Overton Berry & Bruce Phares: Beyond Musically Bonded

by Gus Marshall

Overton Berry has been a proud staple of the Northwest music scene over the last 60 years. Berry is an overly-accomplished pianist, composer, arranger and band leader, whose longstanding presence and continued participation in the regional, national and international jazz scenes has garnered him the status of a true living legend.

He is a dynamic showman, whose sophisticated delivery exhibits elements of spiritual expression intertwined with jubilant celebration. Exuding an aura of accomplished elegance, Berry’s essence has the ability to absorb all of the energy in the room, and broadcast it outwards through a powerful manifestation of creative brilliance.

Born in Houston, Texas in 1936, Berry began his musical journey studying classical piano at the young age of four. At nine, Berry and his aunt/legal guardian, Clara Virginia Armstead, moved to Seattle’s Central District in 1945, taking up residency on 23rd Avenue. Living only one block away from Garfield High School allowed Berry to fully immerse himself in the thriving musical hotbed of the Central District in the 1940’s.

“I was the recipient of a lot of knowledge from older musicians when I was very young,” recalls Berry. Growing up in such close proximity to world-class homegrown talent, Berry was fortunate enough to learn from more experienced musicians, who recognized an innate talent in the young pianist.

Berry went on to have a long and illustrious career that moved through numerous degrees of critical acclaim, artistic recognition, and financial success. As soon as Berry found himself to be on the other end of the teacher/student spectrum, he seamlessly began to educate and nurture young musicians, continuing the legacy of mentorship that was bestowed upon him at a young age.

In September of 1978, Berry was organizing a month long engagement in Arizona and needed a bass player. Out of an offhand recommendation, Bruce Phares, an exceptional young bassist who would end up being one of Berry’s most beloved and endearing proteges, landed the gig.

“I get down to Arizona, I drove down, and I go to the airport to meet Bruce, and he comes out of the airplane with his bass and Berkenstock shoes,” conveys Berry of his first impression of (his now longtime collaborator and dear friend) Bruce Phares. “And I think to myself ‘This guy is a teenager.’ He wasn’t really, but I think to myself ‘He’s a teenager, oh my god what have I done?’. But it turned out to be a really, really wonderful relationship.”

Berry and Phares’ unique bond strengthened, on and off stage, throughout the years. What solidified was a loving and joyous connection built out of music, and eventually grew beyond that of the standard ‘musical role model’-based relationship.

Bruce Phares (left) and Overton Berry (right) at a friend’s house party in 2016. (Photo courtesy of the artists)

“Overton always speaks graciously about how these people were willing to take him under their wing when he was young,” explains Phares. “And that is a trait that Overton has selflessly exhibited; he is known by many great musicians in Seattle to be one of those people to selflessly take people under his wing, and do everything he possibly can to help them along.”

Overton Berry was inducted into the Seattle Jazz Hall of Fame in 2012, and continues to perform regularly in local nightclubs and venues, showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

On Wednesday, January 29th Overton Berry, along with his esteemed colleagues Rick Spano and Bruce Phares (on drums and bass respectively), will take the stage of the Royal Room in Columbia City.

“The cool thing about the Royal Room is, the Royal Room has the closest vibe to what it was like back in the old days,” says Phares. “It’s somewhat raucous, it’s an intense crowd that really wants to hear the music; but there is a beautiful informality to it at the same time, that creates a more intimate relationship with the crowd. Right?”

“Right,” confirms Berry.

“When I ask people what they really enjoy about listening to Overton, it’s not just his amazing arrangements,  it’s not just his great playing, but it’s the intimacy in which he produces and presents the music, and the familiarity with which they feel it when he’s playing,” says Phares. “I was a kid, like I said, when I first started out. He called me out of the blue, and I had been told he was one of the greatest guys I could get together with. But literally the first time we were playing together it was obvious that I had found a friend for life, and it was gonna be a great thing, and Overton just brings that to every relationship he’s got.”

“It’s likewise,” says Berry through an infectious smile.

Overton Berry and Bruce Phares featuring Rick Spano perform Wednesday January 29 at The Royal Room. 5000 Rainier Ave S. 7:30pm. $17. All Ages.