CalArts Mourns Percussionist and Long-time Faculty Member John Bergamo

Noted composer, percussionist and long-time CalArts faculty member John Bergamo passed away on Saturday (Oct. 19) at the age of 73. In 1970, Bergamo founded the Percussion Program at CalArts, where he continued to teach for the next 35 years.

John Bergamo | Photo courtesy of Remo, Inc.

John Bergamo | Photo courtesy of Remo, Inc.

The master musician began his formal education at the Manhattan School of Music in  1957 and in 1959 at the Lenox School of Jazz in Lenox, Massachusetts, studying under Max Roach, Percy Heath, Kenny Dorham, Gunther Schuller, Marshall Stearns and George Russell. Jazz greats Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry were classmates.

Throughout his storied and eclectic career, Bergamo published more than 25 percussion compositions, performed on numerous Hollywood film soundtracks and worked with music legends such as John Cage, Ringo Starr and Frank Zappa.

He’s also remembered as one of the first Western percussionists to study East Indian rhythmic systems and percussion instruments such as tabla, ghatam, thavil and kanjira. It was former Music School Dean Mel Powell who hired Bergamo to start CalArts Percussion Program precisely because of his background that mixed jazz, contemporary and world music.

While at CalArts, Bergamo co-founded two all-percussion groups: The Repercussion Unit in 1976 with Larry Stein, Ed Mann, James Hildebrandt, Greg Johnson, Paul Anceau, and Steven “Lucky” Mosko; and The Hands On’Semble with Andrew Grueschow, Randy Gloss and Austin Wrinkle in 1997. (The latter ensemble still performs today.)

In Austin, Texas, in 2008, the Percussive Arts Society’s (PAS) annual convention—the largest percussion event in the world—featured a tribute concert of Bergamo’s works performed by the CalArts Percussion Ensemble with David Johnson, Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri with Hands On’semble and Houman Pourmedhi.

Last year, PAS inducted Bergamo into its Hall of Fame, joining a veritable who’s who of the percussion world.

In a message to the CalArts community, David Rosenboom, dean of The Herb Alpert School of Music at CalArts wrote:

“…Perhaps most of all, [John] will always be remembered as the extraordinarily loving and inspiring mentor for no less than an entire generation of ground-breaking percussion artists, who have in turn carried his musical wisdom with them into successful careers spanning the globe. John’s great gift of spirit and boundless music will always keep him with us. For this, we join in a resounding chorus of honor and gratitude.”

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  1. Rich Goodhart // //

    To hang and study with John was to ride along on waves of Rhythm and Sound with an elder brother fellow traveller of the Great Journey. I think for many if not most of his students, he was a friend, mentor, inspiration, colleague and cohort, at least as much if not far more than just a “music teacher”. If you were only there to learn technique and acquire musical knowledge you were missing so much more that John offered so generously to all of his students. Most of my best memories and experiences with him were from outside the classroom, outside of CalArts even… whether hanging out at his home, planting seeds in his garden, visiting and playing with him at Naropa or in NYC or Vermont etc… John extended sincere and deep friendship to so many of us. Reflecting over the past two weeks since his passing, I am seeing more clearly than ever before his wizardy and magic as a human being. Wow, what a true gift to have known him in this lifetime, what a blessing of immeasurable dimension, what a legacy he leaves in the hands and hearts of his countless students and friends all over this wondrous planet of ours!!