The 17th Annual Jazz on Fourth Street Festival will be a welcoming street fair with food booths, and two music stages

For the impressive cast of young jazz musicians at Berkeley High, the road to Cuba runs right through Fourth Street. On Sunday from noon to 5:00 p.m., the 17th Annual Jazz on Fourth Street Festival transforms the upscale commercial district into a welcoming street fair with food booths, and two music stages. Funds raised at the event through raffle tickets and sale of beer and sake go directly to Berkeley High Jazz Program, funding travel to festivals, scholarships, and this year, the band’s first trip to Cuba.

“The band has toured Europe and Japan many times, but this is especially cool because it’s not something the ensemble has done before,” says drummer Lev Facher, a senior. “There’s also something of a community-service aspect, as we’ve also been raising money to bring various musical, medical and household supplies to families in Havana. It’s a little more fulfilling in that way. The band is definitely buzzing.”

Since the festival’s inception, Jazz On Fourth Street has collected over $140,000 for the music program. This year the featured artists include DJ and pianist Dick Conte’s Quartet with bassist Steve Webber, saxophonist Steve Heckman, and drummer Bill Moody; the powerhouse blues belter and three-time Grammy Award-nominated Lady Bianca; and the hard hitting Cuban dance music by Rumbaché. The Berkeley High School Combo A, which won last year’s Best High School Combo Award from Down Beat Magazine, and the full 22-piece Berkeley High School Ensemble, directed by Sarah Cline, are also on the bill.

“We’ve been playing a lot of Latin music because we’re heading to Cuba,” says Cline, a Berkeley High alumnus who is finishing her first year directing the program. “Since this is an outdoor festival we’re hoping to keep the people moving. We’ll also be playing some Mingus, and we’ve been working on arrangement of ‘Black Orpheus.’ They get really excited about hard music. They’re really driven, and they get bored easily if they sound good.”

For the students, Jazz on Fourth isn’t just a goal to work toward. The annual showcase at Yoshi’s every March marks the beginning of the competition season, leading into the Monterey Jazz Festival’s Next Generation Festival. By the time Jazz on Fourth comes around, summer is in sight and students can embrace the event’s relaxed atmosphere.

Berkeley High musicians at last year's Jazz on Fourth celebration

“It’s late May in Berkeley, and the weather’s going to be nice, with big crowds outside and great food,” Facher says. “It’s the end of the year. The band has mostly finished playing in high-pressure situations like competitions and the vibe is less intense, which in my experience makes for better music. We’ve been playing the whole year together, so we’re in late season form.”

The band’s weeklong trip to Cuba in late June is the fruit of a year of hard work. The students have raised a good deal of money on their own through the gigs they’ve played with the various student run combos. While Jazz on Fourth is the year’s biggest fundraiser, Ashkenaz is also getting in on the act with an alumni concert on May 24 featuring Mingus Amungus, the James Small Funk Experience, and several Berkeley High combos.

For Cline, an excellent trombonist who graduated in 1981 as part of a talent-laden crew that included pianist Benny Green and drummer David Tull, diving back into life at Berkeley High has given her a whole new appreciation for what it takes to keep a program running.

“The parent community is amazing, just how organized they are and how much work they’re willing to do,” she says. “But what’s most surprising for me is that I just didn’t remember how quickly the kids grow musically. As a professional you play with people for years and years, and sure they grow, but you don’t see it so much. The way we’re playing now as opposed to beginning of the year, it’s a sea change.”

For more information about Sunday’s Jazz on Fourth Street, visit the Festival’s website.

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley. 

Photo essay: Jazz on Fourth, great music, food, no rain [05.16.11]

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....