Berkeley High’s jazz bands return to the stage this week

The bands are playing their first concerts since the start of the pandemic at the Berkeley High School Little Theatre.

Students in Berkeley High’s jazz lab. Courtesy of Berkeley High Jazz

When in-person classes started up again in August, Sarah Cline worried about how Berkeley High’s Jazz Ensemble would bounce back after 16 months away from playing together. While she kept students engaged through Zoom sessions diving deep into jazz history throughout the previous school year, the crucial personal connections that tie one year’s band to the next had almost been severed.

Sarah Cline. Courtesy of Berkeley High Jazz

“My job as the director is mostly to facilitate students learning from each other,” said Cline, who took over as BHS Jazz director in 2011, becoming the first band alum to run the program. “That’s the way you learn jazz, from someone you identify with who plays a little, or a lot, better than you.”

In a major COVID-recovery milestone, the five bands that Cline directs play their first concerts since the pandemic this week at the BHS Little Theatre, starting Wednesday with the new crop of students in the Eleven O’clock Band, the Two O’clock Band and small combos. Thursday’s performance features the intermediate Three O’clock Band and Four O’clock Band and small combos. The comeback culminates Friday with the elite Jazz Ensemble playing a program that includes “Local Weavers,” a piece that Cline commissioned from saxophonist/composer Hitomi Oba, BHS class of 2002, with the support of a city of Berkeley civic arts grant.

Now on faculty at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music where she directs the Contemporary Jazz Ensemble, Oba can’t make it to Friday’s premiere due to the birth of her daughter last week. But her piece “Local Weavers” was conceived as a loving tribute to the multigenerational community that has long nurtured jazz at Berkeley High.

She composed the piece as a personal reflection on the jazz program and the “way in which it encourages diverse, creative passions, directions, and endeavors alongside a strong sense of community and collectiveness,” she wrote to Berkeleyside in an email. “This spirit is created and supported by the educators, parents, and community members intertwined with the broader Bay Area music community.”

Less tangible than community support and parental commitment but perhaps more essential are the generational links through which knowledge, customs and culture are passed down class to class. Visits by illustrious alumni like Joshua Redman, Jessica Jones, Ambrose Akinmusire, and Benny Green and sectional coaching by Josh Jones are golden, but day to day the music takes shape as students work together in their sections.

Since freshmen very rarely make it into the Jazz Ensemble, the band goes through a complete student turnover in three years. “We had all these amazing seniors like Camille Collins and Laurel Fink and no one in the band now got to be in the room with them,” Cline said. “But the two seniors who were in the band as sophomores, drummer Nadav Beery and tenor saxophonist Erik Beahrs, have really stepped up.”

Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble play at the BHS Little Theatre Nov. 3, 4 and 5. See details.

One major loss from the pandemic was the annual trip to Cazadero Music Camp that traditionally kicks off the Jazz Ensemble’s new school year “to jump start the band,” Cline said. “We get five hours of rehearsal, and we do community building games, jam sessions, camp fires.”

With field trips still prohibited by the district, Cazadero was off the table this year, but Beahrs took it upon himself to organize an overnight in Tilden, appropriately enough at the Gillespie campsite. As a sophomore he recalled the 2019 Cazadero trip as “the time when you get to know your section better, and you get to know people in a way you can’t beforehand because you’re super focused on music. I wanted to keep the spirit of that, and we did get to do really focus more on the details and get to know everybody better.”

Cline is all too aware of the way the pandemic has reconfigured the lives of the teenagers, who’ve spent a much larger percentage of their lives circumscribed by COVID “compared to someone like me, who’s 58,” she said. Whatever the emotional aftermath, musical progress is proceeding apace. Playing together in a large, well-ventilated portable building while the A Building is getting rebuilt, “we feel pretty safe,” she said.

“We have instrument masks that have a little hole and you open them and put the mouthpiece in. All year, we haven’t had anyone in Berkeley High Jazz that’s tested positive. It’s so great to play together. The kids are catching back up as we recover.”

Despite the uncertainty about when the district will green light field trips, Cline is planning for the future. She hopes to revisit the Jazz Ensemble’s 2019 collaboration with the Berkeley Symphony, when the students performed Duke Ellington’s “Black, Brown and Beige” and Sofia Gubaidulina’s “Concerto for Two Orchestras” with the symphony and guest conductor Christopher Rountree.

There are plans afoot for Jazz Ensemble concerts around the end of February or early March, ideally at Yoshi’s. The big prize is returning to Cuba in April. The band was still buzzing from the February 2020 trip when the shelter-in-place order ended in-person instruction. “For everyone who was there it was the last big thing we did as a band,” she said.

“The entire pandemic we looked back at us in the club with our Cuban friends dancing, performing and rehearsing together. I thought that going back would be an amazing bookend, but it’s looking less and less like they’ll be any bookend. We have to figure out how to live with this.”

A Berkeley resident since 1996, Los Angeles native Andrew Gilbert is a longtime arts and culture reporter who has contributed to Berkeleyside since 2011.