As Berkeley High jazz instructor Charles Hamilton settles down the band on a recent afternoon, he makes a couple of seemingly casual announcements that point to the extraordinary history of the school's music program. "If you get a chance, try to catch David Murray over at Yoshi's this week," Hamilton says, referring to the prolific, internationally renowned tenor saxophonist appearing as a guest star with powerhouse reed player James Carter. "Murray got his start here at Berkeley High." The students absorb the information with a knowing nod, and launch into a rendition of Don Menza's bright and brassy chart of "Burnin'," which Hamilton waves to a stop after about eight ragged bars. "Watch where you breathe," he says to the trumpet section. "You're breathing all over the place; it sounds choppy." By the end of the period, the trumpets are playing with fine dynamic control, navigating the treacherous arrangement with aplomb.
The Berkeley High School Jazz Ensemble's illustrious past and promising present come together on Sunday at Freight & Salvage (8 p.m., 510-548-1761) with a concert featuring the school's 26-member big band and an Ensemble Alumni Band with graduates spanning a quarter-century, including saxophonist Dave Ellis, Mingus Amungus bassist Miles Perkins, Farallon Brass Ensemble trombonist Sarah Cline, and guitarist Will Bernard. The Berkeley Arts Magnet School Percussion Ensemble, made up of fourth- and fifth-grade students in the Berkeley Schools' music program, opens the evening. The event is a fund-raiser for the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble's scholarship fund and a summer tour of European jazz festivals.
"It showcases the band on the road," says Hamilton, who's directed the band for 21 years. "It generates a lot of excitement with the members of the group. It's good for them and good for the program. They come back, talk to their friends and relatives, and that builds interest in what we're doing here. They're musical ambassadors. They're representing not just the town, but the whole country. It takes everybody up and over politics to what life is really about."
In many ways the band has become a self-sustaining entity, and not just through its reputation for excellence. While numerous alumni have gone on to make their reputations in New York, players who have settled in the Bay Area often maintain ties with the program. Pianist Kito Gamble, for instance, coaches the rhythm section, while Ellis teaches ensemble saxophonist Charlotte Pickett, and Cline, the ensemble's first female lead trombonist back in the early '80s, teaches Emma Kelp-Stebbins, who is now its second female lead trombone. All the preparation pays off, as last year the band took second place at the Monterey Jazz Festival's national high school competition, and three current members are holding down chairs in the SFJazz All-Star High School Ensemble. With a legacy that includes New York City jazz stars like Joshua Redman, Benny Green, Craig Handy, and Peter Apfelbaum, the students have plenty of motivation to get their chops together.
"A lot of great musicians came through here," says Ben Saxe, who seems destined to his spot in the saxophone section. "It makes you want to live up to that reputation, watching them play and seeing where they've gotten, it pushes the program forward."
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