Underrated “Harmolodics” Master Guitarist Bern Nix Remembered

Bern NixText by Dawoud Kringle

The world of improvised music was shocked to learn of the passing of master guitarist Bern Nix.

Born in 1950, Nix moved to New York City, and made a living for a while as a guitar teacher. He succeeded James Blood Ulmer in Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time band, and in 1985 formed his own band. In 1993, the band released the album Alarms and Excursions. Nix released solo recordings such as Low Barometer (an acoustic recording), Less is More, and Negative Capability. Nix also performed with Jayne Cortez, John Zorn, Marc Ribot, Elliot Sharp, Jemeel Moondoc, James Chance, Kip Hanrahan, and Roland Shannon Jackson. In recent years, Nix performed regularly at the Vision Festival, and at smaller local venues. He worked with his quartet The Bern Nix Quartet (featuring Matt Lavelle, François Grillot and Reggie Sylvester), Cheryl Pyle’s Beyond Group, and with ensembles led by Ras Moshe Burnett.

Nix’ musical foundation was rooted firmly in jazz. His earliest influence was Charlie Christian (who, alongside Django Reinhardt, defined jazz guitar). This sense of the rhythmic and phrasing of jazz was a large part of his concept, as was his concepts of melody. No matter what he played in his decades long career – including the deep immersion into Harmolodics – this essence of jazz’ foundation was always there.

An important part of his legacy is his interaction and mentoring of younger musicians. He will be remembered as much for his kindness and wisdom as he will be for his mastery of guitar and sublime musicality. The appreciation for his artistry was, regrettably, confined to a musical elite with the sensitivity to understand the depth of his work. A humble man who lived a modest existence, the appreciation his work deserved was largely elusive in the world of jazz. It is, indeed, indicative of a dark age we live in where musicians like him, whom a civilized society would treat as a national treasure, had to struggle to survive in a professional capacity. Yet he did, and the music never suffered.

On May 31st, Nix’ body was found in his home by Matt Lavelle. As of this writing, the exact cause of death is unknown, but it appears to have been of natural causes.

The jazz / improvised music world is the poorer with him gone, and the richer for having had him among us.