May 24, 1942 |
Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, United States
|Genres||Classical, synthetic pop|
|Occupation(s)||Composer, pianist, singer|
|Labels||American Gramophone, SDG Press|
|Associated acts||Mannheim Steamroller|
Early life and education
Jackson Berkey was born May 24, 1942 in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. He began playing the piano at age 5. His mother learned to play the piano by ear, but insisted that Jackson receive the training she had not. As a result, he was quite an accomplished pianist by the time he entered high school. He received a scholarship from the Huntingdon Music Club to attend the Chautauqua Music Festival in western New York state where he displayed his very serious demeanor as a musician. While his fellow students were enjoying the great outdoors that the area provided, Berkey was daily attending orchestra rehearsals of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra.
After graduating from high school in 1960, Berkey briefly attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Unfortunately, because scholarships did not adequately cover all expenses, he dropped out of school and got a job as a programming director and announcer at the classical music station, WBBF-FM in Rochester. He kept up with his piano skills by keeping a keyboard in the announcer's booth with him while working at the radio station. Weekly calls to schedule somewhat irregular sessions with his teacher at Eastman, Orazio Frugoni, allowed the continuation of Berkey's piano study and development as a musician.
Berkey eventually returned to college studies, but this time at Wilkes College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania where he earned a bachelor's degree in piano performance. At the urging of a friend, he auditioned for the Juilliard School of Music, and was accepted into their graduate program. He received a master's degree in piano performance from Juilliard in 1968 after several years of study with the accomplished Russian pianist and American pedagogue, Josef Raieff. Berkey's studies were greatly enriched during this time of study with Raieff, who himself studied with Leshetitsky (a pupil of Franz Liszt) and Artur Schnabel (whose lineage can be traced back to Beethoven).
Berkey was able to pull together enough money to make his professional debut at the Town Hall in New York City in 1969, about which Allen Hughes of the New York Times had this to say: “Mr. Berkey is an accomplished performer and more often than not a persuasive one. His interpretation of the Beethoven Sonata in D major, Op. 10, No. 3 was expertly and sensitively shaped.”
After this recital, Berkey had several jobs, including as a pianist on the Norman Luboff Choir tour. There he met Almeda, his future wife, and Chip Davis. Davis was experimenting with a new style of music, something he called "18th-century rock," but the piano parts he was writing were well outside of his skill as a pianist. The two became fast friends, and the music they were working on would evolve into the album Fresh Aire. They released it under the pseudonym "Mannheim Steamroller" as a play on the phrase "Mannheim roller," an ascending arpeggio named for the late 18th century Mannheim school of music.
Over the next three decades, Mannheim Steamroller released over 30 different albums, including 11 albums of Christmas songs.
After Berkey had moved to Omaha in 1974, he and Almeda wed. She soon became the director of choral activities at the University of Nebraska, and later, with her husband, founded Nebraska's Professional Chorale, Soli Deo Gloria Cantorum. Berkey's earliest compositions were original choral works and arrangements for Almeda's choirs, which they performed and recorded together. Many of Berkey's earlier compositions are songs, service cantatas, and other works for vocal ensembles of men, women, and mixed choirs. During the ensuing years from 1980 onward, Jackson has been writing in all genres, including major works for chorus and orchestra, a Piano Concerto, a Harp Concerto, an Organ Concerto, and many works for small chamber ensemble. Greatly inspired by the work of Phillip Erklen and his International Music Syndicate, Berkey has written numerous solo piano works on the East coast of the U.S. including Cape May Preludes, Cape May Solitudes, Atlantic Fantasy; and on the west coast (Olympic Peninsula). Following in the footsteps of J.S.Bach, Frederic Chopin, and Dimitri Shostakovitch, he has written 24 Nocturnes, one in each major and minor key. Also Four Nocturnes for Orchestra. 
- Pitcher, John. "New CD shows Berkey's range." Omaha World-Herald. 20 December 2009.