Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Jazz daddy, native son: Herberman’s cool with MoCo

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It’s not Birdland — not by a longshot — but jazz guitarist Steve Herberman likes to play his regular gig at Sala Thai in Bethesda.

‘‘It’s on the corner of Woodmont and Cordell — used to be Arthur Treacher’s,” says Herberman, a member of Thomas S. Wootton High School’s Class of 1984. ‘‘We have a really loyal following there.”

Possibly that’s because Herberman and sax player Jeff Antoniuk keep Thursday night hopping with a range of jazz world all-stars like drummer Jeff Kathan and guitarist Ben Monder.

‘‘You could see some people were thinking, ‘What’s going on here? This is exceptional!’” says Herberman. ‘‘We’ve had some world-class people take over the place, and there’s the feeling that there’s something happening here.”

What’s happening is that Herberman — performer, composer, professor, music writer — has opted to forego the traditional move to New York or Los Angeles and make a career as a jazz musician right here in Montgomery County.

‘‘I grew up here,” he explains. ‘‘I like to stick around, be close to my family.”


Growing up in Rockville, Herberman was shy.

‘‘I kind of stayed out of organized band,” he says, noting that he only joined his high school jazz band his senior year. ‘‘I took music theory for three years at Wootton, I made all-county band and I was in a lot of bands outside of school, but I was a little reticent. I was skeptical, for some reason.”

Herberman had started piano lessons at age 6, then drifted toward soccer and basketball before taking up trombone in fourth grade and guitar at 12.

‘‘I liked the Beatles, the Eagles, bands like Led Zeppelin and Rush,” he says. ‘‘Then I started gravitating toward jazz.”

Between freshman and sophomore years, he remembers, ‘‘one of my friends was a bass player, going to Variety Records and getting Thelonius Monk records.”

After high school, Herberman went to Berklee College of Music in Boston, graduating with a bachelor of music degree.

‘‘I always wanted to have a [performing] career, to be a good jazz player,” he says. ‘‘I wanted to, eventually, do a lot of traveling.”

And while he’s done some — out of state, to the legendary clubs like Birdland in New York and Spazio in L.A. — Herberman finds that other things keep him rooted here: his private guitar students and the ones he teaches at Towson State University; his wife and 7-year-old son Joel; and his belief that as a musician, he can have it all right here. Unassuming and down to earth, Herberman has found a way to be the jazz player next door.

Lessons online

‘‘Being known outside your city,” says Herberman. ‘‘Luckily, I’ve achieved that through the Internet and the digital age.”

Like so many musicians, Herberman has benefited from the Internet in many different ways. It gives jazz fans access to his second album, the critically acclaimed ‘‘Action: Reaction,” with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Mark Ferber rounding out his trio. It gives him access to his fans: ‘‘I get requests from people to come to their town and play,” he says. ‘‘I’m thinking about putting all the e-mails together and making a tour for myself.”

It also provides Herberman with a unique way to teach. He gives lessons online — a 90-minute live master class with jazz guitarist and IT professional Mike Gellar that attracts students from as far away as the United Arab Emirates and Australia.

And then there’s YouTube.

‘‘It’s kind of thrilling,” he says. ‘‘There was a student who was following my career in Brazil. I think he saw a video of me on YouTube. He wants to study music with me.”


Herberman says that exposure on the Web ‘‘has taken me out of the local scene, made me global,” and that’s true, but in many ways he remains local. His stories have a homespun quality. He tells one about the late Silver Spring jazz legend Keter Betts, then sends a charming photo of the two of them jamming. He raves about the Maryland Summer Jazz Camp in Rockville, where he has taught and performed for three years.

‘‘It’s this jazz boot camp,” he says. ‘‘For some people, it’s just fantasy jazz camp. They’re lawyers or whatever, but they come because they want to eat-sleep-breathe jazz all day.”

Or they’re students, high school kids hoping to hone their skills before college or college kids looking for a fresh ideas and new experiences. Herberman seems to have a soft spot for the older musicians, the ones who tell him ‘‘I played in high school or college but I’ve got this day job now.”

‘‘They want to get back into it,” he says.

And he understands that, because even at his level, Herberman is always looking for inspiration that keeps his music fresh.

‘‘I want to approach the instrument with a childlike sense — no boundaries, no restraint,” he says.

That’s the way he first came to it, as a shy, carefree kid growing up in Montgomery County. That’s the way his own son sees the piano and the guitars that are around the house, but never forced on him.

‘‘When I hear Joel, it’s innocent, it’s fun. You can hear the adventure in it,” he observes.

For this jazz musician, there’s no place like home.

The Steve Herberman Trio, with bassist Tom Baldwin and saxophonist Jeff Antoniuk, performs Thursday, Aug. 30, 7 to 10 p.m. at Sala Thai, 4828 Cordell Ave. Bethesda. Call 301-654-4676.