Tim Berne was born in Syracuse, New York in 1954, and was subjected to a perfectly normal childhood. But he didn't decide to take up music until nearly twenty years later when he was attending Lewis and Clark College in Oregon, putting most of his energy into intramural basketball. At this point, while resting a sore ankle in his dormitory, Berne encountered a saxophonist who was selling his alto, and bought it on impulse. There was just something about the sound of the saxophone that got to me, he says.
Musically, up to that point, Berne had always been motivated by all types of music, but especially by the great Stax artists like Sam and Dave and Johnnie Taylor, as well as Motown artists like Martha and the Vandellas and Gladys Knight. This passion for the soulful quality in music would follow him for the rest of his career, a career that he could not possibly foreseen at the time. I hadn't listened to much jazz, but then I heard Julius Hemphill's album Dogon A.D., and that completely turned me around. It captured everything I liked in music. It had this Stax/R&B sensibility and it had this other wildness. It was incredible. That's when I started playing.
Berne moved to New York in 1974, sought Hemphill out, and entered into a sort-of apprenticeship with the elder musician. The lessons they had together lasted for hours and covered everything from composition to record promotion to recording to pasting up handbills to aspects of magic and spirituality and, sometimes, even playing the saxophone. From the beginning, Berne says, even while I was still learning to play the saxophone, Julius always encouraged me to write my own music as well. So it never occurred to me that most people don't play their own music or aren't bandleaders. I thought that was just part of it. You learn how to play music, you start a band, and that's it. Julius didn't offer me one system, but a lot of possibilities, with the emphasis always on ideas and sound.