Berkeley High Jazz in Cuba. Photo by Bill Kinder.
Berkeley High Jazz in Cuba. Photo: Bill Kinder

In jazz, timing is critical, and the Berkeley High jazz program has long demonstrated a gift for landing on just the right beat. When Fourth Street merchants decided to end its annual Jazz on Fourth event, a cornerstone of the jazz program’s annual fundraising efforts, the Berkeley Music Group’s newly opened The UC Theatre stepped into the breach. On Friday, the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble plays an opening set at the UC Theatre for the Pacific Mambo Orchestra, which shocked the Latin music scene in 2014 by winning the Grammy Award for Best Latin Tropical Album.

“The Fourth Street merchants felt like shutting down the street was too disruptive,” said trombonist Sarah Cline, who’s finishing her fifth year as director of Berkeley High’s jazz program. “We so grateful for their support. They did Jazz on Fourth for 20 years, raised more than $200,000 over that time, and they’re still supporting us. Abrams/Millikan is one of the corporate sponsors of the UC Theatre concert, and we’re looking for more.”

In addition to raising crucial funds for the program, Friday’s concert provides an opportunity to bid farewell to a particularly strong iteration of the Jazz Ensemble, which features graduating seniors such as bass trombonist Andrea Levinson, who’s heading off to Loyola University in New Orleans, lead altoist Demani McNeil, who’s attending Oberlin Conservatory in the fall, Manhattan School of Music-bound trombonist Remee Ashley, and pianist Ethan Ostrow, who’ll be pursuing his passion for jazz and musical theater at the University of Minnesota.

The Jazz Ensemble’s set list reflects their engagement with Afro-Caribbean music this year, which centered on an eight-day trip to the Cuba in January. After studying and playing night and day with master Cuban musicians, the band came back buzzing with energy and a far deeper appreciation for the intricacies of Cuban forms. “It was just amazing,” Ostrow said. “The people in Cuba were always very kind to us, and the whole experience lifted us. It inspired every single person in the group.”

Ostrow and his rhythm section mates arrived in Cuba with a good deal of preparation. Each section of the ensemble works weekly with a veteran professional throughout the year. Owen Miyoshi works with the trumpeters, and Sheldon Brown mentors the saxophonists. Berkeley High alum Josh Jones has tutored the rhythm section “really pushing us to learn more about Latin music,” Ostrow said. “He’s always encouraging us to learn percussion, to pick up a guijro or timbales and try to ply along, to get a deeper understanding of the rhythmic fundamentals.”

Jackson Kinder and Ethan Ostrow, Cafe Miramar, Havana. Photo by Bill Kinder.
Jackson Kinder and Ethan Ostrow, Café Miramar, Havana. Photo: Bill Kinder

Regular contact with musicians like Miyoshi, Brown and Jones are one reason that Berkeley High has nurtured more top-shelf jazz musicians than any other high school in the nation that’s not organized around a music and arts curriculum. In many ways, the BUSD program, put in place by Dr. Herb Wong in the 1960s, has become a self-perpetuating feedback loop where “one generation trains the next in emotional expression, artistry, and trueness to the art form,” said Cline.

“That’s true in any high-school program. They start listening to the kids older in junior high, and that’s the expectation set for them. I have to say the Jazzschool deserves a ton of credit, because many of the students take classes there too. The Oaktown Jazz Workshop, and the former Young Musicians Program, which is no longer running and needs to be resurrected, have helped these kids realize their potential.”

When it comes to musicians living up to their promise, Berkeley High musicians have no shortage of examples to follow. They can also look to the group that proceeds them Friday on the UC Theatre stage: the Pacific Mambo Orchestra. In winning the Grammy for Best Latin Tropical Album the 19-piece, the Oakland-based combo triumphed over heavyweights with major label backing like Grammy-winning Colombian salsero Carlos Vives, Nuyorican pianist, arranger and Latin Grammy-winning producer Sergio George, and Marc Anthony, a genuine superstar whose platinum-selling album 3.0 was his first studio salsa session in a decade.

The day after the PMO’s unlikely victory, Billboard, the music business Bible, ran a story with the confounded headline “Little-Known Pacific Mambo Orchestra Takes Tropical Grammy From Marc Anthony.” Founded and directed by San Francisco pianist Christian Tumalan and Oakland trumpeter Steffen Kuehn, the PMO features many of the region’s best players. But they attribute its success to the sense of community they’ve created within the ensemble.

The band recorded the album with the support of a successful $10,000 Kickstarter campaign that depended upon help and hustle from many band-members. And when the PMO earned the unlikely Grammy nomination, rather than feeling content with beating the initial odds the band rallied to give themselves a real shot at winning by making sure that every Grammy voter they could locate received a copy of the album.

The same kind of all-for-one, one-for-all spirit animates the Berkeley High jazz program. Every year, Cline makes sure the incoming class of musicians appreciates what it takes to support a world-class band.  “I tell them every single thing except the wind instruments comes from donated money,” she said. “Every single thing they can see, from risers built by parent volunteers, to the donated piano, new drums, new cymbals, a keyboard with great amplifiers. We provide scholarships for lessons for kids in junior high and high school who can’t afford them. We pay for Jazz Girls Day and for all the trips to festivals and competitions. Fundraising is a huge part of what we do.”

Carrie Rodriguez

Singer, songwriter and violinist Carrie Rodriguez celebrates the release of her entrancing new album Lola featuring guitarist Bill Frisell at Freight & Salvage on Saturday.

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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....