Not Too Cool for Jazzschool

One woman's musical vision has quickly blossomed into a vaunted Berkeley institution.

It’s a Friday afternoon at Center and Shattuck in downtown Berkeley. Down-and-out mendicants and socialist pamphleteers vie for the attention of bustling student bodies, latte-clutching office workers, and the occasional gaggle of Australian tourists outside the Berkeley BART station. One block over, on Addison Street, there’s not as much pedestrian traffic, but just as much activity. Aerobics and weight training at the 24-hour Nautilus gym. Capoeira classes and piping-hot espressos at the Capoeira Arts Cafe. Rehearsals and stagecraft in progress at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the Aurora Theatre. And an early dinner crowd perusing their menus over chardonnay at Downtown restaurant. It’s an almost-bohemian urban scene, one that gives credence to Berkeley’s much-ballyhooed notion of a Downtown Arts District. But what is an aspiring arts district without jazz?

But wait, there it is, wafting out of a converted basement about halfway down the block — America’s classical music, as it’s been called. Upon further inspection, it’s evident that this is not your grandpappy’s jazz, nor your father’s. You walk through the open door, descend down the steps past the large oil painting of Miles Davis, and enter a hall, painted in vibrant hues, with lacquered hardwood floors. The music, just barely discernible from sidewalk level, is much louder here at its source. But dig this, daddy-o: The musicians generating all this noise are primarily teenagers. They look like they should be out stealing hubcaps or something instead of learning the basics of bebop. Although a few twenty- and thirtysomethings hold down the upper end of the range, the average age is far younger than the well-heeled crowd at Yoshi’s.

If you’ve ever wondered where tomorrow’s young lions of jazz come from, look no further than Berkeley’s Jazzschool, sponsor of the regular jam sessions called “Friday Afternoon Hangs.” On this one particular afternoon, a five-piece combo plays for a crowd of about fifteen or twenty onlookers, some of whom will soon become participants themselves. While there’s no cover charge to hear these still-developing musicians play, that’s not to say they’re not already skilled at what they do.

A dreadlocked African-American kid wearing a hoodie blows sweet epiphanies out of a saxophone. He is followed by a bald, bespectacled vocalese artist, who takes the microphone and scats in a vaguely Latin dialect. The pianist, who looks as if he has yet to see sixteen and closely resembles Harry Potter sans spectacles, plays a few tentative melodies, warming up his nimble digits before exploding into a spiraling flurry of notes.

When the song ends, the pianist exits and a trumpeter and a new guitarist are recruited from the crowd, joining a drummer and upright bassist, who appear courtesy of the prestigious Brubeck Institute. The trumpet player, whose Kangol cap and Timberland boots identify him as a member of the hip-hop generation, takes center stage, launching into a torrent of eighth-and-sixteenth notes, à la Miles’ Sketches of Spain. As his crescendo reaches a furious climax, the drummer ups the intensity, pounding his toms in a relentless Billy Cobham-esque attack. A brief pause, and then it’s the guitarist’s turn to get all John McLaughlin with it. The vocalese guy makes another appearance, to the delight of the crowd, before the trumpeter finishes with a flourish. There is a round of applause, and then another set of musicians clamber up on stage for the next number. Such is how dues are paid and chops acquired in the world of jazz education.

These improvisational jams have been going on for about a year, according to assistant director Jason Arnold, who hosts the weekly gigs. Arnold says the constant influx of musical styles and players keeps things fresh. “I never know what to expect from week to week,” he says with a sheepish grin. “It’s been really amazing for me to see classical violinists and cellists, spoken-word poets, instrumentalists, professional musicians, complete beginners, people of all sorts, of all ages, come by and play.”

The jam sessions serve a few practical functions. First, they provide much-needed stage experience for the young musicians. Second, they offer a chance to unwind after a long, stressful week of studying the complexities of Monk’s “Ornithology” or Parker’s “Yardbird Suite.” Third, they provide a social environment where students and faculty can interact in a casual nonclassroom setting. And fourth, they generate business for the Jazzschool’s in-house bookstore and cafe, which adjoin the performance room. Fifth, and perhaps most important, the Friday Afternoon Hangs keep the spirit of improvisation — which some say is the essence of jazz — alive and breathing.

The idea, Arnold says, is that anyone can come by and play with other musicians. “It’s rare for artists these days to get a place to play,” he says. “So this is a great way for people from throughout the Bay Area to come together, and meet fellow musicians.” Most of the musicians involved in the Hangs are Jazzschool students, Arnold notes, although the sessions do attract a number of people from far outside the school.

Trumpet instructor Dan Beugelisen says the Jazzschool offers a comfortable yet serious vibe for faculty members such as himself to get their groove on as instructors, players, and even students. “A lot of teachers take classes here too, learning other things,” he says. “It’s just a lot of people with a lot of experience. Almost all of the teachers here are out there playing and writing. They’re part of the scene, as opposed to an academic attraction to music. The people who teach here are actually doing it.”

This user-friendly approach is part of what endears the school to the region. “The Bay Area has really embraced the Jazzschool,” Arnold adds. “I don’t know if Jazzschool could exist anywhere else.”

One hundred and fifty classes are taught each quarter at the Jazzschool. “It’s a very broad selection, everything from theory to composition and arranging to incorporating Indian music into the language of jazz,” Arnold says. “It really runs the gamut.”

According to the school’s glossy full-color program, the 2003 Fall Quarter, which begins September 22, includes courses in both jazz and funk bass; workshops in Brazilian music and salsa; specialized instruction in blues and swing guitar from 1930 to 1950; several for-credit UC Extension classes in African music, jazz theory, and computers and music; and an overview of the music and style of Wes Montgomery. There are also, as one might expect, the jazz ensemble and combo classes typically identified with academic music programs. Classes range in skill level from beginner to advanced, and while the majority of the students are well under thirty, instruction is open to people of all ages. Community members can sign up for a workshop or class without having to shoulder a full courseload.

Arnold lavishes praise on the Jazzschool’s founder and director Susan Muscarella who, he says, saw the potential to create a unique musical education program. “Susan Muscarella’s vision is really quite grand,” he says. “That vision is: Jazz can stand alone as a musical subject of study. Conservatories do a great job of offering jazz as a part of their department. But most of the time, that just involves having one instructor that teaches a big band class or one ensemble. What Susan’s done is create a whole universe that explores all the different aspects of jazz and jazz-related styles.”

Classes and workshops, however, are far from all the Jazzschool does. Each quarter brings about another series of weekend concerts, many of which feature members of the school’s extended- family-like faculty. The Fall Concert Series begins with the Steve Smith-Mike Zilber Quartet on September 20, and concludes with the Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Allstars on December 14. Highlights include a free lecture and demonstration of Latin jazz with John Santos and Orestes Vilató; vocal jazz concerts with Stephanie Bruce, Kellye Gray, and Mark Murphy; big-band stylings from Mingus Amungus and the Montclair Women’s Big Band; and world music-jazz fusion programs with Hafez Modirzadeh and Query. The school also hosts a week of free student performances in December and takes over the nearby Jupiter beer garden on Tuesday evenings.

It’s taken seven years of effort for the Jazzschool to get to this point, and much of that effort has been on the part of Muscarella. A former child prodigy pianist-turned-UC Berkeley Music Dept. professor, she had grown bored with the minutiae of academia and longed to sink her teeth into a long-term project that was both challenging and artistically fulfilling. The Jazzschool was born because, she recalls, “I felt we needed a school” that could offer “a comprehensive program for instrumentalists and vocalists that combined opportunities for both study and performance.”

Muscarella scoured locations in Oakland and Emeryville, finally settling in a building in downtown Berkeley which now houses La Note restaurant. It was fortuitous, she says, that the place already had a cafe built in. “That was really important for me, to have a place where the students could perform,” she says. “The cafe ambience really helped.” Muscarella instituted regular Sunday faculty concerts, something she’s quite proud of. “I thought it would be great for students to hear the teachers they were studying with.”

For a while, the Jazzschool shared space with La Note, holding classes upstairs during the day and downstairs after 4 p.m., when the restaurant closed. But it soon became apparent that the space was too small for the growing school’s needs. “I started to look for a larger space,” Muscarella says.

Eventually, the location on Addison became available, and the Jazzschool relocated in January 2002 to its new spot, which boasted a whopping 7,500 cubic feet of space. Muscarella took her synergistic vision one step further than in the school’s previous home, however. “I just figured, as long as we were combining the performance space with the cafe, I wanted to have a bookstore, and a photography gallery.” She calls it one-stop shopping for jazz. “The idea is that you can get everything you need in the same place,” she says. “And it provides ambience for the performances.”

There are a number of reasons, she believes, why the Jazzschool is unlike any other music program in the country. “It’s a community school. Students can take any class they like.”

The Jazzschool’s level of respect among the musical community also is high. For proof, look no further than the school’s recent fund-raiser at a private home in Kensington. Berkeley High alum Benny Green, a former student of Muscarella’s, took a day off from his world tour to headline the gig, adding considerable star power to the event. Further evidence of the school’s esteem is provided by the school’s list of faculty and occasional faculty, which includes many familiar names: Dave Ellis, Eddie Marshall, John Santos, Brenda Boykin, Bill Douglass, Dmitri Matheny, Wil Blades, Mimi Fox, Dave Creamer, Geoffrey Keezer, Molly Holm, and Steve Erquiaga, to name but a few. The faculty name recognition factor could rise even further later this month with the debut of the much-anticipated Jazzschool Records label, which will spotlight new recordings by school teachers.

Muscarella hopes that one day, the Jazzschool will be looked at as a model for similar schools throughout the country, and even the world. She likes telling how master bassist Christian McBride, a visiting faculty member last quarter, wondered aloud during his visit why there was no comparable school in his hometown of Philadelphia.

In the meantime, she is working on generating more synergy within the neighborhood. She speaks glowingly of “cross-pollinating” with the other members of the Downtown Arts District, remarking that she’s looking forward to Freight & Salvage’s planned move to the same Berkeley block. The school is already working with Jupiter and Downtown, not to mention SFJAZZ and Yoshi’s. And, while very few arts-based organizations can breathe a sigh of relief in the current political climate, she happily reports that Jazzschool is no longer teetering on the brink of extinction now that it has nonprofit status.

The next vision Muscarella hopes to pull off is a Berkeley version of San Francisco’s annual North Beach Jazz Festival. She sees this as a “venue-hopping” event, with loads of different groups, representing every conceivable stylistic variation of jazz, playing at every restaurant, cafe, bar, and club throughout the Arts District. Sounds like a jazzy idea. n

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