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Warren Bernhardt, pianist with Steps Ahead, Steely Dan and other bands, dies at 83

Warren Bernhardt by Dave King
Dave King
Warren Bernhardt by Dave King

Warren Bernhardt, a versatile pianist who performed with jazz groups such as Steps Ahead and L’Image, as well as with pop artists like Simon & Garfunkel, Tim Hardin and Steely Dan, died on August 19, 2022. He was 83. He died of natural causes, according to his wife Jan Bernhardt and family friend Scott Cronin.

Bernhardt was born November 13, 1938, in Wausau, Wisconsin. Like many successful jazz musicians Bernhardt was raised in a musical family, albeit one with remarkable gifts. His father Lawrence, known as Larry, was a talented pianist and sometime promoter, and Bernhardt would recall lying under his father’s Steinway, not falling asleep until he heard his father play Chopin. But it took Bernhardt’s mother to push his father to start teaching their toddler the piano. Bernhardt was only five when his family moved from the Midwest to New York City where he continued his music education on a more formal basis, studying with noted pianists and performing his first concert of classical music at the age of six.

The young pianist’s education was informal as well, in large part through his father’s connections in the classical and opera music field. “Many famous musicians would come to our house for dinner and I would play for them,” he wrote in his own autobiographical notes. “These ‘uncles and aunts’ included celebrated pianists, conductors, opera singers, and string players.” Among them was Joseph Levine, a friend of his father’s and someone whom Bernhardt called “Doja” and who was a noted classical pianist with close ties to the New York literary and music scene. Levine would have an enormous impact, musically and intellectually, on the child prodigy with precocious chops. Bernhardt also was mentored by his father’s friend Don who was an editor at The New Yorker, where the youngster hung out as what his wife Jan called a sort of mascot. Bernhardt himself wrote that, “I was the only kid at The Algonquin Round Table with Dorothy Parker, E.B. White, James Thurber, Alexander Wolcott, Harold Ross, and many more.” He even met Harpo Marx at a family friend’s dinner party. Heady stuff for anyone, less a pre-teen.

However, when his father died in 1952 at the age of 57, the teenaged Bernhardt fell into what he described as a deep depression and unsurprisingly gave up the piano for a time and devoted himself to more academic pursuits. “I couldn’t listen to music without getting torn up inside,” he told Rowe. He went to the University of Chicago ostensibly to study organic chemistry, but while there in the Windy City he saw jazz greats like Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis perform at local clubs, and he was inspired to return to the piano, but this time as a jazz player, albeit initially as a novice in that genre. Bernhardt dropped out of school before getting his degree. He wrote that, “There were so many jazz clubs in South Chicago and I started gigging for $5 a night.” Among the other young jazz pianists on the scene then were Herbie Hancock and Jack DeJohnette.

Bernhardt met Paul Winter there in Chicago and joined Winter’s sextet who ended up winning a jazz competition judged by Dizzy Gillespie and John Hammond. After being invited for a performance at the Kennedy White House in 1961, that group toured the world under the auspices of the State Department. The association with Winter brought Bernhardt back to New York City, where he fell into the exploding jazz and rock scene of the late ‘60s and early 70s. While in New York, Bernhardt befriended his hero Bill Evans and the two roomed together for a time, often playing four-handed piano together in their apartment.

Throughout much of the 70s and 80s, Bernhardt kept one foot in the commercial music world and the other in the jazz genre. With his considerable chops he soon became a first-call keyboardist for studio recordings for everything from a Muppets movie to Don McLean’s “American Pie” to an album with Carly Simon. Bernhardt estimated that he played approximately 1,000 studio dates during his long career. Mike Mainieri said that the keyboardist was known as “One-take Warren.” But he also worked as a sideman with various notable jazz players like Gerry Mulligan, George Benson and Clark Terry.

Bernhardt told jazz historian Monk Rowe in 2012 that the dual identity was a deliberate choice on his part. “I was doing it because there weren’t a lot of good paying jazz gigs around and I wanted to send my kids to school and stuff, and I wanted to pay the mortgage on this place [his home in Bearsville in upstate New York],” Bernhardt explained. “I’d do dates, but I wasn’t dedicated to it. And I’d have to take a hiatus and go off and play what I call real music.” Among that “real music” was the continuation of his lifelong association with vibraphonist Michael Mainieri with whom he often played as a duo, as well as with a band called L’Image along with fellow studio stalwarts David Spinozza, Tony Levin and Steve Gadd.

“I first met Warren in 1964 or 1965 through a mutual friend, drummer Donald MacDonald,” Mainieri explained. “My quartet was booked at The Royal Arms, a jazz club in Buffalo, N.Y. The guitarist Joe Beck was not available and Donald suggested I use Warren on piano. It was a weeklong stint and after the first night a monster blizzard blanketed the city. Just a few brave fans made their way to the club, so we had a chance to really stretch out. Warren and I played several duets. It was just magical. That was the beginning of a long and loving friendship.” One that would last for the next six decades.

Steps Ahead by David Kennedy (1984)
David Kennedy 1984
Steps Ahead by David Kennedy (1984)

Drummer Peter Erskine performed and recorded with Bernhardt on more than 10 albums, including with the Mainieri-led band Steps Ahead. He remembered the pianist’s unusual sense of humor. “Warren was funny, often in a hilarious but sinister way,” said Erskine. “His nickname for himself on the road was ‘Otto.’ Steps Ahead was splitting a show with a band that had a singer of diminutive height whose vocal gyrations and dance moves proved most irritating to Warren. And Warren began walking around backstage during this other band’s performance muttering, ‘Otto not happy.’ All of a sudden, there was a crazed look in his eye. He began fantasizing aloud, ‘If I had a chainsaw right now, I’d cut the legs off of that guy and I can see the headlines now: SHORT SINGER NOW SHORTER!’ His yin often exceeded his yang, I guess you could say.”

Sideman and short man gigs aside, Bernhardt had a long career as the leader of his own groups with six recordings for Arista/Novus during 1977-1979 and he later formed a close relationship with Tom Jung’s DMP label, for whom he released eight albums as a leader, usually with a trio, from 1983 until 2003. He also recorded three albums featuring solo piano and classical music that he released on his own label. And in keeping with his inclination to play both commercial and non-commercial music, Bernhardt toured with Steely Dan during 1993-1994 and is featured on the group’s Alive in America album. “In 1993, after twenty years off the road, my partner Walter Becker and I decided to start a new edition of Steely Dan as a touring band,” Donald Fagen told WBGO. “We assembled a group of brilliant players and singers including Peter Erskine, Tom Barney, Chris Potter—they were all great. We could hardly believe our luck when Warren Bernhardt said he was available to play the piano. I first heard Warren when he accompanied my wife Libby Titus on a demo of a lovely tune by Eric Kaz, ‘Sorrow Lives Here in My Heart.’ By itself, his sensitive accompaniment stood as a singular work of art.” Bernhardt later collaborated with Fagen on an instructional video about Steely Dan’s music for Homespun Tapes, run by his Woodstock friend Artie Traum. He also recorded and toured with a solo Art Garfunkel from 1995 to 2003 and with Simon & Garfunkel for their reunion shows during 2003-2010.

Despite his ubiquitous presence on the NYC music scene, Bernhardt had moved to Woodstock around 1968. “Warren was playing with Jeremy Steig and the Satyrs and they were also backing folk singer Tim Hardin,” said Mainieri. “I joined both touring groups. By 1969 quite a few musicians including Warren and Tim had moved to Woodstock, as did I. Our children went to school together and we performed together our entire lives: studio sessions, tours, and many gigs at the Joyous Lake in Woodstock.” Site of a second home that would eventually become his primary residence, that hallowed Catskills area would be a source of both inspiration and support for him for the rest of his life.

It was there that he met his first wife Susan and they had a son Tim, though the two would later divorce. In 1976 Bernhardt married his current wife Jan with whom he had a daughter Nicole, who both survive him. Ms. Bernhardt said that Woodstock became an important home base for the often-peripatetic Bernhardt who would stay at a relative’s apartment in the city while doing session work. She said that Bernhardt considered the Woodstock area his true home and loved playing with local musicians like Mainieri, Levin, Jack DeJohnette and others. For her part, she said that she felt lucky to witness his creative musicality. “He had such a broad mastery of feeling and painting in his musical expression in so many genres,” she said. “His touch was something extraordinary.”

In 2009 Bernhardt reunited with his bandmates in L’Image for live shows and an album, L’Image 2.0. “Warren was one of the few musicians I’ve played with who never played a bad note,” said the in-demand bassist Levin in an email sent to WBGO. “His touch on the keyboard was so distinctive and so musical, that just the sound of his piano was enough to captivate you, but then his choice of what to play was always just what the music called for. His background in classical, jazz, rock and pop was part of that, I think, but mostly it was due to his innate musicality. We shared a lot of time and a lot of music in a few different bands, with the bumps and patches of road life keeping things interesting. I’ll be missing Warren in a number of ways, as will many in our musical community.”

David Spinozza remembered when he and Mainieri went to see Bernhardt play a solo classical concert in Woodstock. “Even though we had played with him in many different situations, we couldn't believe how virtuosic he handled Chopin's 24 Etudes, which he played from memory,” Spinozza wrote in an email to WBGO. “He also played a Rachmaninoff piece. We listened as if we had never heard him before. Absolutely incredible.”

Cronin told WBGO that Bernhardt had a remarkable memory for dates and statistics around his life in music, annotating all the gigs and recording sessions. For example, the pianist estimated that he had performed for approximately 33 million people, with the largest single audience being 600,000 for a Simon & Garfunkel concert at the Coliseum in Rome. Mainieri confirmed that unusual gift. “Warren was my go-to guy when I needed to recall the date of a concert we did, a restaurant or hotel we stayed at in France,” Mainieri said. “He possessed an uncanny memory for detail.” Bernhardt’s last recording was Lotus Night with a trio he co-led with Mainieri and guitarist Kazumi Watanabe.

“Warren saw and heard the world through rhapsodic eyes,” said Erskine. “Everything he touched became poetic.” Jan Bernhardt said amongst the many visitors coming by to say goodbye during the pianist’s final days were Jack DeJohnette and his wife Lydia. “Warren asked Jack to play ‘Quiet Now’ and Jack sat at the piano and played that and then an improv of ‘Peace Piece’ and ‘I Loves You Porgy,’” she recalled. “And it was just beautiful.”

The family is planning a private funeral service, with a public memorial event to be held in the future.

For over 27 years, Lee Mergner served as an editor and publisher of JazzTimes until his resignation in January 2018. Thereafter, Mergner continued to regularly contribute features, profiles and interviews to the publication as a contributing editor for the next 4+ years. JazzTimes, which has won numerous ASCAP-Deems Taylor awards for music journalism, was founded in 1970 and was described by the All Music Guide, as “arguably the finest jazz magazine in the world.”