Writings about Music
Riding On His Wings:
the Beatitude of Barney Bragin
December 18, 1922 - March 29, 2013
At the age of thirteen, it was suggested by one of my father's two closest friends, Ray Krieger, that I take piano lessons with Barney Bragin, said to be a remarkably gifted teacher. Irwin Leitner, the other close friend, was the person who introduced my parents. His son is the chief safety engineer for NASA. Ray has always been a cherished family friend, including teaching me to play ping-pong at his rather high level, and attending Little League games where my batting average was .735.
Looking back, it was 1969 when I was 13, an especially fermentative time, including the world of music. By way of introduction, Barney asked me to play something for him, and I proceeded to perform a short, highly contrapuntal Handel Minuet in B Minor from memory, a composition I still enjoy playing.
My lessons with Barney Bragin, a name conjuring images of Broadway and the Ringling Brothers Circus at once, took place on Saturday mornings, and Barney was always dressed immaculately in an elegant suit and tie, including a handkerchief in his pocket. Sometimes the suits were striped, and the glowing image he presented seemed somewhat incongruous with the modest house in Bellerose, Queens (New York) where he resided, even evoking single-handedly the setting of an elegant casino from a classic film with Frank Sinatra or Sean Connery. Bragin always looked like a million dollars, including subtly scented cologne. While being highly sophisticated, it was evident he was also street smart, and while enjoying telling humorous anecdotes, when it came to music Barney was a serious as serious may be.
Right away, Barney advised me how to clip the cash payment for my visits to an inside page of the meticulous lesson book he wrote in each week for me to take home and follow for practicing, thus avoiding the direct handing over of lucre, which seemed a practicality he preferred to be incidental rather than central.
There was a magically complex, mysterious and welcoming scent to Barney's residence that has never been experienced anywhere else in my life, perhaps having something to do with his wife, Lorraine, being gifted with refined culinary skills, including uncommon spices, but I really have no idea what the source was.
Our lessons took place in Barney's finished basement, which was entered from the side of the house with a staircase leading down. There was a separate waiting room with a couch where my father would sit reading the newspaper after we made the thirty to forty minute drive from Wantagh on the South Shore of Nassau County on Long Island near Jones Beach. This amounted to a rather extraordinary effort on the part of Dad because he already commuted to Manhattan during the week, where he loved very much the work he did, but said the railroad trip back and forth was the worst aspect of his life. On occasion, my mother would drive me, but eventually I transitioned to taking the Long Island Railroad myself, including a transfer at Jamaica, making the trip a formidable two hours each way due to untimely connections.
On one occasion, after my lesson was over, and my Dad and I were leaving for home, I stopped to adjust my jacket, first placing my lesson book and music books on top of the car trunk, but neglected to gather them inside the car before we departed, so all the materials were lost, having to be repurchased. Now, thinking of that calamity, it occurs to me how it may have symbolized my one disappointment with Barney. You see, when I asked him to teach me how to improvise, he said this was something that could not be taught, and one could only truly learn to do so on their own, a concept Bill Evans appears to have concurred with.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Having believed the Handel Minuet in B Minor I played was Bach, Barney enthusiastically introduced me to the Johann Sebastian Bach Two-Part Inventions. What I should note is how Barney Bragin literally beamed with enthusiasm and knowledge, though in a pleasingly controlled manner, possessing an outrageously high intelligence and attention to detail. His presence and personality exuded health and focused enlightenment. By pointing out the individual musical virtues and personality of each Bach Invention, and having me listen to the interpretations of Glenn Gould, I was inspired to memorize about half of the Inventions.
At the time, Barney told me how some keyboard artists learn how to play all the Inventions in every key. Years later, I learned from reading the autobiography of my friend, Earl Wild, how he was able to easily do the same with entire piano sonatas by any composer, including Beethoven and Liszt, at the drop of a hat!
Practicing at home was somewhat challenging because our piano was in the living room close to the kitchen, so my parents and sisters would be walking by on a fairly regular basis, and no one really wants to hear someone practicing. In fact, this came to be Barney's disappointment with myself, not practicing nearly enough because after a period of time together what I really wanted to focus on was learning how to improvise rather than playing notated music.
Fortuitously, prior to reaching that impasse, Barney, no doubt hoping to stimulate my desire to learn jazz improvisation, introduced me to Jazz Impressions of Eurasia by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, including both the sheet music and the album together. This music thrilled me from the first, and still does to this day, believing it to be one of the finest recordings of the twentieth century not to mention being that quartet's finest effort. And it was so prophetic of Barney connecting me with the concept of improvised music transcending cultures, borders and genres. Jazz Impressions of Eurasia even ventures beyond the title, including "Calcutta Blues," which explores a pentatonic raga from Indian classical music, including a hands on drum skin solo by Joe Morello bringing to mind tabla masters like Anindo Chatterjee.
Barney also introduced me to boogie-woogie, and I specifically recall playing the music of Pinetop Smith, finding this genre most stimulating, as did someone I formed a friendship with after moving to Los Angeles, Ray Manzarek, boogie-woogie being a central influence on his keyboard playing with the Doors.
More recently, it was music in the lower pitch registers, also informing boogie-woogie, which inspired my interpretations of standards, as noted last week in Music from the Earth.
Part of my piano lessons with Barney focused on Keyboard Harmony, something he stressed as being essential, and this knowledge was partly responsible for my excelling in the music theory class taught by Rollan Masciarelli while I was in tenth grade. In fact, I was the only sophomore in the class, the others being seniors, including Larry Dutton, who became a founding member of the Emerson Quartet.
Years after our lessons together, I yearned to see Barney again to share with him what I was doing in music. Fortunately, his phone number still worked, and I visited him at his Bellerose home in 1996, giving him a number of my CDs, and marveling to myself at the very same wondrous scent there. I wish I had asked Barney what it was for possible replication!
Bragin was thrilled by my music, especially taken by what he described as a centrally defining "exuberance," and we subsequently shared long letters sent back and forth. In addition to Bellerose, Barney and Lorraine lived part of the year in Miami, preferring to drive as opposed to flying there. Barney and I would also talk on the phone, having long, fascinating conversations, and I learned that he knew Lee Konitz, a teacher of mine who became a close friend, but I neglected to ask Lee about this.
Barney mentioned composing music for his temple, and sent me a jazz composition influenced by the music of Lee Konitz titled, "Lee's Ease." Perhaps I will add some excerpts from his handwritten letters to this essay.
The sad news reached me when Barney left us in 2013, and I spoke on the phone to Lorraine for the first time, learning how Barney's mother was from Argentina, and how he never had a single line on his face despite reaching the age of ninety. Barney's Argentinian heritage made absolute sense because there was a certain flavor and nuance to his persona and musical profile that I couldn't quite place from what I had previously believed was a Jewish American identity only descended from Europe and/or Russia like my own family.
Bragin had expressed a strong belief in my musical potential, even going so far to exclaim during one of our lessons, "You may be a musical genius!" after I played a musical pattern across octaves invented at the piano involving minor thirds and minor sevenths in a jazz context. Years later, in an April 22, 1993 letter, Barney wrote: "Hopefully the "right" person(s) who is "well connected" will appreciate your genius."
For gracing me with the knowledge and experience of Johann Sebastian Bach, using the very music Bach composed to teach his own children composition, and for blessing me with an irresistible and lasting introduction to jazz, in addition to the glories of boogie-woogie, and Glenn Gould, I really cannot say enough about Barney Bragin except that he was a genuinely magical person who pointed me in fecund directions. Barney is at the top of the list of people I wish I could visit with again, hearing his thoughts and ideas about the many new and old things that interest me.
No doubt, Barney would be both thrilled and amused how another piano teacher materialized not by design, but purely by chance, who actually managed to inspire me to practice the piano to the point where I'm now releasing albums of piano improvisations.
Barney had suggested that I learn to play standards during our lessons, something that eventually happened only recently through the influence of Jocelyn. My sense is he would be overjoyed and highly inquisitive about the unique approach to jazz improvisation I'm in the process of developing, yet something else to discuss if he was only still here.
Most regretfully, my parents never thought of taking a photo of Barney and myself together, nor did it occur to me to take a photo of him when I visited later on in 1996, not knowing this would be the last time we were together. While I still yearn to have photos of Barney from the time of our lessons, and also earlier photos of him at childhood, teenage years, and early adulthood, I was fortunate to find a friend of Barney's in Florida, Mort Kuff, who kindly sent some more recent photos as included here. If someone reading this happens to have a photo of Barney in his forties, the time of our lessons, please contact Azure Miles Records.
Local 802, the American Federation of Musicians, published an obituary detailing parts of Barney's extraordinary life I knew nothing about.
BERNARD “BARNEY” BRAGIN, 90, of Bellerose, Queens, died on March 29, 2013. He retired in 1980 as principal of PS 121, Queens. A musician and composer, Mr. Bragin played under conductors including Leopold Stokowski, Morton Gould and jazz great Phil Napoleon. While serving in the armed services during World War II, he achieved the rank of captain and played with the Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band. Mr. Bragin organized a Dixieland Band aboard a ship designated for the Japanese invasion in 1945. During an inspection of Hiroshima, Mr. Bragin was exposed to radiation and with a disabling injury, decided to forego the physical demands of a professional musician’s life and pursued an education career instead. He graduated from NYU and earned a masters degree in education from there as well. Mr. Bragin helped develop the original public school integrated music program setting new standards for musical elementary education, which emphasized live performances. He also served as an examination assistant for the former Board of Examiners. He was a member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
Pauly Cohen on trumpet and Barney Bragin on alto saxophone (pictured above) played in the NYC All High School Band together. Cohen progressed to perform with Earl Hines, Artie Shaw, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra and others.
Temple Sholom of Floral Park has the Bernard "Barney" Bragin Music Fund, "Established in memory of the late Barney Bragin, this fund is meant to support special musical programming at Temple Sholom."
One especially fond memory of Barney Bragin, who is included in the Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians page about myself, is how he would on rare occasions play the piano during our lessons. He would do so as if performing at Carnegie Hall with a great sense of his own unique style and ceremony, playing most elegantly and beautifully, like God was listening with rapt attention. Barney was also a professional level clarinetist and saxophonist, having studied with Sidney Bechet.
I've been intending to write about Barney Bragin for years, but because he is such a central part of my musical being doing so has been elusive, like it hit too close to home, intuiting there would be no real way to portray who he was adequately in words despite my best effort.
- Michael Robinson, January 2022, Los Angeles
© 2022 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer, programmer, jazz pianist, and musicologist. His 162 albums include 149 albums for meruvina and 13 albums of piano improvisations. He has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University.