Berkeley High jazz bands return to the stage this week

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Students in the Berkeley High Jazz Lab. Courtesy of Berkeley High Jazz

When in-person classes resumed in August, Sarah Cline worried about how the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble would bounce back after 16 months without performing together. While she kept students engaged through Zoom sessions delving deep into jazz history throughout the previous school year, the crucial personal bonds that bind the band from year to year had almost been broken up.

Sarah Cline. Courtesy of Berkeley High Jazz

“My job as a principal is mainly to make it easier for students to learn about each other,” said Cline, who took charge of BHS Jazz in 2011, becoming the first alumnus in the group to lead the program. “That’s how you learn jazz, from someone you identify with and who plays a little or a lot better than you.

In a major milestone in COVID recovery, the five groups led by Cline are playing their first concerts since the pandemic this week at the BHS Little Theater, starting on Wednesday with the new generation of students from the Eleven O’clock Band, the Two O’clock Group and small combos. Thursday’s performance includes the three-hour middle strip and four-hour strip and small combos. The comeback culminates Friday with the elite Jazz Ensemble playing a program that includes “Local Weavers,” a piece Cline commissioned from saxophonist / composer Hitomi Oba, BHS class of 2002, with support from a civic arts grant from the city ​​of Berkeley.

Now a faculty member at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music where she conducts the Contemporary Jazz Ensemble, Oba is unable to attend the Friday premiere due to the birth of her daughter last week. But his piece “Local Weavers” was intended as a loving tribute to the multigenerational community that has long fueled jazz at Berkeley High.

She composed the piece as a personal reflection on the jazz program and “how it fosters diverse and creative passions, directions and endeavors, as well as a strong sense of community and collective,” she said. she writes to Berkeleyside in an email. “This spirit is created and sustained by educators, parents and community members closely linked to the wider Bay Area music community.”

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

Since freshmen are rarely part of the Jazz Ensemble, the group experiences a full turnover of students in three years. “We had all of these amazing seniors like Camille Collins and Laurel Fink and now no one in the group has been able to be in the room with them,” Cline said. “But the two seniors who were in the group in second year, drummer Nadav Beery and tenor saxophonist Erik Beahrs, really stepped up.”

A major loss from the pandemic has been the annual trip to the Cazadero Music Camp which traditionally kicks off the Jazz Ensemble’s new school year “to revive the band,” Cline said. “We have five hours of rehearsal and we organize community building games, jam sessions, campfires. “

With field trips still prohibited by the district, Cazadero was not on the table this year, but Beahrs took it upon himself to organize a night in Tilden, suitably enough at the Gillespie campsite. In sophomore he recalled that the 2019 Cazadero trip was “the time when you get to know your section better and get to know people in a way that you can’t do before because you are so focused on the music. I wanted to keep that in mind and we were able to focus more on the details and get to know everyone better. “

Cline is all too aware of how the pandemic has reconfigured the lives of teens, who have spent a much larger percentage of their lives circumscribed by COVID “compared to someone like me, who is 58,” she declared. Whatever the emotional consequences, musical progress is making great strides. Playing together in a large, well-ventilated portable building during the reconstruction of Building A, “we feel pretty safe,” she said.

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

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

Jazz Ensemble concerts are scheduled for late February or early March, ideally at Yoshi’s. The grand prize returns to Cuba in April. The group was still buzzing from the February 2020 trip when the shelter-in-place command ended in-person training. “For everyone who was there, it was the last big thing we did as a group,” she said.

“The whole pandemic, we watched each other in the club with our Cuban friends dancing, playing and rehearsing together. I thought going back would be an amazing bookend, but it looks less and less like they’ll be any bookends. We have to find a way to live with it. “


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