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Through booms and busts and plagues and floods, pianist Susan Muscarella has kept her eyes on the prize. The founder of Berkeley’s California Jazz Conservatory is marking the school’s 25th year with a new alliance that has bolstered the faculty with an impressive infusion of talent while underwriting a concert series that brings some of jazz’s biggest names to the intimate 85-seat Rendon Hall, starting this weekend with saxophone great Joe Lovano

Susan Muscarella, founder of Berkeley’s California Jazz Conservatory. Courtesy: CJC

Even before the pandemic shuttered in-person classes in 2020, the CJC’s primary space in the basement of the historic Kress Building was rendered unusable by an October 2019 plumbing breakdown that closed several offices, classrooms and the Jazz Café (which was long a popular spot for a quick bite before Berkeley Rep and Aurora Theater shows). 

“We’ve weathered a lot of storms, with the pandemic and the sewer backup,” Muscarella said. “But I see everything as an opportunity. We’ve learned a lot. We’re still open and we’re running in-person classes again. Our enrollment suffered of course, but it wasn’t to the point where the school had to shut down. I’ve never really wanted a large school. We’re modeled after Juilliard. Our goal is to have 120 students in the degree program.”

Muscarella’s vision of a West Coast jazz Juilliard recently came one big step closer to realization via the support of Jennifer Maxwell, who co-founded PowerBar with her late husband (they stayed involved with the Berkeley-based energy bar company for years after selling it to Nestle in 2000). In December Maxwell leapt back into the sports nutrition game with JAMBAR, a new San Rafael-based company that makes organic, artisan energy bars and donates 50% of after-tax profits to organizations that support music and active living (the bars will soon be available at Berkeley Bowl). 

The JAMBAR Presents partnership with the CJC has allowed the school to expand an already talent-packed performance calendar, kicking off on March 4-5 with burley-toned tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, who has been one of jazz’s most heralded improvisers since the mid-1980s. He’s joined at both concerts by CJC Drum Department Chair Gerald Cleaver and CJC Dean of Instruction Jeff Denson on bass (Lovano also gives a workshop Saturday afternoon). 

JAMBAR Presents continues on April 10 with saxophonist/flutist and CJC professor Dann Zinn leading an all-star group also anchored by Denson. They’re joined by New York pianist Rachel Z, a player who helped define 1990s jazz fusion with the band Steps Ahead and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and drum great Omar Hakim, a supremely versatile accompanist and producer who’s toured and recorded with everyone from Weather Report, George Benson and Miles Davis to David Bowie, Dire Straits, and Sting. 

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Maxwell connected with the CJC in the years after the sudden 2004 death of her husband, Cal grad and top-ranked marathoner Brian Maxwell. After the initial shock wore off she turned to music to ease the grief, “going to all these concerts at the Greek Theatre and all these various outdoor places,” she recalled. “The music just started talking to me, the drums in particular. I decided I want to become a musician.” 

She found her way to the CJC around 2009 and enrolled in a series of ensemble classes covering a range of styles, including jazz, blues and groove, “and I never looked back,” she said. “The CJC was just this incredible resource. I wasn’t very good when I started. I’ve gotten fairly competent. I can speak my creativity.”

Maxwell said she recognized Muscarella as a similarly ambitious and successful figure in a field where there are few women in leadership roles. With Muscarella looking to expand and diversify the CJC faculty, the energy bar entrepreneur provided a five-year grant to create the J. A. Maxwell Distinguished Professorship, which is how the CJC was able to coax drummer Gerald Cleaver from Brooklyn to San Francisco. 

Cleaver joined the faculty around the same time as guitarist Liberty Ellman, another distinguished recording artist, bandleader and educator poached from Brooklyn. He hasn’t had many opportunities to present his own music in the Bay Area, but he’s performed around the region over the past decade many times with pianist and longtime Cal music professor Myra Melford’s celebrated quintet Snowy Egret and has also worked widely with Henry Threadgill, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, alto saxophonist and flutist. 

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Cleaver arrived in the Bay Area with some deep ties to Berkeley. He’s performed and recorded extensively with ROVA saxophonist Larry Ochs, both in a duo and a trio with Wilco guitar star Nels Cline. He’s performed a fair amount with Ben Goldberg, including several recent concerts with the Berkeley clarinetist/composer’s Front Porch Material trio, which also features Liberty Ellman. He’s also connected with saxophonist David Boyce and Berkeley High trumpet star Ambrose Akinmusire (who plays a four-night residency at the SFJAZZ Center March 3-6). 

“Larry is a guy I’ve always looked up to with music,” said Cleaver, 58. “He’s my example of the kind of person I can grow with. And Ben is also an old friendly soul. Over the years we’ve played more in New York than here, and I’ve always loved his thing.”

The son of a jazz drummer, Cleaver grew up in Detroit at a time when veteran masters like trumpeter Marcus Belgrave were readily accessible to mentor young musicians. He came of age playing and loving just about everything the Motor City scene offered, but his professional musical identity is strongly tied to the avant-garde styles and idioms that coalesced in the mid-1960s. It’s not wrong, he says, but it is incomplete, if entirely understandable.  

Free-jazz saxophonist Charles Gayle was the first player to introduce him to the New York scene, and Cleaver quickly landed a long-running gig with Art Ensemble of Chicago saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell (who was already widely influential in the Bay Area before his 2007-2019 tenure at Mills College as the Distinguished Darius Milhaud Professor of Composition).

“I’m dyed-in-the-wool with the tradition,” Cleaver said. “It’s interesting how I came to be known as an outside player. Nobody knew I played straight ahead. Over the years I’ve done exactly what I wanted to do, and I have made more adventurous choices.”

After 25 years of working regularly in Europe he was looking for an opportunity to give up the increasingly unpleasant frequent-flyer lifestyle. The CJC came calling at just the right moment, presenting him with a win-win scenario. “He is thriving here and adding so much to our program,” Muscarella said. “It’s absolutely thrilling to us, having a rhythm section like Gerald and Jeff together opens a lot of doors for the school.”

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Cleaver and Denson accompany tenor sax star Mark Turner at CJC’s Rendon Hall on May 27-28, and on June 10-11 the CJC presents the world premiere of Denson’s “World of Possibilities” featuring pipa virtuoso Wu Man and multi-wind legend Paul McCandless (a founding member of the world jazz ensemble Oregon). Cleaver and guitarist Liberty Ellman round this new incarnation of the Jeff Denson Ensemble.

The JamBar Presents series marking the CJC’s 25th anniversary culminates with a weeklong celebration in mid-September that includes concerts by CJC faculty such as Berkeley-reared trumpeter Erik Jekabson’s Electric Squeezebox Orchestra, vocalist Kate McGarry, guitarist Mimi Fox’s organ trio, Brazilian pianist Marcos Silva, drummer Akira Tana, and percussion maestro John Santos. 

Adding to the CJC’s bailiwick, the school is also venturing into publishing, starting with Muscarella’s history of the conservatory and a new book by Berkeley drummer and bandleader Anthony Brown, Give the Drummer Some, about the life of pioneering bebop drummer Kenny Clarke. A new master’s degree program in the fall will focus on composition and performing.

For Muscarella, the support of Maxwell and her new JAMBAR endeavor has provided an opportunity to match bookings with much larger institutions. “We don’t have a 400-seat theater, but we’re able to make something happen,” she said. “I’m really proud to make it work in Berkeley, where there’s a long legacy of supporting jazz. Jennifer’s generosity is real. We got lucky connecting with her.” 

Over a quarter century, Muscarella has been making her own luck. Her dream is to own her own campus, and given her track record, it would be unwise to bet against her.  

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....