Obituaries

Mili Bermejo, 65; gave voice to Latin-fused jazz in Boston and at Berklee

Ms. Bermejo, a Buenos Aires native, taught for more than 32 years at Berklee College of Music.

Barry Chin/Globe staff/file 1992

Ms. Bermejo, a Buenos Aires native, taught for more than 32 years at Berklee College of Music.

Between songs one night in February 2014, Mili Bermejo addressed her audience at the Berklee Performance Center, reciting in English the words she would sing in Spanish moments later.

“Those who love live in the present. They feel, they dream, they don’t lie. They are grateful,” she said. “Those who love are courageous. They are fire. They have alert minds and have wisdom in their bodies. They distill and take only what’s necessary, and drink the wine from their own well. Those who love carry the light of the universe.”

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As she paused after that last word, bass notes plucked by her husband, Dan Greenspan, rose to fill the silence, and then she began to sing “Los que se aman,” a song that would become the first track on “Arte del Duo,” a CD the couple released last year.

After moving from Mexico to Boston in 1980, Ms. Bermejo helped integrate Latin American music into the Berklee College of Music curriculum, and she was a forerunner in melding those music styles as a performer in the region. “I come from Buenos Aires, Argentina, I come from Mexico City,” she told the Globe in 2006. “My whole life I’ve been drawing from all of that influence and mixing it with my passion for the jazz thing.”

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Ms. Bermejo, a composer and performer who taught at Berklee for more than 32 years, died Feb. 21 in the Elizabeth Evarts de Rham Hospice Home in Cambridge of cancer that had metastasized. She was 65 and had divided her time between Richmond, N.H., and Somerville.

For Boston-area audiences, “she helped marry Latin and jazz,” said Tim Ray, a Berklee colleague who had performed and recorded with Ms. Bermejo – she once called him “the ultimate singer’s pianist.”

Though Ms. Bermejo’s live performances offered a blend of the familiar and unfamiliar for many listeners, “she always found ways to communicate the song, to get past the language barrier,” Ray said, and at times that included offering a translation before she began to sing. “People got it,” he added. “They could tell by the way she was delivering the song what it was about.”

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A memorable teacher off-stage, she was hired as a full-time faculty member upon graduating from Berklee, where she taught voice and jazz courses, advanced Latin and jazz vocal workshops, advanced vocal improvisation techniques, and recital workshops for performance classes and offered private instruction to students.

Ms. Bermejo came to Boston to study at Berklee and perform, but teaching became a parallel calling. “The more she did it, the more she believed in what she did,” her husband said. “All of a sudden, it became really clear to her that, ‘Wow, this is really it. I can pass this on, this legacy.’ ”

“I love combining my creative life with my life as an educator,” she told the Globe in 1999.

Her performances, meanwhile, sampled a host of traditions. “Cross-cultural musical projects are now commonplace, but Mili Bermejo’s aesthetic has always been singular,” Jon Garelick wrote in the Boston Phoenix, reviewing a 2002 Regattabar gig.

“A Bermejo set can range from Mexican ranchera and huapango to Brazilian bossa, Argentine tango, and the nuevas canciones of Cuban composer Silvio Rodríguez, all of it pervaded by jazz improvisation,” added Garelick, who also reviews music for the Globe.

Ms. Bermejo “helped marry Latin and jazz,’’ said pianist Tim Ray, who recorded and performed with her.

Eric Lewandowski

Ms. Bermejo “helped marry Latin and jazz,’’ said pianist Tim Ray, who recorded and performed with her.

Greenspan, her husband and longtime musical collaborator, said of her performances: “It wasn’t dance music, it wasn’t, ‘Let’s party and have a good time,’ it was, ‘Let’s use our musical heritage to speak for our people.’ ”

The second of five children, Ms. Bermejo was born in Buenos Aires and was about 7 when her parents moved to Mexico City. Her father, Guillermo Bermejo, was a Mexican composer and performer. Her mother, Irma Margarita Suarez, who was known as Luz, was a tango singer from Argentina.

Ms. Bermejo’s childhood was packed with music. “Everyone from both sides of the family,” her husband said. “It was all music, all the time.”

Weekend gatherings at her family’s Mexico City home brought together “the best voices of Latin America,” she said in an interview with writer Evelyn Rosenthal that is posted on artsfuse.org. As a teenager, Ms. Bermejo was influenced by nueva cancion – the new song movement centered around socially conscious music that drew from folk traditions. Mercedes Sosa of Argentina was a key singer in the movement and an inspiration for Ms. Bermejo.

Her parents, meanwhile, encouraged their children to treat music as more than just a way to make a living. “Being an artist is very different from being an entertainer,” she told the Globe in 1992. “In my family one is an artist, not an entertainer. The stage is a sacred place. At home there was a set of rules on how to dress, how to move, the rhythm on stage. I learned all that at home, watching my mom sing.”

Ms. Bermejo studied voice and classical composition at Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in Mexico City, and through the encouragement of her late brother, Miguel, she branched into jazz. After moving to Boston, she met Greenspan through musical circles. They married in 1987.

At Berklee, she majored in jazz arranging and composition and was hired to teach there when she graduated in 1984. “She wasn’t a jazz musician when she came here. She was just a really good singer,” her husband said. “And then she studied and learned, and she made it a point to speak for her people – for all people.”

In recent years, Ms. Bermejo has spent much of her time in Richmond, N.H., where Greenspan had run a bakery out of their home. When Ms. Bermejo died, she was awaiting publication of her book “Jazz Vocal Improvisation,” which is set to be released this spring by Berklee Press.

A service was held Sunday for Ms. Bermejo, who in addition to her husband leaves three sisters – Margie and Luz, who both live in Mexico, and Gladys, who lives in Florida.

Some of Ms. Bermejo’s work flowed from family memories, such as “Guitarra y Son” from “Casa Corazon,” a 1994 album. The song “is for my parents,” she told the Globe after the album was released. “It comes from my first memory of hearing mariachi music after my family moved to Mexico, in the living room of our apartment at midnight.”

“A Time for Love,” a 2004 CD, emerged from family grief. A year and a half earlier, her brother, Miguel, had died of a heart attack at 48, and her father died soon after of cancer. The losses renewed her appreciation of music, and of her family’s heritage.

“Life has become even more precious,” she told the Globe in November 2004. “My father’s words were always, ‘You were born with a gift, and your responsibility in life is to develop it.’ Period. And I guess that formed us all.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.
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