Berg worked his way through the University of Houston playing six nights a week in a Mexican-American bar band, learning to play and arrange cumbias, rancheras, and salsa along with country and R&B. “That was as good as going to college,” he says. “I had a nighttime and a daytime education.”
By the time he finished his master’s degree, at 23, he was married with two children and disenchanted with late-night gigs. He took a job at San Jacinto Community College, spending 12 years teaching, coaching Little League and going to dance recitals. He went on to head the jazz program at the University of Southern California and develop a successful performing and recording career in Los Angeles.
“I’ve gotten to do all the things I’d hoped to do, and yet I got love and a family,” Berg says. “And generations of students who cumulatively have enriched me much more than I could ever have enriched them.”
The university is building a new home for Berg’s groundbreaking endeavor. Designed by I.M. Pei protégé Yann Weymouth, it’s slated to open in the spring of 2015, and will honor Patricia Frost, who, with her husband, Phillip, gave the music school $33 million and a new name 10 years ago.
The building will form a grand entrance to the Frost School and almost double its practice space with 85 high-tech equipped rooms. It’s the first of three projects — a 200-seat recital hall is next — to be built with $20 million Berg has helped raise since 2008.
Fundraising efforts have been bolstered by the high-profile artists and events Berg has brought to the school, many through his L.A. connections. The most prominent example is the Mancini Institute, originally a summer program in Los Angeles that Berg persuaded the Mancini family to move to UM.
The institute’s 65 graduate fellows, many from top conservatories, perform and record in professional settings. They form the resident orchestra for the Jazz Roots series at the Adrienne Arsht Center, where last year they did two live concert recordings for PBS. One of them, Jazz and the Philharmonic, which airs in January, features Blanchard, Bobby McFerrin, Chick Corea and legendary producer Phil Ramone. The students had to learn the challenging, multi-genre program in just three days.
“The point is that’s the real world,” Berg says. “The attention it takes to do that on very little rehearsal time is something most school musicians have never had to do.” (The Mancini Orchestra will simultaneously close Festival Miami and open the Jazz Roots series with a Nov. 1 concert featuring Monica Mancini, Jon Secada and Nicole Henry.)
Those experiences are inspiring to Mancini students like Joy Adams, 24, a violinist and cellist with a bluegrass group as well as a classical string ensemble who says she felt discouraged after graduating from the prestigious Eastman School of Music.
“I love music, but it seemed like there were no careers,” Adams says. “I came here and so many doors and paths are open. But you’ve got to create the need for what you do.”
Berg has a keen eye for opportunity. A day after learning that fiddle player Mark O’Connor, renowned for his cross-genre virtuosity, still smarted about a 2007 Miami concert cancellation, the dean offered to present O’Connor at UM – accompanied by Frost students.