In Agnès Varda’s quietly enthralling documentary The Gleaners and I the groundbreaking French filmmaker investigates various ways in which people sift through and appropriate society’s leftovers. Berkeley cultural activist Bonnie Hughes would have made a fine Varda subject, as she’s spent the past two decades gleaning shuttered and neglected downtown storefronts and transforming them into vibrant and invaluable venues for musical expression.

Her latest recovery project at 2133 University Avenue opened last July as the headquarters of the confusingly titled Berkeley Arts Festival (also not to be confused with the Berkeley Festival & Exhibition).

Rather than a festival, BAF is a neatly kept but barebones storefront that presents a regular series of concerts by some of the world’s finest improvising musicians. The new season, booked mostly by Oakland saxophone master Phillip Greenlief, kicks off on Sunday with a double bill of two expansive trios. Featuring trombonist/vocalist Ron Heglin, cellist Doug Carroll, and Tom Nunn on electro-acoustic percussion implements of his own invention, the playful and texturally inventive R2D3 opens the concert, followed by trumpeter Tom Djil, electronics explorer Tim Perkis and Heglin on trombone.

The long-running collective Lost Trio, featuring Greenlief, bassist Dan Seamans and drummer Tom Hassett, performs Wednesday focusing on the music of Thelonious Monk. While the band’s far-flung book includes material by Joni Mitchell, Beck and Bjork, Hank Williams, Herbie Nichols, and Billy Strayhorn, Monk is the Lost Trio’s abiding passion, and the subject of an album slated for release this winter.

A musician with a vast international network of friends and associates, Greenlief has booked Sundays and Wednesday at BAF through the end of June and is working on July. The quality of the programming rivals anything available at far more visible concert series. The challenge is getting the word out.

“People don’t seem to really know that something’s going on there,” Greenlief says. “Calling it a festival doesn’t help, because that gives the impression that the dates are fixed, that it’s going to be over soon.”

Over the years BAF has led a peripatetic existence, forced to find new digs when a landlord decides to move forward with building plans. At this point, the current location next to Ace Hardware looks good for a while. Hughes finds new spaces by working the city’s Office of Economic Development.

“I usually call them to ask if they can think of any empty buildings,” says Hughes, a California native who settled in Berkeley in the early 1970s. “They like what we do, that empty spaces can be filled up, though not all landlords feel that way.”

Hughes, who was recognized in a proclamation by the City of Berkeley last March for her contributions as a shoestring impresario, started presenting music back in the mid-1990s. Working in a gutted bank on the corner of Bancroft and Shattuck, she created the Berkeley Store Gallery. El Cerrito saxophonist/composer Dan Plonsey, who taught math at Berkeley High for many years, saw the space’s potential, and before long it was rechristened Beanbender’s (after a character in a Daniel Pinkwater story).

During the venue’s brief but glorious run it became an internationally recognized outpost of edgy jazz and creative music, including many European improvisers rarely heard on the West Coast. Hughes, a jazz fan who had little previous exposure to the left-of-mainstream scene, found her element, and ever since she’s been an intrepid champion for musicians in dire need of a friend with a handy bandstand.

“Some people feel more comfortable with things that are familiar, and I’m fine with that, but I’m more excited by things that aren’t familiar,” Hughes says. “I like to be surprised. I like new things. Maybe I get bored easily.”

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. 

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....