Local Jazz Legend Overton Berry Passes Away

by Gus Marshall

Seattle-based jazz pianist Overton Berry has passed away at the age of 84.

The cherished hometown musical icon had a full and illustrious career that transitioned through numerous degrees of critical acclaim, artistic recognition, and financial success. He leaves behind an enormous legacy and will be dearly missed.

Overton Berry Jr. was born in Houston, Texas in 1936, and at a young age showed an early aptitude towards music: he began studying classical piano at the age of 4. At the age of 9, Berry and Clara Virginia Armstead (his aunt and legal guardian) decided to move to Washington State, eventually residing in Seattle’s Central District neighborhood, one block away from Garfield High School.

Berry attended Garfield High School as well as Cornish College of the Arts and was enthralled by the thriving musical hotbed that was Seattle’s Central District in the 1940s.

“I was the recipient of a lot of knowledge from older musicians when I was very young,” recalls Berry in an interview conducted with the Emerald earlier this year. “And over the years I learned from these guys, different things and what to do. It’s not just about hearing, it’s about listening. I had an old guy tell me that once, that the difference between hearing and listening is you hear with your ears and you listen with your whole being.”

As a young musician, Berry took this mantra to heart and began to implement the ideology of “listening with your whole being” into his playing. By consciously immersing himself into a place of introspective acceptance as a musician, Berry was able to convey elements of sophisticated spiritual expression through an authentic form of jubilant celebration.

Berry was a dynamic and versatile performing artist, but his true genius was in his ability to deeply listen and communicate. His beautiful delivery, methodical yet meditative, had the ability to harness all of the energy within a room, examine it, and then rebroadcast it back through a positive manifestation of creative brilliance.

Berry had a longstanding presence as an active pianist, composer, arranger, and band leader in the regional, national, and international jazz scenes for over 60 years. His legacy has solidified him in the upper echelon of Seattle jazz royalty. Berry was inducted into the Seattle Jazz Hall of Fame in 2012.

Gus Marshall is a Seattle-based music writer.

Featured image by Susan Fried