Learning the Bozeman Beat: An Interview with Adam Greenberg
Nick Mack | Sunday Dec. 1st, 2019
Jazz music relies on a gnarly combo of rhythm disruption and improvisation, fueled by a healthy dose of blood, sweat, and tears—and yet, Adam Greenberg makes the process appear effortless as he drums his way through a two-hour set at the Open Range in downtown Bozeman. While Greenberg tackles a cover of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” accompanied by guitarist Alex Robilotta and bassist Eddie Tsuru, I order a pint on tap from MAP Brewing and settle in for a night of local flavor. During his trio’s brief intermission, Greenberg joins me in front of the restaurant’s immense Main Street-facing windows to discuss his career, the best Christmas album of all time, and the one question everyone asks him upon learning he’s a jazz drummer.
Blood Was Not an Exaggeration
“I started playing when I was thirteen,” recalls Greenberg, clipping the microphone to his black turtleneck collar. “I had a brother who was seven years older than me, so I grew up listening to Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead—all those bands.” While most of his friends were enamored with the impassioned vocals of Jerry Garcia and the guitar prowess of Eddie Van Halen, Greenberg took a liking to the bands’ percussion elements. He explains, “John Bonham, the drummer from Led Zeppelin, was the guy who got me into drumming.” Carrying this inspiration, aided by a strong work ethic, Greenberg began to explore jazz in high school and furthered his genre education at the University of Cincinnati’s Conservatory of Music.
At this point in the interview, I can’t help but ask Greenberg whether he’s watched 2014’s Oscar-winning drama, Whiplash—that movie being my only exposure to the collegiate jazz drumming experience. “I haven’t seen it!” he exclaims with a laugh, adding that the question crops up every time he discusses his education. He clarifies that he’s seen a few clips and confirms that he didn’t encounter any abusive mentors like the one so memorably portrayed by J.K. Simmons, an actor who, interestingly, graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in music. Greenberg admits that one aspect of the movie was faithful to his own experience, though. “The bleeding and the shedding,” he laments, referring to Miles Teller’s mangled drumming hands. “That part’s true.”
Balancing Multiple Rhythms
Greenberg survived college with his hands and ego somewhat intact and remained ten years in Cincinnati, where he met his wife and contributed his talents to the local music scene. In 2002, the couple moved to Bozeman, which he describes as “kind of a different world.” Despite its recent growth, Bozeman didn’t—and still doesn’t—offer quite the same gig volume as the large Midwestern city Greenberg called home, so he added a job finishing furniture on top of his musical exploits. More recently, he’s embarked on a career in real estate, working for Coldwell Banker and running Montana Real Estate Consultants alongside fellow musician Eddie Tsuru. “I put the same amount of practice and intention into that as I do with my music,” he states. “If you think I’m at all proficient as a drummer, the same goes for real estate.”
Devoting oneself so fully to two careers requires some sacrifice, and Greenberg admits that he no longer plays as much as he used to. On his Bozeman debut seventeen years ago, however, he bounced all over town, gracing venues like the Zebra, the Crystal, and the Eagles Club as a member of Bozeman’s iconic tribute band, Pinky and the Floyd, as well as an outlaw country band, The Dirty Shame. In 2012, he established a seventeen-piece jazz orchestra, The Bridger Mountain Big Band, which played at Colonel Black’s regularly for three years. That bar has since closed its doors for good, but Greenberg fondly reminisces, “It was super small. The band would set up and there’d only be room for, like, thirty people. It was crazy, but it was cool. And then we moved over to the Eagles.” The band still enlivens the Eagles Club every Sunday night from 7-9:30, in addition to gigging at a number of weddings, parties, and corporate events.
It’s All Influential
The Bridger Mountain Big Band draws its inspiration from jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Count Basie, but Greenberg’s personal influences vary widely across eras and genres. In a response I’ve found very consistent among Bozeman’s most accomplished musicians, he tells me, “I like every kind of music, really, so I’ll listen to country, I’ll listen to jazz, I’ll listen to rock, classic—like, anything… It’s all influential!” When I note the parallel between him and my past interviewees, he explains, “You know, if you really like music, then you really like music, and you listen to everything.”
With regards to inspirational drummers, Greenberg’s examples grow much more specific. “John Bonham,” he repeats, before naming such virtuosos as Elvin Jones, who played alongside John Coltrane; Philly Joe Jones, who accompanied Miles Davis; and modern phenomenon Jeff “Tain” Watts. Greenberg also sings the praises of a few local bands, mentioning the soul group Paige and the People’s Band, and the sister-led Hawthorne Roots as particular influences. “As far as jazz goes, though,” he adds, “since Bob Bowman moved to the area, it’s been a great treasure to have him here. He’s a world class, world-known bass player from Kansas City; he’s got a cabin down in West Yellowstone and he plays up here.”
Christmas Time is Here
Like Bowman, who moved to Montana for its scenic grandeur, Greenberg appreciates the state for its outdoor opportunities. “Though I don’t get to do it very much, I like to camp. I like to go on drives, hikes, and get up in the mountains. I like to ski…” Here, he pauses before adding, like any true Montanan, “…Obviously.” This month, Greenberg will return to the mountains for a favorite Christmas tradition—finding and cutting down the perfect tree. A five-dollar permit allows Gallatin County residents to venture into Custer Gallatin National Forest land and claim a tree of less than fifteen feet, provided the tree isn’t removed from a campground, trailhead, or developed recreation site. “I try to change it up,” says Greenberg when I ask for the best location. “Out at Bear Creek, that’s a good area. Duck Creek, too, out in Bridger Canyon.”
After finding and decorating the ideal tree, Greenberg plans to spend the holidays relaxing with his loved ones in Bozeman. “I have a lot of family here in town,” he says, “so we stay kind of close, just go back and forth from each other’s houses on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day—that kind of thing.” While on the subject of Christmas traditions, I ask him which artists a jazz aficionado enjoys listening to over the holidays, expecting an answer like Louis Armstrong, or perhaps saxophone-savant Kenny G. “One of my all-time favorite Christmas albums is the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Greenberg answers, throwing me off, though I shouldn’t be so surprised, since Vince Guaraldi’s 1965 album is widely considered a masterpiece in both the holiday and jazz genres. “‘Christmas Time Is Here’ is one of my favorites,” Greenberg continues. “That whole album is great. I only get to pull it out once a year, but it’s definitely in the rotation during Christmas.”
To 2020…and Beyond
Following Christmas, Greenberg’s life will resume its standard full-throttle speed, with the real estate game picking back up in the midst of preparations for a New Year’s performance at Plonk, Bozeman’s quirky downtown wine bar. “It’ll be a seven-piece band,” Greenberg elaborates, referring to his trimmed-down group as The Bridger Mountain Big Band’s Small Band. “Three horns, three rhythm players, and a vocalist, so that’ll be fun. I’m looking forward to it.”
For the year 2020, which somehow lingers just around the corner, Greenberg hints at a few upcoming shows at the Ellen Theatre, although the exact dates remain to be settled. “As far as larger venues go, I love the Ellen,” he tells me. “Especially for jazz, whether it’s small group or big band, it just sounds really good in there.” His excitement and gratitude reach far beyond just one theatre, however, extending to all the venues that support live music. “I like playing those, because their support is so important,” he adds. “And it’s interesting, with all the new places like the [recently restored] Rialto, and the new hotel where the Armory was, there’s going to be a lot of good stuff happening.”
Greenberg’s optimism surrounding the newer venues also applies to his own musical career, as well as those of his fellow musicians. “I think you’ll be seeing more of me, and more of some of the other bands, within probably the next year or so,” he predicts. “Especially with the country band, The Dirty Shame, I think we’re gonna pop out and do some more tunes here coming up. And there’ll be some more Big Band events, too.”
YOUR Friendly Neighborhood Musician
As Greenberg looks to the future, he hopes to hear new voices and fresh sounds explode onto Bozeman’s music landscape. “Man, just go for it,” he urges anyone on the fence about pursuing a musical career. “Treasure the time you’re doing it, too. If you’re someone who wants to make a living in this business, you have to be just as proficient in the business aspect of it as you are in the actual performance aspect of it. Living in a small town like this, it’s like, if you’re making a living playing music, you’re probably teaching ‘x’ amount of hours a week and playing as many hours as you can. I guess it’s like that anywhere, but there’s not enough gigs to sustain anybody full time.”
Greenberg’s advice mixes the rational with the inspirational, just as his music blends the familiar with the unknown. We wrap up the interview and he rejoins his band for a set that includes some Nirvana and Michael Jackson covers, calling back to old, established hits while simultaneously creating something exciting and unpredictable. Make sure to catch Greenberg at one of his gigs this holiday season and beyond, not just to witness his skillful variations on your favorite songs, but also to support a friendly neighborhood musician who pours one hundred percent into all aspects of his life.