doggie’s mind to stay. Forward to Doggie’s memorial, only two and a half months later, and horn man Dave Braun stood up at the microphone and told how he sat down with Doggie before his last gig, “I was with Doggie before the job that night, and he told me this joke. I believe it was the last joke he ever told.” And with a straight face, Braun went on to repeat that which Doggie had learned from Claudia in that late night session at Johnny White’s. Not your usual funeral fare, I can tell you. Crickets and stifled laughter from the back of the room was all there was to be heard. All the aforementioneds—Mike, Dave Michael, Claudia and I—we were the said laughter-stiflers standing at the back of the room, bent over in delighted disbelief. Doggie’s mischievousness striking from the beyond!
Some time later Mimi, Doggie’s widow, bequeathed to the band-members several of his ties. When I spot my Doggie tie on my tie-rack, it seems as though I can see a whole Doggie standing behind it. The twinkle in his eyes, the ready wit, the fantastic drumming. I will wear that tie this Tuesday when we take the “stand” at Bennett’s Chop and Railhouse. And if there happens to be some Bulleit Bourbon about the place, I may have to bend my elbow a bit. I owe him a permanent and roomy place in my memory. To the Dog!