In a year like no other, Berkeley High Jazz meets together on Zoom to study jazz harmony and history, and plays “together” via BandLab. Image: Courtesy BHS Jazz
In a year like no other, Berkeley High Jazz meets together on Zoom to study jazz harmony and history, and plays “together” via BandLab. Image: Courtesy BHS Jazz

In a semester like no other, Berkeley High’s vaunted jazz program is ending the year transformed. Some of the changes have been painful — nothing can replace sharing the same physical space and making music together — but distance learning has also provided new opportunities that will leave the young musicians more deeply versed in jazz than perhaps any previous class.

The driving force behind the jazz program’s pandemic-induced pirouette is trombonist Sarah Cline, the Berkeley High alum who took over as the school’s jazz director a decade ago. She inherited a band with a far-flung reputation for earning top marks at competitions from Reno to Monterey, and the expectation that she’d maintain the winning tradition. While competitions and concerts provide motivation and focus for honing the band’s sound, Cline found that the preparation soaked up all available time.

“There was so much performance pressure all the time,” she said. “For me, there’ve been so many things that I’ve felt tremendous guilt about not covering well, like jazz harmony. Just when you get started you’d have to prepare for a concert and you never gain a lot of momentum.”

With no events looming in the immediate future Cline figured the time was ripe to rethink the entire curriculum. Working with BUSD, she made sure that students who didn’t have a piano or keyboard at home got access to one, and now every member of the program is studying jazz harmony (information that’s far easier to take in via chords on a keyboard than via, say, a horn). She teaches the beginning students and hired Tammy Hall and Colin Hogan to work with those who already know their way around the piano.

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Over the summer Cline also immersed herself in the quintessentially American saga of jazz, developing a course of study grounded in African-American history. “We started with traditional African music and went through field hollers, spirituals, work songs, country blues, and learned about Ma Raney and Bessie Smith,” she said. “We just finished units on the Harlem Renaissance, the Great American Songbook and Tin Pan Alley.”

Like the harmony sessions on Thursdays, Cline plans to keep teaching the jazz history curriculum when students return to campus. In the meantime, she’s keeping the students focused on their instruments by creative use of several technologies. Playing together via Zoom isn’t possible because the platform’s time lag, or latency, makes swinging and phrasing together worse than awkward. But each week Cline assigns an arrangement of a jazz standard and the players record their parts on BandLab, which allows for the creation of a layered “group” performance and Cline’s perusal of individual tracks for feedback.

“It’s been pretty good, as good as it can be,” said Rabiah Kabir, a senior who plays flute in the jazz band. “We’re trying to do BandLab stuff, recording pieces individually and turning them in. I’ve been having a lot of technical difficulties, which is very frustrating. But learning more about the history of jazz from the very beginning has been great.”

Before the latest stay-at-home order Kabir had been joining a Saturday afternoon jam session at Lake Merritt led by former and current Berkeley High band members, a rare situation that’s allowed young musicians to perform together. One of the jazz program’s biggest attractions, besides its track record for nurturing major talents, is the deep friendships fostered by creating music together. Finding ways to maintain the natural camaraderie of the band room has been another creative endeavor for Cline.

“We do student led games on Fridays,” she said. “My favorite is Name That Tune where you write the name in the chat. Some of the freshmen who I don’t know really well yet will get it 10 seconds into a tune from the 1950s. How the hell did you know that? It’s amazing. We also do breakout groups where we talk, sometimes current events. A lot of kids are in my program for four years, so they really know each other.”

When the March shelter in place order ended in-person instruction the jazz band was still buzzing from its trip to Cuba a few weeks earlier. The JazzGirls Day program on March 7, an all-day series of workshops, performances and masterclasses showcasing the unprecedented profusion of female players in the program, was the last event before the band was suddenly shutdown.

A group of students from Berkeley High and the Escuela Nacional de Los Artes jam at a Havana restaurant last February. Photo: Courtesy BHS Jazz

“It’s been pretty hard not being able to be in person,” said bassist Katharina Leitner, a senior. “Music, and jazz especially, is so much about interacting with each other. I don’t know how Ms. Cline manages it. She makes sure we get to hear each other, interact and talk every week, and keeps that community together. We do big band recording of charts, and we can listen to each other play a little bit. But it isn’t the same as being together.”

Like her students, Cline is itching to get back into the band room, but that doesn’t mean she’s looking to return to the pre-COVID-19 status quo. She sees some serious creative dividends from the pandemic’s silver lining.

“It’s a huge opportunity to make something new, try some things out,” she said. “You get so in a rut. The rhythm of the year is determined by these concerts and you’re led by the nose ring from one to the next. We don’t have a second to waste and my instruction is just about getting them ready for the show. It’s nice to be able to take a breath. There are some things from this year that I will definitely keep in my curriculum.”

“A lot of people have really improved over the quarantine, coming into themselves as players,” said flutist Rabiah Kabir, who also plays piano and saxophone. “Having all this time, what else are you going to do?”

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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....