One of Seattle’s most beloved and popular musicians, the effervescent jazz pianist Overton Berry, died peacefully at home on Monday, said his son Sean Berry. He was 84 and had suffered from heart disease for several years.
Berry’s career spanned seven decades, from the tail end of the fabled Jackson Street era to the contemporary period of Columbia City’s Royal Room, where Berry played one of his last gigs in early 2020.
“Jazz musicians of Overton’s era considered themselves entertainers as well as musicians,” said Seattle jazz radio personality Jim Wilke. “When you walked into the room and saw that big, broad smile you knew you were in the right place.
Wilke added that Berry was “no skimpy pianist. He had a full-bodied sound and played big, bluesy, rolling, 10-finger chords. He was a very special guy and we’re going to miss him around here, that’s for sure.
Wilke will play a selection of Berry’s recordings on his KNKX show at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 25.
Berry made his career in Seattle, but also performed at venues in Japan, Egypt, Thailand and China. In 2012, Seattle nonprofit Earshot Jazz inducted Berry into the Seattle Jazz Hall of Fame.
Berry’s music can be heard on the albums “Eleven is Forever,” “Live at Admiral,” “Live at the Doubletree Inn” and others, available as downloads at overtonberry.com.
Born in Houston in 1936, Berry moved after World War II to Seattle, where he overlapped for a semester with Quincy Jones at Garfield High School. After studying classical piano at Cornish College, Berry picked up popular stylings from local teacher Louis Wilcox. After a year at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon, Berry attended the University of Washington, but music soon won out over school.
Until 1956, Seattle’s musicians’ unions were segregated, but when planning began for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, Seattle’s nightlife scene integrated — and expanded — dramatically. Berry directed an integrated band at an after-hours coffee house in Pioneer Square called The House of Entertainment, where he hired future jazz-rock fusion star guitarist Larry Coryell. Berry also served as music director for vocalist Peggy Lee at the fair.
In the 1960s, Berry worked as a reading tutor for the Central Area Motivation Project (CAMP) but continued to play evenings. In 1969, his trio with Chuck Metcalf (bass) and Bill Kotick (drums) began a six-year engagement at the Doubletree Inn, in Tukwila, which became the hub of local jazz. A track from an album Berry recorded there live, the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” was included in a 2005 tribute album to Seattle’s post-Jackson Street Black music scene, “Wheedle’s Groove.”
Berry made another invaluable contribution in 1975, when he hired an unknown singer from Tacoma named Diane Schuur, who went on to international fame.
“Overton was so supportive of my career,” recalled Schuur from her home in Palm Springs, California. “He was such a loving spirit. He taught me about stage presence and how to segue from one song to another and how to build a set, instead of giving it all away on the first couple of lyrics.”
Bassist Bruce Phares recalled Berry’s mentorship with similar affection: “Overton just always opened the door.”
Phares played with Berry in the late 1970s and rejoined him for his triumphant, late-life concerts at the now-defunct Belltown club Tula’s, and at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley in October 2019, when Schuur sat in.
Berry was married for 22 years to Donna Coleman, who died in 2015. In addition to Sean Berry, he is survived by three other children — Mark, Jann and Paco Berry — and five grandchildren.
A funeral Mass at St. James Cathedral will be livestreamed at 10:30 a.m. Friday, Nov. 6 at vimeo.com/event/393384.
“Maybe sometime next year, when we can get 500 people together,” said his son Sean, “we’ll have a tribute concert.”