Overton Berry Jr. was born on April 13, 1936, in Houston, Texas, to Overton Robert Berry (d. 1956) and Vetta Berry, but his mother was frail with illness and upon his grandmother's advice, custody of the baby was given over to his aunt Clara Virginia (nee Berry) Armstead, a hairdresser. Junior -- or "Junebug" as the affectionate family would begin calling him -- began taking piano lessons, and he and Armstead would eventually move to Los Angeles.
In 1945 she married Howard Lanier, a fellow who happened to own an apparel cleaning/pressing shop up in Seattle. Instead of heading straight for their new life together in the Pacific Northwest, the young family took a grand tour by automobile -- first back to Mississippi to visit with his family, then to Chicago, Canada, New York City, and finally to their new home in Seattle -- a basement apartment below Lanier’s Best Cleaners (519 23rd Avenue).Steeped in the Culture
Though he continued his classical piano lessons at Cornish School (710 E Roy Street), simply by living one block from Garfield High School in the Central District, Berry began to get steeped in Seattle's African American culture, which was then being propelled by jazz and the very beginnings of rockin' rhythm and blues music. So, recalls Berry,
"then at the tender age of about 13, I decided that I'd had about enough of that. My friends would say 'Well, that was really nice Overton -- now do you know any songs?' [laughter]. And you know at that tender age, one is very sensitive" (Blecha, Berry Interview).
His first opportunity to learn any of this new music came about a year later when he joined a community youth band led by a musician and teacher named Louis L. Wilcox at a nearby youth-guidance and recreation center known as Neighborhood House (304 18th Avenue S).
Years flew by, and Berry proved to be a quick study. Attending Garfield High School, he was 16 and scheduled to graduate in 1953, but instead opted to attend summer classes at Lincoln High School, graduating in the summer of 1952. During his Garfield years, Berry developed a fondness for the exquisitely smooth jazz piano stylings of George Shearing (1919-2011) and the linearity of pianist Lennie Tristano (1919-1978) -- and he also joined his first jazz trio with a couple of classmates, John Smith (guitar) and Bill Lee (bass).
"Oh, yeah man!"
Seattle had two, racially segregated, American Federation of Musicians (AFM) unions right up until January 1958, when they merged. Back on December 19, 1954, Berry had joined the "Negro Musicians' Union," Local 493. Unlike the white players' Local 76, Local 493's headquarters building at 1319 E Jefferson Street also served as the members' private nightclub, where jam sessions regularly blew into the wee small hours. Many were the young local musicians who got an education by hanging out or even joining in a jam when touring jazz stars dropped by to cut loose after their main gigs across town were over. Berry recalls:
"It was really interesting to me because 493 was just this little small club, right? I mean 76 at that time would have bingo games and stuff like that goin' on. Whereas at 493, there were these jam sessions that went all night -- especially on the weekends. What was interesting was, even though it was considered the black local, the white musicians who were like jazz musicians (or really good musicians), they all liked to go down there to jam. I remember one night when I was really young, and I could hear all these [Seattle] guys like [sax ace] Jabo Ward and [trumpeter/saxophonist] Floyd Standifer just raving because Spike Jones [the leader of a West Coast band, the City Slickers, who gained fame with their maniacally satirical arrangements (featuring pennywhistles, kazoos, gunshots, cowbells, and other crazy sounds) of popular songs] was coming to town. And, you know I was just a kid and I said: 'Spike Jones ... those guys are comin' down here?' And he goes: 'Oh yeah man! [It'll be a] great jam session!' And I said, 'Yeah but those guys play toys.' One of the older guys looked at me and said: 'Look, you silly kid, do you realize how good of a musician you have to be to play those toys like that?' And I went: 'Oh. Wow.' And so, I went down there the next week and sure enough, when they finished their job all these guys came in and man they didn't come in with toys! They came with real saxophones and trombones and trumpets. And. They. Played." (Blecha, Berry Interview ).
Berry's college freshman year was spent at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon, and his sophomore year at the University of Washington. It was now the mid-1950s and "I sort of got tutored by some of the jazz greats in the area, people like Jabo Ward and Floyd Standifer. I played with a lotta these guys. I was probably 19, 20 years old then. It was a great experience. I worked in [ace bassist] Bob Marshall's band -- I think that's probably where I learned the most -- because he had all these guys in the band" (Blecha, Berry Interview).
It was in 1955 that Berry, then living at 2703 E Union Street, married Donna Louise Coleman (b. 1935), and that same year he took a quartet into Seattle's fabled downtown jazz joint, Dave's Fifth Avenue (112-116 5th Avenue N). He also took on a job at the Boeing Aircraft Company's Renton plant, where he worked into 1957. Meanwhile, in 1956 the young couple was blessed with a child, Overton Mark Berry. Feeling squeezed for time, Berry opted to drop out of studies at the University of Washington that spring. (Other sons would follow: Sean Kevin Berry (b. 1960), Jann Christopher Berry (b. 1962), and Paco de'Alessandre Francisco Berry (b. 1964).
It was around this time that Berry was recorded for the first time. Audio engineer Chet Noland owned a recording studio, Dimensional Sounds Inc. (2128 3rd Avenue) which had an associated record label, Celestial, that was specializing in marketing prerecorded reel-to-reel tapes. One of those multi-artist compilation tapes would feature a recording of the Celestial Music Men performing "Piggyback Your Papa." Although the identity of the players on that song remain unconfirmed, Noland recalled that Berry was the pianist, and Berry himself has guessed that it was likely a combo headed by Bob Marshall and may have included Standifer (trumpet/sax). Then in January 1958, Seattle's two musicians' unions finally merged as AFM 76, and right about then Berry put together a trio with two white players, Bud Brown (guitar) and Chuck Whittaker (bass).
At the dawn of the 1960s a Canadian promoter persuaded Bob Marshall to assemble a six-piece band -- including Berry -- and a program called La Horade Jazz. The sextet proceeded to tour all through western and northern Washington state and up into British Columbia, Canada.
At the end of that tour, the Overton Berry Quartet performed with other local jazz luminaries, a "Jazz in the Afternoon" concert on May 7, 1961, for the Mountlake Terrace Jazz Association, and he took a combo into Jack Baird's uptown Colony Club (408 Virginia Street). Meanwhile, all of Seattle was abuzz with citywide preparations for hosting the upcoming Century 21 Exposition, a World's Fair that would span a half-year (April 21 through October 21, 1962), would bring nearly 10 million visitors, and would boost the region's economy in a significant way.
Foreseeing this situation as a possible way to make some good income, Berry and three other members of the sextet -- Marshall, Kenny McDougall (drums) and Clyde Johnson (sax and flute) -- decided to open their own jazz joint. Discovering that a nightclub (204 Occidental S) called the No Place had closed down, they leased the spot, a friend loaned them the $50 needed to get a business license, and they prepared to recast it as the House of Entertainment with a grand opening date of February 2, 1962. The Seattle Times' Paul B. Lowney, attempting to employ some jazz/hipster slang, noted in his "Seattle Night and Day" column that the room's name "initialwise is 'H.O.E.' and HOE is dig. Dig?"
In fact, some digging would soon be in order. On March 12, 1962 -- a Monday, which was the only night each week that the HOE was closed for business -- a giant portion of the old brick building's roof collapsed. Luckily, the HOE portion wasn't destroyed, and Marshall informed The Seattle Times that the show would go on, despite damage to the rear wall and the erection of a sidewalk barricade. By May the HOE had moved to a new location (1213 1st Avenue), where it continued to offer dancing and "hot espresso and cool jazz" nightly until 3:30 a.m. (Baker, 1962).
Among the players who passed through the HOE Band was Seattle's future jazz-guitar star, Larry Coryell. As Berry would recall:
Among the big-time players who dropped in to jam were members of Miles Davis's band, Stan Kenton's Orchestra, Les McCann, and George Shearing's percussion player, Armando Peraza. "It was really wild because it was just this flowing musical thing" (Blecha, Berry Interview).
"It was a great place. Because it was a coffee house we could run late hours. So we didn't open until about 10 o'clock and went till about 3 in the morning. It was really great because we were just up the street from the Penthouse -- it was a tavern and they were bringing in all these jazz greats: Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin. And then on the fairgrounds, there was also a lot of entertainment there too. And so a lot of the musicians from these various places would come in to jam with us after-hours. So it was really a great musical venue" (Blecha, Berry Interview).
Later that summer, in conjunction with Seattle's annual summer Seafair festivities, Berry served as chairman of the Seafair Jazz Festival, which took place at the Colony Club. Meanwhile, the HOE drew crowds for a couple more years before Berry and the others dropped out and let Marshall run it solo.
As the 1962 World's Fair proceeded, additional acts were booked to perform on the fairgrounds, and one day Berry received word from Local 76 that the position of production manager was open for the scheduled concerts at the Opera House by famed singer Peggy Lee. Berry guesses that most of the union's top local bandleaders were already busy, "And so, I think that somebody just thought 'We're gonna put this kid in there [laughter] and let him swim or sink!'" (Blecha, Berry Interview). Berry really had to scramble at that point to pull together enough quality players to do the gig, but he succeeded. Lee was most grateful, and she took to affectionately referring to Berry as "Over-tone."
In reflecting back on the World's Fair days, many local players still show a note of disappointment about the fact that so much musical talent was imported that local talent getting work at the fair -- as in the Peggy Lee gigs -- was a rare occasion. Instead fair management imported many musical acts from around the world, and otherwise relied on volunteer performances by high school marching bands -- drum and fife corps -- drawn from across the nation. The upside was that, with so many tourists seeking nightlife activities, the Seattle nightclub scene -- including the HOE -- exploded.
But there was one other occasion when Berry and a number of other Local 76 players got some work. The fair did hire veteran bandleader Jackie Souders (d. 1968) to lead the Official World's Fair Band (composed of about 20 musicians) to march around the fairgrounds daily and perform at various events and locations. Well, then September came along and preparations were being made for the filming of Elvis Presley's 1963 movie, It Happened At The World's Fair. That's when Berry's former band-mate,
"Bob Marshall -- who besides playing bass could also play tuba -- he called me up one day and said: 'Look, they're shooting scenes for this movie tomorrow and they want to fatten up the marching band.' And I said 'Well, I can't hardly imagine a piano in a marching band!' And he said 'No, no, no, no. What you're gonna do is play the tuba.' I said 'What?' He said, 'You don't have to play it, you just hold it.' And I said 'OK.'
So Berry and the other new temporary recruits showed up, got in uniforms, and marched around while the cameras rolled. "That was my short-lived tuba-playing career" (Blecha, Berry Interview).
The following years saw Berry and his musical brethren continuing their life-path of hustling endless six-nights-a-week, afterhours gigs at all across Seattle -- and beyond. In December 1963, the HOE band recast itself as the Overton Berry Combo and resurfaced at the Roosevelt Hotel's Lanai Room (1531 7th Avenue), backing Seattle's Italian American lounge lizard Gil Conte. By April of that year they were at the Edgewater Inn (Pier 67); by June at the Sorrento Hotel's Top O' the Town room; and by October Berry was leading a new group -- with singer Jimmy "The Preacher" Ellis -- at the Sweet Chariot (707 1st Avenue). September 1966 saw Berry resurfacing as a piano soloist at DeCaro's (314 E Broadway). July 1967 saw him join a trio led by Dennis Troudt (drums) at the El Matador (2400 Westlake Avenue N).
By 1967 the Berrys had purchased their first house (2805 E Spring Street), and in 1968 he began gigging at Casa Villa (1823 Eastlake Avenue E), with Troudt, Chuck Metcalf (bass), and Patty Summers (vocals). By August the band was called the Sound Co., and in October Summers began hosting jam sessions with Berry at the Hyatt House (17001 Pacific Highway S) on Sundays.
At one point Berry picked up extra work, via funding though the Central Area Motivation Program, serving as a reading tutor. In 1968 he and Chuck Metcalf (bass) and Bill Kotick (drums) formed the Overton Berry Trio, and they were hired to tour military bases around the area (including Fort Lewis and Fort Lawton), performing in a USO show. Then, matched with singer Gene Stridel, their manager booked them on a bigger tour -- throughout South Vietnam.
Opportunities, and an Opening
War-zone tour completed, the trio returned home safely, and in April 1969 they (with Lou Clare on vocals) returned to Casa Villa. But then a new opportunity arose, via an audition for the house-band gig at a new Doubletree Inn hotel/restaurant/lounge at the Southcenter shopping center (today's Westfield Southcenter Mall) near Sea-Tac International Airport at Tukwila, Washington. The trio -- now including Art Todd (bass) and Bill Leyritz (drums) -- won the job and debuted there on June 28. Within weeks the place was a roaring success, and by August, Berry had inaugurated his special Jazz Showcase Sundays, in which various luminaries of Seattle's old jazz scene -- including Corky Corcoran (tenor sax), Joe Brazil (sax), Jabo Ward (sax), Elmer Gill (vibes), Fred Radke (trumpet), Dave Coleman (drums), Pops Buford (tenor sax), Floyd Standifer, Jerry Gray (piano), Gina Funes (vocals), Bob Winn (flute/sax), and Gary Steele(bass) -- would make appearances over the following months and years.
In September, Metcalf and Kotick rejoined Berry, and the trio pleased their clientele month-after-month with a mixture of tasty jazz, Afro-Cuban music, and danceable pop tunes. Around January 1970 the trio was recorded, and in early 1971 those tunes were released on the album, The Overton Berry Trio at Seattle's Doubletree Inn (Jaro Records JA 13570) -- an LP that Doubletree Inn would use as bait to attract investors. Berry's success in attracting steady SRO crowds helped get him promoted to the role of entertainment director for the opening of Doubletree's locations in Tucson and Phoenix.
Overton in Overdrive
The following decades would see Berry -- and various permutations of his bands -- living the life of hard-working professional musicians, gigging and traveling, traveling and gigging. And, along the way, his ongoing career was documented in numerous Seattle television appearances including a November 1969 episode of the Videoscope local-arts television program on KCTS-TV; a November 1970 trio performance on KOMO-TV's Good Morning; another in February 1971 on the Variety Club Telethon on KIRO-TV. In January 1980 KOMO-TV profiled Berry on the PM Northwest show, and on July 15, 1984, he appeared on KING-TV's Music Magic show.
But those were unusual occasions where Berry received appropriate recognition for his talents. Most years involved relentless gigging at a pace most folks could never imagine or sustain. Consider the following selective -- and vastly incomplete (as it doesn't include his mostly steady Doubletree gig) -- tracking of Berry's performance itinerary. On August 14, 1971, his trio played at the Jazz Gallery Coffee House, one of the venues on the Seattle Center campus that participated in Festival '71, the direct precursor to today's annual Bumbershoot Arts Festival. February 1972 saw Berry at the Tucson Doubletree; May was spent in Anchorage, Alaska; and then came an engagement in Phoenix. Festival '72 saw the trio playing a jazz concert on July 23rd at the Opera House -- one in which a music critic noted that the players
"come together beautifully as a unit, showing the effect of three musical minds wholly tuned into each other" (Voorhees).
Weeks later, on August 18, the trio headlined a show at the Seattle Center's Mural Amphitheater. On December 1 it was announced that the Doubletree had signed Berry to a new one-year contract -- and that The Overton Berry Ensemble's new album, TOBE (CE Records 1001), had just been released.
In 1974 Berry's ensemble included Dick Stensland (drums), Curtis Stovall (bass), and his son Mark Berry (guitar/vocals), but when the latter took ill that year, young jazz vocalist Diane Schuur was recruited to fill in (and that would prove to be a musical match that would endure for the following three years). Their next gig together was at the Spokane House in Spokane. By January 1975, TOBE was at Olympic Hotel's Marine Room (411 University Street), by April they were ensconced at the Northwest Passage (Bellfield Office Park) in Bellevue, and then played the debut gig at Seattle's new Barnacle Bill's on Pier 70. The following years would constitute a blur of gigging in such rooms as the Seattle Hilton's Top Lounge (1301 6th Avenue), the old Ballard firehouse (5425 Russell Avenue NW), UW's Kane Hall, Seattle's Roosevelt Hotel (7th Avenue and Pine Street), and Casey's lounge at the Olympic Hotel.
Then in October-November of 1980 TOBE -- which now featured Bruce Phares (bass) and Rick Spano (drums) -- debuted at the Jonah & the Whale lounge in Bellevue's Holiday Inn (11211 Main Street). From there Berry went on to gig at Parnell's (313 Occidental Mall), the Seattle Hilton's Club 29 (1301 6th Avenue), Parkers (17001 Aurora Avenue N), the Boren Street Disco (2015 Boren Street), Bumbershoot's Caffe Starbucks, Jazz Alley Bistro (4135 University Way NE), Pantley's In Lynnwood (5621 196thAvenue SW), Simon's Restaurant & Piano Bar (17041 Southcenter Parkway), the new Alexis Hotel (1007 1st Avenue), the Back Alley Tavern (923 Washington Street, Port Townsend), Gallery Mack (123 S Jackson Street), Ernestine's (313 Occidental Mall), the Kool Jazz Festival (Marymoor Park, Redmond), Freeway Park, the First Thursday art walk, the Northrup Bar & Grill (13219 Northrup Way in Bellevue), and the Warwick Hotel's Liaison Lounge (401 Lenora Street).
In 1984 Berry played the Artstorm concert series (at the Frederick & Nelson department store), the Out To Lunch series (at First Interstate Center and the Seafirst Fifth Avenue Plaza), and then back to the Alexis. Then there were the numerous gigs up at the Sol Duc Hot Springs on the Olympic Peninsula. A longtime musical collaborator of his, singer Dee Daniels, offers insight as to why there were always venues and fans to welcome Berry's performances:
"He was a trailblazer in Seattle with the type of music he played and the rapport he built with his audience. Overton is an entertainer, which is rare for an instrumentalist. Singers are always expected to entertain. He exudes so much radiance and energy behind the keyboard that he has people in the palm of his hand" (Griggs).
Outro and Onward…
In the 1980s, Berry took to gigging a lot in Japan. By the 1990s he was in Hong Kong, and in 2000, in Thailand. In more recent times, the pianist has performed concerts at Seattle's prestigious Town Hall (1119 8th Avenue) and around the Puget Sound area in venues including the Everett Theatre and Bremerton's Admiral Theatre. A 2005 concert at the Admiral Congregational Church (4320 SW Hill Street) was recorded and issued as the Live at Admiral CD. Berry's extended gig at Lopez Island's Islander Room led to the 2006 album, Live at the Islander. Then another live CD, 2007's To Madron: Just Me And The Piano, was recorded at the Sorrento Hotel's Fireside Room, and in 2009 Eleven is Forever was released.
Meanwhile, as Berry carried on playing gigs, traveling widely, and providing students with private music lessons, he was also winning new fans, including a number of young musicians around the world who had somehow discovered his funky At the Doubletree Inn and TOBE albums and began grabbing rhythm samples from them to create new hip-hop tunes. Then in 2005, Light In The Attic (LITA), a Seattle-based, reissue-oriented record company, produced the Wheedle's Groove album, which compiled the best recordings from Seattle's R&B and soul communities, including Berry's take on the Beatles' "Hey Jude" from the At the Doubletree Inn LP. Film director Jennifer Maas followed up in 2009 with her critically acclaimed Wheedle's Groove documentary, and Berry and his son Sean launched their own label (TOBE Productions), which re-released TOBE on compact disc. Finally, in 2011, LITA paired At the Doubletree Inn with TOBE and repackaged them in a limited edition vinyl format.
In sum, Overton Berry -- who was honored with an induction into the Seattle Jazz Hall of Fame in April 2012 -- has produced a legacy that now seems to be firmly established among both longtime fans and a whole new generation of music lovers.