Pianist Jeremy Berlin is a musical treasure who can be found playing at all sorts of venues around the Island, from everyone’s favorite dive bar, the Ritz, to a quiet afternoon of jazz at one of the Island libraries, or as musical accompaniment to a fine dining experience. Berlin has been playing music here in some form or another since 1983.
During the summer, he would travel with his family to Martha’s Vineyard from his home in Cambridge, and could often be found practicing at the First Congregational Church on a piano they had set up in the rectory.
“I started to make things up and improvise at a pretty young age, but I didn’t have a whole lot of other examples to go off of besides classical music in the house,” Berlin told Vineyard Visitor.
When he was about 18 years old, Berlin discovered bebop and mainstream jazz and immediately fell in love.
“I remember being just absolutely smitten, I had no idea music could look like this and sound like this,” Berlin said.
While on summer break from college, Berlin landed a job on the Vineyard working for jazz musician Jimmy Burgoff, and started sitting in with Burgoff’s band.
“I worked for him moving furniture by day and playing piano by night,” Berlin laughed.
Then in 1993, Berlin met blues artist Johnny Hoy and solidified his place in the popular Island band Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish.
“I met him in 1993, and I’ve been playing with him ever since,” Berlin said. The favorite local band plays at the Ritz in Oak Bluffs every Wednesday night.
Over the years, Berlin continued to be an avid jazz performer while playing with his good friend, Eric Johnson. Johnson, an accomplished jazz guitarist and acoustic bassist, teamed up with Berlin to form a jazz duo that has played regularly at the Offshore Ale House for more than 20 years.
Recently, Berlin performed some old jazz standards at the West Tisbury library with vocalist Shelagh Hackett, and played an outdoor jazz set at the Sweet Life Cafe with vocalist/songwriter and guitarist Rose Guerin. He also rehearsed for a four-part series at the Unitarian Church, and composed a Christmas song for the series with his 8-year-old daughter. For Berlin, music is a conduit to rich experiences and an access point to meaningfulness.
“It has opened up so many places and cultures and allowed me to connect so much deeper with the world,” Berlin said.
Guerin said she’s always seen Berlin as an intelligent and creative “musical conversationalist,” and the two of them put on some powerhouse shows at Sweet Life, the Ritz, and other venues.
Three years ago Guerin got talking with Erin and Hal Ryerson, owners of Sweet Life Cafe, an Oak Bluffs restaurant with a large heated patio and sparkling fairy lights, perfect for year-round performances.
“It’s been one of the biggest honors of my life playing with Jeremy — I’ve learned more than I could ever express,” Guerin said. “He is such a quiet but stalwart champion of music here on the Island.”
Hoy keenly recalls when he first began playing with Berlin, and some of the times Berlin would show up to practice or rehearse and edify his bandmates with advanced musical know-how.
“He was trying to teach us fancy chords and stuff — he was far more sophisticated,” Hoy laughed.
Hoy emphasized how influential Berlin has been in the Island music scene, and how he has brought other emerging local artists into the spotlight to shine.
Berlin mentioned artists like Brad Tucker, who plays at venues around the Island with the likes of Mike Benjamin and others, along with Mike Parker, who jams alongside Dukes County Love Affair. He recalls watching them progress through their musical careers, and lending any help he could along the way.
One particular singer on the Island, Allison Roberts, started performing at Island senior centers while Berlin was playing piano there. Berlin said he heard her singing and knew he had to do all he could to support her.
“I said ‘I have to work with you. I’m not going to charge you, I just want to coach you and get some repertoire going.’ Soon after that, I asked her to come down to the Ritz to do a song with me,” he said. “It’s not like some kind of charity work — it’s exciting, you hear someone young and inexperienced and talented and fearful and not quite knowing how to go about it, and you just want to say ‘Okay, this music is for all of us, what can I do to help you?’”
Apart from being dedicated to promoting music on Martha’s Vineyard, Hoy said, experiencing Berlin’s presence on stage is like watching a professional athlete.
“He is like a rugby player on that piano. He started out as a very refined jazz guy, and although he can still do that, he is really physical when he plays now,” Hoy said. “We commonly play a two-and-a-half hour set without stopping — it’s no joke.”
With the same apparent ease and finesse that Berlin shares with the audience when he plays, Hoy said, he is able to communicate and reach people on a deep level in a non-musical context.
“Jeremy’s a people person. He loves people and he loves music — he’s a mensch.”
For Johnson, Berlin has been a close friend and musical collaborator for more than two decades. The two continue to push each other to be better artists, and have formed a strong bond over the years.
“Jeremy, like myself, was an English major in college, and, as all who know him would agree, is very articulate and thoughtful on many subjects,” Johnson wrote in a message. “Many of his admirers probably don’t appreciate what an accomplished jazz musician he is.”
For Berlin, playing in his corner of the Ritz that he has occupied for 35 years comes with a comfort of familiarity, and a feeling of community created by a shared love of music.
“I get an incredible amount of pleasure in how each night is totally different from another night,” Berlin said. “These wonderful venues where the sound is right and the vibe is inexplicably good, that just feels amazing every time.”
Jeremy Berlin plays with Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish Wednesday nights at the Ritz, 4 Circuit Ave., Oak Bluffs. Check out theritzmv.com for more information, or call 508-693-9851. On Tuesdays, he plays jazz with Eric Johnson at Offshore Ale Co., 30 Kennebec Ave., Oak Bluffs. Head to offshoreale.com, or call 508-693-2626.