Kind of Blue 

Will the Bay Area's jazz scene ever live up to its ambitions?

Page 5 of 6

Some musicians who make that pilgrimage ultimately return, since New York is a difficult place to raise families; as Lamm pointed out, it's a fabulous home when you're 18 or 22, and less great when you're 35. Joshua Redman eventually came back, and currently resides in the Bay Area. Dave Ellis also returned home. Drummer Jaz Sawyer, a San Francisco native who spent many years gigging in New York, came back to run a small record label and teach at Oakland School for the Arts. "I knew moving back that the pace of the Bay Area could not compare to New York," he wrote, "but it was important for to reconnect with family and fellow musicians again."

And even then, we keep hemorrhaging talent. Among the latest to go are saxophonist Dayna Stephens, guitarist Will Bernard, singer Sasha Dobson, members of the band Sex Mob, drummers Justin Brown and Sameer Gupta. Well-known keyboardist and Berkeley High alum Michael Aaberg was contemplating the move a few months ago. "I still think about it a lot," he said. "But I think the quality of life and the standard of living is better in the Bay Area." He pointed out that rent is a lot higher in the metropolitan parts of Manhattan than in Oakland. That's a big price to pay, even for the benefit of playing at a higher level. "My plan is just to go to New York often, and get my butt kicked," Aaberg said. "Maybe get a New York phone number and pretend I live out there."

Amendola said he loves living in the Bay Area and has found a way to make it work, put he still pays a price for it. "One of the things I'm having a hard time doing is getting work for my own band, and part of it is I don't have that New York tagline at the end of my spiel. You open all the mainstream magazines, you read about people in New York. [It's] this thing that the world looks at."

Granted, musicians in New York don't always recognize their own sex appeal, Amendola said, laughing. "You go to New York and everybody in New York complains, too."

The last time Ambrose Akinmusire performed at Oakland Yoshi's in September, he devoted several minutes of stage time to a plea for more performing arts programs and more funding for arts and music programs in the schools. Akinmusire considers himself a completely homegrown product. He learned to play trumpet at Claremont Middle School, played his first gigs at the neighborhood Baskin Robbins, and ultimately became a lead soloist at Berkeley High. He saw his first-ever jazz concert at the old Yoshi's on Claremont Avenue. He bemoans the fact that journalists from other parts of the country are surprised when they hear he's from Oakland.

And he's right. In pop culture, Oakland might be known for hip-hop, but it's not considered a jazz mecca. Akinmusire has the awkward role of championing a scene that's now imperiled by budget cuts, decreased grant money, and a perennial dearth of venues.

There's still hope, says Berkeley High's current band director Scott Dailey. He says that, if anything, the Berkeley High music program has expanded in recent years. Parent largesse fills in where tax dollars can't, and, as a result, Berkeley High can still afford to hire professional musicians like Ellis to drop in and work with the students on a regular basis.

Few people have a long enough institutional memory to compare this year's jazz ensemble to its antecedents. But every iteration has its stars. The last of the Hamilton-era superstars was pianist Samora Pinderhughes, who played at Carnegie Hall as a high school student and used to gig at Club Deluxe in the Haight district — he took flak from the older band members because his dad drove him home at 11 p.m.

Pinderhughes currently studies at Juilliard, and his sister Elena Pinderhughes plays flute in the Berkeley High jazz ensemble. She's considered another musician to look out for. So are bassist Erik Shiboski, vibraphonist Grant Milliken, drummer Lev Facher, and pianist Nick Lamb. The teenage group PopLyfe — whose members include both sons of Tony! Toni! Toné! singer D'Wayne Wiggins — are getting work around the Bay Area. High-ranking players at Oakland School for the Arts include trumpeter Tracy Fitzsimmons, drummer Ayinde Webb and alto player Ranzel Merritt (who also plays in PopLyfe alongside his brother, Denzel). Drummer Malachi Whitson is the hot young star at Middle College High School in Richmond. That's only a partial list.

Sawyer says the new high school crop is actually a lot bigger than it was a decade ago, which makes him relentlessly optimistic. Moreover, since scholarships at fancy East Coast schools are limited, many of these kids might stick around to study at the Jazzschool or Mills College. That might be just enough to regenerate the scene.

Or it could mean a glut of talented musicians with nowhere to work. If the venues keep shuttering and jazz is forced underground, more will likely move away. Or change professions. Ewell stuck around, but decided to go to business school after years of working as a full-time musician. It was the only way to raise a family. "Even though I was playing seven nights a week, looking ahead twenty years it was, like, 'Man, I'm gonna get tired,'" he said. "Making a living playing music is for the most part like squeezing blood from a stone."

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