Overton Berry, a kindly pianist who lived in Seattle from 1945 until his death in 2020, saw and did it all, from podunk lounge gigs to major jazz festivals, from one-nighters to years-long extended engagements, from taverns to opera houses, from department stores to city parks, and from solo shows to leading trios, quartets, and even bigger ensembles. In the 1950s Berry joined Seattle's segregated "Negro Musicians Union," the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Local 493, but after integration came in 1958 he joined the suddenly inclusive AFM Local 76. Berry nurtured scores of local players (including guitarist Larry Coryell and jazz vocalist Diane Schuur) and jammed with plenty of national jazz heavyweights. The pianist did USO tours (including in Vietnam in 1968), was one of the few Seattle musicians who found employment on the fairgrounds in 1962 during the Century 21 World's Fair, held down a fabled gig at the Doubletree Inn in Tukwila from 1969-1974, played Festival '71 (the precursor to Bumbershoot), was spotlighted on numerous TV shows, and cut albums that have become treasures to hip-hop DJs and producers. The father of four, Berry once taught reading to deprived Seattle kids. In 2012, the Northwest piano legend was inducted into the Seattle Jazz Hall of Fame.
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 the baby's aunt Clara Virginia (nee Berry) Armstead, a hairdresser. Junior -- or "Junebug" as the family would begin calling him -- began taking piano lessons, and he and Armstead would eventually move to Los Angeles. In 1945, Armstead married Howard Lanier, who owned an apparel cleaning/pressing shop in Seattle. Instead of heading straight for their new life together in the Pacific Northwest, the family took a grand tour by automobile -- first back to Mississippi to visit with his family, and then to Chicago, Canada, New York City, and finally to their new home in Seattle, a basement apartment below Lanier’s Best Cleaners at 519 23rd Avenue.
Overton Berry continued his classical piano lessons at Cornish School (710 E Roy Street), and by living one block from Garfield High School in the Central District, began to get steeped in Seattle's African American culture, which was then being propelled by jazz and the 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" (author 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 musician and teacher Louis L. Wilcox at a 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, he was 16 and scheduled to graduate in 1953, but instead opted for summer classes at Lincoln High School, graduating in the summer of 1952. During his Garfield years, he developed a fondness for the smooth jazz piano stylings of George Shearing (1919-2011) and the work of pianist Lennie Tristano (1919-1978), and he also joined his first jazz trio, with classmates John Smith (guitar) and Bill Lee (bass).
'Oh, yeah man!'
Seattle had two, racially segregated, American Federation of Musicians (AFM) unions until January 1958, when they merged. 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 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" (author 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" (author interview).
In 1955, 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 a job at The Boeing 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 1957 that Berry was recorded for the first time. Audio engineer Chet Noland owned a recording studio, Dimensional Sounds Inc., which had an associated record label, Celestial, that was specializing in marketing prerecorded reel-to-reel tapes. One of its multi-artist compilation tapes would feature a recording of the Celestial Music Men performing "Piggyback Your Papa." Although the identity of the players on the 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 and into British Columbia. At the end of the 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 at 408 Virginia Street. Meanwhile, all of Seattle was abuzz with preparations for the Century 21 Exposition, a World's Fair that would span a half-year (April 21 through October 21, 1962), bring nearly 10 million visitors, and boost the region's economy.
Foreseeing this situation as a possible path to a 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 club. Discovering that a nightclub at 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 on 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, the only night each week that the HOE was closed for business -- a portion of the old brick building's roof collapsed. 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 presence of a sidewalk barricade. By May the HOE had moved to a new location at 1213 1st Avenue, where it continued to offer dancing and "hot espresso and cool jazz" nightly.
Among the players who passed through the HOE Band was Seattle's future jazz-guitar star, Larry Coryell. As Berry would recall: "It was a great place. Because it was a coffeehouse 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" (author interview). 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" (author interview).
Later that summer, in conjunction with Seattle's annual Seafair festivities, Berry served as chairman of the Seafair Jazz Festival, which took place at the Colony Club. The HOE drew crowds for a few 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 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!'" (author interview). Berry 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, many local players were disappointed that much of the musical talent was imported. Local talent getting work at the fair, as in the Peggy Lee gigs, was rare. 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 hired 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. In September, preparations were being made for the filming of Elvis Presley's 1963 movie, It Happened At The World's Fair. Berry got a call from a 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.'" (author interview). 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" (author interview).
The following years saw Berry and his musical brethren continuing to hustle six-nights-a-week, afterhours gigs 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, backing Seattle's Italian American lounge lizard Gil Conte. By April 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 on 1st Avenue. September 1966 saw Berry resurfacing as a piano soloist at DeCaro's (314 E Broadway), and in July 1967 he joined 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 -- through South Vietnam.
Opportunities, and an Opening
War-zone tour completed, the trio returned home safely, and in April 1969 (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 in Tukwila. The trio -- now including Art Todd (bass) and Bill Leyritz (drums) -- won the job and debuted there on June 28, 1969. 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 appear over the following months and years.
In September 1969 Metcalf and Kotick rejoined Berry, and the trio pleased their clientele month-after-month with a mixture of 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 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 musician, gigging and traveling, traveling and gigging. Along the way, his career was documented in numerous Seattle television appearances, including a November 1969 episode of the Videoscope local-arts 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 difficult to sustain. A sample performance itinerary: On August 14, 1971, his trio played Festival '71, the precursor to today's Bumbershoot Arts Festival. February 1972 saw Berry at the Tucson Doubletree; May was spent in Anchorage, Alaska, followed by 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; by April they were ensconced at the Northwest Passage 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, the old Ballard Firehouse, UW's Kane Hall, Seattle's Roosevelt Hotel, 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. From there Berry went on to gig and a series of places in the Seattle area. In 1984 he 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 returned to the Alexis Hotel. There were numerous gigs at Sol Duc Hot Springs on the Olympic Peninsula. A longtime musical collaborator, singer Dee Daniels, said 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 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.
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 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.
Overton Berry -- who was inducted into the Seattle Jazz Hall of Fame in April 2012 -- died on October 19, 2020. His son Sean told The Seattle Times that his father had suffered from heart disease for several years and died peacefully at home. He was 84. He left a legacy that seems to be firmly established among both longtime fans and a whole new generation of music lovers.