Passings: Alice Babs, Dick Berk

Alice Babs, the Swedish singer whom Duke Ellington once called “probably the most unique artist I know,” died today in her native Sweden. She was 90. Her breakthrough came in 1940 in the Swedish Alice Babsfilm Swing it magistern (Swing It, Teacher!) She went on to make her name in stage, motion picture and television work, singing in several genres and collaborating with violinist Svend Asmussen and other Scandinavian jazz artists. Her pure soprano voice and rhythmic ability brought her to Ellington’s attention in the early 1960s. She appeared with his band frequently, recorded with it and sang in his second and third sacred concerts. In 1972 King Gustav VI Adolf of Sweden departed from the tradition of appointing opera singers and honored Ms. Babs by naming her the Royal Court singer.

Here, she is featured with clarinetist Russell Procope in Ellington’s second sacred concert

Largely inactive in her later years, Ms. Babs had been under care for Alzheimer’s disease.

Dick Berk, a drummer admired as a developer of young talent and as a colleague of dozens of major jazz artists, died last Saturday at the age of 74. Berk had been undergoing dialysis treatment for some time in Portland, Oregon, his home in recent years. In his late teens he was Billie Holiday’s drummer, recording with her at the 1958 Monterey Jazz Festival. In 1960 he went from the BerkleeDick Berk at Wilf's School of Music to New York City, where he played with Charles Mingus, Freddie Hubbard, Monty Alexander and the Ted Curson-Bill Barron group, among others. His Los Angeles years in the late 1960s and early ‘70s saw him working and recording with a range of musicians including Cal Tjader, Ray Brown, Milt Jackson, Blue Mitchell, Georgie Auld, Nat Adderley and Phineas Newborn, Jr.

Berk’s own band, the Jazz Adoption Agency, nurtured such young talents as baritone saxophonist Nick Brignola, tenor saxophonist Jay Collins and trombonists Andy Martin and Mike Fahn. During his two long residencies in Portland, he gigged and recorded with pianist Jessica Williams and bassist Leroy Vinnegar and continued to encourage developing young players. As a sideline, he had acting roles in films, including Idiot’s Delight with Jack Lemon, and in the television shows Hogan’s Heroes, It Takes a Thief and Emergency.

From Berk’s L.A. period, let’s listen to him with Nick Brignola’s quintet: Brignola, baritone; Bill Watrous, trombone; Dwight Dickerson, piano; John Heard, bass. The piece is Horace Silver’s “Quicksilver.” Berk’s time throughout, the vigor of his solo and the strategic placement of his cymbal splashes give us an idea why so many superior players loved having him on the bandstand.

Dick Berk, RIP

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  1. mel says

    R.I.P. Alice Babs and Dick Berk.

    Svend Asmussen, the fiddling Viking, by the way, is still around at the age of 97.

  2. Valerie Bishop says

    I am personally devastated by the loss of my dear friend of almost 50 years, Dick Berk. I met him around 1965 in NYC when he was playing with Walter Bishop, Jr. I must add that working with Walter was one of the great joys of Dick’s life. He never stopped talking about Walter. As most people who knew Dick are aware, he was a very sweet, kind, funny, warm, friendly guy. And in spite of his medical struggles through the years, he was always positive and “up.” Aside from his devoted, loving wife, Roberta, Dick loved his friends, both two and four-legged, especially his cats and birds. In addition to the films mentioned, I remember Dick being in New York, New York and The Tic Code with his friend, Michael Wolff. Although I didn’t see much of Dick in recent years, we talked on the phone very consistently. He was such a loyal friend. We loved each other a lot. I know the first thing he will be looking for “up there” is a good band he can join or start!! I’m certain that won’t be a problem as everyone loved Dick’s fabulous talent.

  3. Rusty Hassan says

    The passing of Alice Babs made me think of my late friend Staf Rosenborg, a devoted jazz fan and close friend to many musicians. Staf told me that he saw Ellington perform in Stockholm in 1939 and a teenaged Alice Babs sang happy birthday to Duke on his 40th birthday. Staf included Alice among his many friends, one of whom was Shirley Horn. In 2004 I attended an Ellington conference in Stockholm where Alice Babs was the featured performer, still in fine voice at 80. I spoke with her about the recent passing of Staf and the story he had told me of her singing for Ellington on his birthday. She told me it was such a thrill to sing for him in ’39 but even more so to perform with him in the ’60s and ’70s.

  4. John Bartholomew says

    In the Ellington Sacred Concert clip, it’s interesting to observe how Procope never once makes eye contact with Alice Babs.