Jazz on 4th-3
The 19th Jazz on Fourth event takes place on Sunday May 18 on Fourth Street in Berkeley. Photo: Tracey Taylor

There’s nothing like free music in a public space to bring people together, and there’s no better line up on tap in town this season than the 19th Annual Jazz on Fourth, which runs this Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.

A festival supporting the Berkeley High School Jazz Program, the event features powerhouse blues belter Sista Monica Parker, the dance-inducing Afro-Cuban grooves of Tito Y Su Son De Cuba, and the stylish jazz balladeer Ed Reed, whose remarkable late-blooming career has brought him international renown in his 80s. Of course, the festival is also a student showcase with performances by the award-winning Berkeley High School Combo A and the full 22-piece Berkeley High School Ensemble, directed by Sarah Cline. 

Photo: Kai Shuman
Tito Y Su Son De Cuba: playing Jazz on Fourth on Sunday May 18. Photo: Kai Shuman

Presented by Fourth Street Shops, Drew Properties, KCSM 91, Berkeleyside, and Avalon Berkeley, the festival has raised more than $165,000 over the years via raffles and contributions from Fourth Street stores.

“It’s our second biggest fundraiser of the year, and it feels great to be supported by the Berkeley business community,” Cline says. Another major jazz program fundraiser takes place on June 1 at Coventry Grove in Kensington featuring an all-star BHS alumni band including Cline on trombone, multi-instrumentalist Peter Apfelbaum, saxophonists Bennett Friedman and Hitomi Oba, bassoonist Paul Hanson, and percussionist Josh Jones.

“The money that we raise pays for things like scholarships for lessons,” Cline says. “We bring in top players like Josh Jones, Sheldon Brown and Owen Miyoshi as section leaders. It also helps pay for travel to jazz festivals and our recent trip to Cuba. Beyond that, Jazz on Fourth is just a really fun musical day.”

February’s nine-day trip was the second one that Cline has led to Cuba, and by all accounts it was a resounding success. Arriving on Valentine’s Day, Cline and 22 Berkeley High students started in the culturally rich provincial capital Matanzas, where they performed along side the great Afro-Cuban folkloric ensemble Los Muñequitos de Matanzas. Back in Havana, they spent the week studying g at La Escuela Nacional de Artes, the elite high school that has trained many of the master Cuban musicians who have gone on to perform internationally.

“We were trying to learn about Afro-Cuban rhythms and techniques,” Cline says. “Everyone got to do lessons with Cuban master teachers. It was all about feel and clave,” the fundamental rhythmic pulse of much Cuban music.

The trip’s impact on the students was immediate and direct. Alto saxophonist Nora Stanley, a senior who’s going start Oberlin in the fall, decided to major in Latin American studies and music after returning from Cuba. She is one of the few students who also went on the 2012 trip, and she noticed changes in Cuban society in just those two years.

While the economy has opened up in small ways, Cubans are still largely cut off from much of the world, with minimal access to the Internet and other electronic communications that have proliferated around the globe.

“The first time I was there the students had no iPods and no phones,” Stanley says. “This time more people had devices, but most don’t have computers. They showed such an interest in this music, but don’t have access so I made CDs for people since it’s one of the only ways for them to listen. They knew a lot about American jazz. They wanted to learn about bop. That’s what they wanted to play, Charlie Parker.”

Pianist Benny Bock, a junior, says that Cuba experience continues to resound in the ensemble. “A lot of us have really taken up a great love of Cuban music,” he says. We made a lot of friends with the Cuban musicians, and for those few people who do have access to Internet we’ve been in touch through Facebook. Personally, I’ve been playing a lot of montunos,” syncopated piano vamps, “and it’s had a big impact on our music.”

Cline is also hoping to help break through Cuba’s self-imposed isolation by bringing students from La Escuela Nacional de Artes to California. She’s already got commitments from major presenters like SFJAZZ and the Monterey Jazz Festival’s Next Generation Festival, but actually getting the kids here is another major fundraising challenge.

“If folks want to help out they can visit our new website,” Cline says. “We’re looking for large donations. We can put the kids up with families when they get here. The plane tickets are the big expense.”

Andrew Gilbert covers music and dance for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. He lives in West Berkeley.

To find out what is going on in Berkeley and nearby, be sure to check out Berkeleyside’s recently launched Events Calendar. We encourage you also 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....