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."

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