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FLEFF Intern Voices

The Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival from the interns' point of view

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Bernie Upson

The Bernie Upson Quartet is an Ithaca staple, consisting of: Bernie Upson on bass, Dino Losito on piano, Chuck Leo on sax, and Al Harland on drums. 

I went to Maxie’s Supper Club for one of Bernie’s gigs (he plays there the third Sunday of every month.) Bernie’s passion and aptitude for his trade were evident with the first pluck of his bass string. His soulful style brought the audience back to the height of the jazz age. Check out this awesome video of Bernie playing alongside Buddy Tate in 1982 at a concert Berlin to get an idea what i'm talking about. 

During a break I got a chance to sit down with Bernie and his wife Deb Clover, to learn about his long and distinguished jazz career and what advice he has for music students and aspiring musicians.

Q: What is your background?

A. I grew up in Harlem surrounded by music. I worked at the Apollo for a few years. I played with Diana Ross & the Supremes when they first came in from Detroit. I played bass for the shows at the Apollo, including Patty Labelle.

Deb on Bernie- He’s been doing this since he was 18. Ithaca’s lucky he decided to settle here.

He lived around the corner from Count Basie when he was a kid. Growing up in Harlem he was around a lot of great musicians. When he was an older teenager, he moved to Queens where he was also surrounded by a lot of jazz musicians. If you wanted to be a jazz musician it was the right time and the right place.

When he was playing in the Catskills at the Concord, he was playing in a lounge and Frank Sinatra was performing on the other stage. Then Frank came and sat down with them.

He made friends with Joe Henderson in service and they formed an army jazz band. They traveled all over the South where they were stationed. It was still so segregated. They would play in a club where they couldn’t walk in the front door.

Q: What was it that got him to where he is?

Deb on Bernie- Talent and passion for it. You can tell just by listening or looking at him. There are a lot of good players around, but there are few players who have the soul that Bernie has. I mean you can see it and hear it.

He was also in the right place at the right time. He was studying bass with Wendell Marshall (bass player for Duke Ellington). Someone offered Wendell to go on tour, but he couldn’t go, so he said, “I have a student who can go.” He sent Bernie instead. The other musicians really looked out for him. They would take his money on payday and hold on to it for him. You know as a musician there are a lot of temptations; it’s a hard life. 

Q: What are you looking most forward to at FLEFF?

A. I look forward to playing for you folks.

Q: What advice would you give to music students or aspiring musicians about the music world?

A. If you’re serious about it, put your whole self into it. Never quit. Never give up. Always have something in the background in case you’re starving. Make sure it’s something you really want to do- it’s a hard life. If you chose to be an artist, make sure you want to be an artist. I would tell all young students to be an artist. Love music and if that’s your goal, pursue it. There’s definitely a chance to make it.

Check out the Bernie Upson Quartet at FLEFF’s 15th anniversary party on Friday, March 30 at the Finger Lakes Wine Center


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