Mili was sitting under a tree, teaching, when I first met her, surrounded by a gaggle of teenaged singers. The year was 2000 or so, and we were both on a Berklee in L.A. trip, which is a summertime outreach program where Berklee faculty members spend some time with younger musicians. Mili was teaching voice, I was doing some research for the Berklee Practice Method and also scouting for book ideas.
It was late afternoon, nearing the end of an exhausting teaching day. If memory serves, Mili was explaining a foundational concept of chord-scale theory to her weary students. More than her lesson, though, what I remember most clearly was her students surrounding her on the grass, lazing at her feet, transfixed and doting, as they might with a favorite aunt.
To me, the scene was a perfect metaphor for the study of music, juxtaposing Mili’s lesson and the students’ obvious adoration for her personally. On one hand, there is an abstract theoretical focus to the work. But that skeleton is a scaffold upon which the real work hangs: the expressive business of the human spirit. Music might find some support in its theory, but it also must transcend it. Mili Bermejo epitomized this duality perfectly.
While Mili’s pedagogy had a rigorous intellectual core, it was coupled with her rarer gift: the ability to light up a room. To watch Mili sing was to witness a natural talent at play. As a performer, she exuded a singular warmth and personal connection. As an educator, on one hand, her advice came from a studied and deliberate perspective. However, the subtext of her teaching was always immediately close: music is a communication of the spirit, and the discipline of theory is a launching pad, not the destination. And as an artist, her work was human and moving—the opposite of academic.
My first conversation with her was to suggest the possibility of her writing a book with Berklee Press. She loved the idea. It took her 15 years to actually get around to it, but in a sense, she was right on time. She passed shortly after reviewing the final set of galleys. Her work on it was done.
A lovely recurring element throughout her book Jazz Vocal Improvisation is the story of her own journey as a singer: her struggles, her limitations, and finally, the insights provided to her by her teachers, such as Jerry Bergonzi and many at Berklee. She wrote about her early challenges in learning how to swing, and her limitations as a piano player. These humble anecdotes are then followed by the transformational exercises that helped her find exponential growth, and that she in turn used with thousands of her own students over a career in teaching that lasted more than 30 years.
Our conversations during the book’s editing process tended to be focused on the best way to present the information: the order of topics, the nature of diagrams, how to explain the concepts simply.
She worked so hard on this project and cared profoundly about every word and recording and notation example. I’ll share with you a very personal communication I received from her. It was her last feedback on the final set of galleys, and her second-to-last email to me. She wanted to modify a conducting diagram. The standard one set beats 2 and 3 lower, and had a down-dip for beat 4. But she had found, over the decades, that there was a better pattern for singers to use—one better suited for someone sitting in a chair doing solfeggio, as opposed to conducting an ensemble for performance.
Here’s Mili’s rough sketch for the illustrator, much in the style of so many other rough sketches she sent to me during the process. Clear and spontaneous, utterly without pretense:
As seriously as Mili took her work, she was nimble in taking any opportunity to make more of a personal connection. I once mentioned to her that one of my kids wanted to make a rosca de reyes (a Spanish cake) for a school project, and she immediately emailed me her two favorite recipes, annotated with some of her own commentary. Her book reads exactly the same way: a curated presentation of wisdom from many sources, but her own voice making sense of it, putting it in uniquely personal perspectives, voiced in a way that is simultaneously humble and inspiring.
I would have loved for Mili to have seen her book in print. It would have delighted her. That said, perhaps more than any other author I have worked with, she created this book for her readers, more than for herself.
She knew how transformational these techniques could be, and how helpful they were for singers finding their voice. She was so happy to be able to share them.
Jazz Vocal Improvisation is Mili’s gift to us, presented with great compassion and wisdom. I am grateful that we have this legacy from a dearly cherished member of the Berklee family.
Jonathan Feist is editor in chief of Berklee Press, where since 1998, he has edited hundreds of books by Berklee faculty members and other music industry luminaries. He is the author of several books, including Project Management for Musicians and Berklee Contemporary Music Notation (to be released in June 2017), and the Berklee Online courses Music Notation and Score Preparation Using Finale and Project Management for Musicians.