Phillip Greenlief premieres his conducted improvisation “Index” featuring OrcheSperry Monday for the Berkeley Arts Festival space’s closing concert. He’s pictured rehearsing Western Oregon University’s Large Jazz Ensemble at Berkeley Arts Festival. Photo by Keller Coker.
Phillip Greenlief premieres his conducted improvisation “Index” featuring OrcheSperry Monday for the Berkeley Arts Festival space’s closing concert. He’s pictured rehearsing Western Oregon University’s Large Jazz Ensemble at Berkeley Arts Festival. Photo by Keller Coker.

No one expected the Berkeley Arts Festival space to last as long as it did. The storefront venue, at 2133 University Ave., opened in the summer of 2011, the latest in a string of found spaces procured by Bonnie Hughes that have enlivened Berkeley’s arts scene with a steady flow of musical performances, classes, theater and dance.

Several weeks ago, word came down that construction of the 205-unit Acheson Commons apartment complex is ready to proceed, and the venue’s final performance takes place 8:30 p.m. Monday with the premiere of Oakland saxophonist/composer Phillip Greenlief’s “Index,” a conducted improvisation featuring the sprawling OrcheSperry.

Over the past five years Greenlief has performed in the rough-hewn room in a wide array of settings, while also coordinating shows by an improbably impressive array of touring artists. “I feel so lucky I’ve been able to book things there,” Greenlief says. “A lot of people are still on the road trying to promote the music. You can’t always get a gig at SFJAZZ, Yoshi’s or Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a space. It’s been golden. In the best sense of the word it’s a great community space, so low key and informal.”

The room has provided a home for butoh classes and tango workshops, monthly Afro-centric free improv sessions, weekly lunch-time recitals by pianist Jerry Kuderna, concerts by singer/songwriters, Brazilian choro stars, and a menagerie of left field improvisers from points near and far. As one of the Berkeley Arts Festival’s presiding spirits, Greenlief is a fitting artist to bid the space adieu.

Inspired by Anthony Braxton’s use of terms to trigger improvisation, Greenlief developed a set of words that serve as “cues to inspire musicians to play a certain way,” he says. “I’m interested in how we respond to language. In my journal I made lists of words that could lead musicians to play a certain way. Like the little fridge magnets, clusters of words wanted to go together. Each word has a little oval, and many little clusters are connected. In the ‘Index’ score there’s a sense that you go from this word to that word.”

Named in honor of the late, beloved bassist Matthew Sperry, who was killed by a truck while riding his bicycle in West Oakland in 2003, OrcheSperry features at least 21 musicians in four sections, with percussion, strings, electronics, and winds featuring Kyle Bruckmann on oboe and English horn, Cory Wright on clarinet and bass clarinet, Theo Padouvas on trumpet, Biggi Vinkeloe on alto saxophone, Jon Raskin on baritone saxophone, and Aurora Josephson on voice. Greenlief might cue one section, which might interact within its ranks, or several sections may play together in an extended exploration of “how language can inspire musical behavior,” Greenlief says.

No matter what language you use to describe it, the end of performances at 2133 University Ave. will have a depressive affect on the East Bay scene. For the first time in a quarter century Berkeley faces the dispiriting loss of a Berkeley Arts Festival outpost. “There are no prospects for a new space,” Hughes says. “This is the first time there hasn’t been something readily available for us to move into since 1991. I hope something will come up, but we don’t have anything. We still have people trying to help. Maybe we’ll haul the pianos out into the park.”

The roots of the Berkeley Arts Festival date back to 1991, when Hughes organized a series of anti-war concerts in a wing of the defunct Hink’s Department Store. When it was time to relocate, Hughes found the gutted Crocker Bank at Bancroft Way and Shattuck and turned it into the Berkeley Store Gallery, which became home to the legendary Beanbender’s series (Sun Ra’s Arkestra! Pauline Oliveros! Nels Cline! Glenn Spearman!).

Berkeley Arts Festival founder Bonnie Hughes. Photo: Joel Deuter

Working with the City of Berkeley, she was able to take over dormant buildings and storefronts and convert them into working venues until a deal was struck for the space’s next incarnation. With no rent and only utilities and other small expenses, the volunteer-run Berkeley Arts Festival has provided an open door for a vast array of creative endeavors.

“People own some property and they don’t have anything to do with it,” Hughes says. “I call the city and ask. There never is any understanding about how long it’ll last. It’s all very casual. The only thing property owners ask is that we prove we have insurance. Some places lasted only for a couple of months. After the Berkeley Store Gallery closed we went up and down Shattuck. It’s been a joy-ride. We’ve been on University for five and a half years, and no one had any idea it would last that long.”

Priced out of Oakland, Jake Shandling returns to Jupiter on Saturday. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Berkeley raised drummer Jake Shandling moved to Brooklyn in April, and his relocation feels intimately connected to lack of spaces available for the Berkeley Arts Festival. Back in town for Thanksgiving, he plays Jupiter Saturday with trumpeter Darren Johnston, guitarist Kelyn Crapp, and bassist Zach Ostroff.

A graduate of Berkeley High (class of 2007), Shandling has thrived on the New York scene, performing regularly with Slavic Soul Party and making a host of new musical connections. As an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz he studied with drum master George Marsh and percussion maestro William Winant. When he moved back to the East Bay and started performing full time he gained invaluable experience playing with reed expert Noel Jewkes and bassist Dean Riley, two of the Bay Area’s most distinguished jazz veterans.

Among his peers, he was working regularly with pianist Joe Warner and “making a solid living,” he says. “But in April I got priced out of my place in Oakland. If I’m going to be paying the new standard rate, I figured I might as well give it a shot in New York.”

Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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Andrew Gilbert

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....