Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble brings Cuba flavor center stage
By Lou Fancher
You can go to Cuba -- or have Cuba come to you.
Choosing the latter is only a matter of snatching a ticket -- or two, because no one wants to salsa alone -- to the Berkeley High School jazz program's "Ensemble/Special Guests Concert & Salsa Dance Party" on June 3 at the newly renovated UC Theatre.
The concert featuring the BHS Jazz Ensemble and the 2014 Grammy-winning Pacific Mambo Orchestra is a Berkeley Music Group Community event, with proceeds benefiting the school's jazz program.
Of course there's benefit for ticket holders too: In addition to the surge of feel-good dopamine that scientific studies have shown the brain releases in response to music, complimentary dance lessons are included. Bay Area salsa instructor Jake Jacobs leads the cha-cha/mambo warm-up at 7 p.m.
"Jake taught us salsa dancing before our Cuba tour and we wanted everyone to get on the same page," says jazz program Director Sarah Cline.
The Jazz Ensemble traveled to Cuba in 2012, 2014, and in January 2016.
"We didn't do as many festivals because of the Cuba trips, but those tours help us to understand jazz music's African roots," says Cline. "Frankly, there're so many white people in jazz music -- some play in ways that honor the African tradition -- but others just don't get it. They don't sound authentic: you can't hear the blues in it. That's a tremendous loss. I don't want that to happen to us. I want us to honor African culture, whether the students are African American or not. That's why we play compositions and arrangements by African American composers. I think it makes us different than other bands."
Cline delivers quite a speech, but it's backed up by the kids, who regularly rake up recognition, including ensemble and solo awards at the Next Generation Jazz Festival in Monterey, New York City's Mingus Jazz Festival and other competitions.
Parents of students in the program are equally inclined to sing the program's praises. Comments about the fundraising concert from the Parent Association oversight committee shared by parent volunteer Jeni Romero are bold: "The music will be superlative," says one; "This is a chance to see the great musicians of the future," another parent pronounces.
"For me, it's about community development," says Romero. "I'm excited about the idea of people from so many different walks of life joining for an evening in celebration of the arts. Keeping the arts in public education is crucial to maintaining a thriving community.
"This demonstrates our commitment."
Cline says the Berkeley Unified School District's dedication to offering music in public schools is noteworthy. "We have universal music in fourth and fifth grade. In middle schools, we have great teachers and they're attracting kids, even though it's a before-school program," she says. "Parents really understand that studying music helps with brain development that's helpful to everything in life, to students' whole selves."
The jazz program has swelled to its largest size ever: over 100 students have resulted in adding a fourth class this year. "
And there are 120 kids auditioning for our top three bands next week," says Cline.
Meanwhile, the 24 students in the Jazz Ensemble are rehearsing the Latin rhythms in composer Bobby Rodriguez's "My Haunting Melody," a bolero, and the cha-cha-cha of "Celebration," among other works they'll perform at the concert.
"Haunting Melody" includes a trumpet solo that features up-and-coming sophomore Isaiah Hammer. "Isaiah plays unexpected things when he's improvising. He goes outside of the chord changes and then returns. It creates tensions. I think he hears things that others of us don't hear," says Cline.
Another tune, "Slidin' Home" by Joe Gallardo, shows off trombone players Remee Ashley and Jasim Perales. Cline says they're "dynamite" and able to play with "blazing speed" and heartfelt virtuosity. It's high praise coming from Cline, whose professional credentials and connections snared the 20-member Pacific Mambo Orchestra that shares the double bill concert.
"I used to gig with the two leaders, Steffen Kuehn and Christian Tumalan," says Cline. "It's a good combination because we can dance, like they can, and we really swing those Latin rhythms."