Berkeley High School Combo A

Photo ©Cole Thompson

Top High School Combo from the 2013 Next Generation Jazz Festival Presented by Monterey Jazz Festival

Jazz first came into Berkeley's schools in 1966 when Herb Wong, principal of Washington Elementary, started a small jazz class at his school. He gained support from three gifted musicians with an interest in education: Phil Hardymon, a renowned jazz musician, composer, and educator; pianist, Dick Whittington, and fellow musician and BUSD music teacher, Bob Chacona. Because no one had tried to teach jazz to such young students, Hardymon and Whittington had to develop their own materials for students to play. The inspired collaboration worked, and by the early 70s, all schools in Berkeley had jazz bands.

When Hardymon became the band director at Berkeley High School in 1975, he established the jazz band as the culmination for students who had gained the basics in their elementary and middle schools. Under Hardymon's leadership, the band began winning state-wide jazz competitions and often earned a spot at the Monterey Jazz Festival. The Berkeley Jazz Program thus developed into a national model of instrumental education.

Charles Hamilton took over leadership of the Jazz Ensemble in 1981. The band continued to thrive and develop some of the best musicians in the jazz world, including Peter Apfelbaum, Ben Ball, Will Bernard, Dave Ellis, Rodney Franklin, Kito Gamble, Benny Green, Craig Handy, Jessica Jones, Josh Jones, David Murray, Miles Perkins, Lenny Pickett, Josh Redman and Michael Wolff. When Dave Ellis graduated and went to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, he was asked by several people who had heard all the great players coming from here,"What is it out there, you got something in the water?" (S.F. Bay Guardian)

The band, described by S.F. Bay Guardian as the "indisputable jewel in Berkeley's musical crown" was jeopardized in 1994 when the BUSD, faced with an overwhelming deficit, voted to eliminate the elementary instrumental program. It was clear that the blossoming music bands at Berkeley High could not survive without its roots in the elementary school program. In six months time, support from community and parents raised over $300,000! Soon thereafter, Berkeley voters added music education to the programs funded by the supplemental property parcel tax measure known as BSEP--the Berkeley Schools Excellence Project.

Since that time, the Ensemble has performed in venues large and small. In 1997, they performed by invitation at the Montreux and North Sea Jazz Festivals. In the summer of 1999, the Ensemble toured Japan. and began the 1999-2000 school year with an appearance at the Monterey Jazz Festival. "Members of the Jazz Ensemble stood out wherever they went," wrote the Oakland Tribune: "A multicultural rainbow...What dazzles is their talent."

In 2011, Sarah Cline became the new Director of the Berkeley High Jazz Program, beginning a new era in the history of jazz at Berkeley High School.

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