Bonnie Hughes characterizes herself as a dilettante with very good taste, rather than a bona fide musician. Though she studied violin, cello, and harp, and developed an ear for everything from Coltrane to Fred Frith, Hughes decided it would behoove her to produce concerts rather than perform them. So in 1990, she launched the Berkeley Arts Festival, an ongoing event featuring art exhibitions, marathon improvisation sessions, and the type of left-field performances you'd normally see at Mills College (or 21 Grand, in later years). Good connections — including tech expert Chris Read and pianist Sarah Cahill — and a vision of democratizing the arts kept Hughes going for nearly two decades. Still, her setups remain pretty punk rock.
The Berkeley Art Festival is a nomadic entity, having hopped from storefront to storefront within a four-block radius in downtown Berkeley. It began in a gallery inside the Shattuck Cinemas, then moved to a dingy storefront that's now Kinko's, then relocated to the old Fidelity Savings and Loan building that was a Citibank until a few years ago. This year, Hughes and company set up court in yet another storefront that used to be Gateway Computers (2213 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley), which went out of business shortly after the demise of Eddie Bauer next door.
Despite plumbing failures, boarded-up walls, and rickety walkways, there's a major advantage to setting up your enterprise in an abandoned storefront, said Hughes: The Berkeley Arts Festival has never had to pay rent. Thus, it can afford to charge $10 or less for the type of concert you'd normally pay $50 to see. February's showcase features Luciano Chessa performing Francesco Cangiullo's epic sound poem "Piedigrotta," along with original compositions for piano and electrified Vietnamese dan bau (8 p.m., Feb. 11); John Schott's eight-hour tribute to Thelonious Monk (2 p.m., Feb. 12); free-jazz violinist India Cooke performing with pianist Bill Crossman (8 p.m., Feb. 15); Dan Plonsey's Daniel Popsicle (8 p.m., Feb. 22); and the CD release party for Sarah Cahill's Piano Works of Leo Ornstein. (8 p.m., Feb. 29). If you're a fan of music "that doesn't let you know what's around the corner," in Hughes' words, these are some of the best artists the Bay Area has to offer. Ticket prices vary, though most fall within the $5-$10 range (except Cahill's free performance). BerkeleyArtsFestival.com
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