The Titan at Berkeley High 

How Charles Hamilton helped a public high school jazz program get its arts-school reputation.

Berkeley High is a public school with an arts-school reputation in the jazz world. And it looks the part: Members of BHS jazz ensemble might show up to a gig in torn jeans and Bob Marley T-shirts, but their sound reflects years of rigorous training and a mature sensibility. In fact, the ensemble has always been known for cleaning out at school band competitions, even if everyone else wore tuxedos. Band director Charles Hamilton wasn't concerned about appearances — he just wanted his students to get their musicianship to the highest level. "He let us wear what we wanted," said trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, who graduated from Berkley High in 2000 with a full scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music, and went on to win both the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition and the Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition. "We'd get up there looking extra 'hoodish," Akinmusire said. "It was all about being an individual."

Hamilton once got ticked off by the sense of individuality he'd cultivated in his students. Take the 2005 show at Berkley High's Little Theatre, when trumpeter Billy Buss invited Akinmusire to make a surprise appearance. His combo kicked the night off, and Akinmusire showed up ostensibly just to check the band out — but brought his horn along. "And these guys, without me knowing it, invited Ambrose onstage during their combo performance," Hamilton recalled. "And him and Ambrose, they got in a battle, and they went toe to toe. Just brought the crowd to their feet and they stood there until it was over. The band hadn't even taken the stage yet, and they killed the program." He laughed. "They killed the energy man, we couldn't match it. I was so upset with them."

But after 27 years of working at Berkeley High, Hamilton, who will retire in June, has gotten used to it. Granted, when you have a high school band that tours Europe or Japan every year and churns out stars on a consistent basis, you expect the kids to showboat every once in a while. Hamilton helped hone the skills of pianist Benny Green and saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum while they were in middle school. He taught drummer Josh Jones, who now helps advise the rhythm section in the current BHS jazz ensemble. He taught famed saxophonist Joshua Redman, who started out playing clarinet at Willard Junior High, and didn't join the jazz ensemble until his sophomore year of high school. The current roster includes flautist Elena Pinderhughes, an eighth grade prodigy who co-headlined shows at Yoshi's when she was nine, and her brother Samora, who has played piano at Carnegie Hall.

Hamilton never coddled his students, but he understood their strengths and weaknesses — Buss is a master technician, for example, while Akinmusire is a hard-driving rhythm player. Hamilton takes little credit for their subsequent careers, or for the band's unvarying success. He says most of the top musicians start out with lessons at the Berkeley Jazzschool, or Oaktown Jazz Workshops, or in the Young Musicians Program at UC Berkeley. By the time they get to high school, they already know how to play through changes or improvise — and some are prodigiously talented. Clearly, though, the band's reputation owes mostly to his leadership.

At one point, Hamilton was a titan himself. Literally. Born in San Francisco but raised in Louisiana, he took up trumpet at age twelve and joined a touring R&B group, the Titans, in high school. The band gigged at hops throughout Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and even had a 45 playing on local radio. In 1965 Hamilton switched to trombone and moved back to the Bay Area to study music at San Francisco State. He decided to become a music teacher, got credentialed in 1970, and taught in Berkeley elementary and middle schools throughout the next decade. In 1981, former Berkeley High band director Phil Hardymon took ill, so Hamilton came in to take his place. His assignment included not just jazz band but concert and marching bands, which ended up being five classes a day — not to mention gigging at night. It was, he remembers, "a bit much."

The worst part was auditioning the band, an incredibly stressful task for anyone, let alone a rookie band teacher. Hamilton naively chose to audition the kids himself, not realizing he would have to deal with so many fragile egos and angry, kvetching parents. He was shell-shocked. "That was the biggest mistake I could have made as a new teacher coming in with such a popular group," he said. "After it was over I got all the parents calling me — you know, 'What happened!' Oh my god, it was scary as hell." He called Hardymon for advice, got in touch with Jazzschool founder Susan Muscarella (who at that time was directing the UC Jazz program), and set up a system for the years to follow. Hamilton hired professional musicians to audition all the students by section, so that he wouldn't be the one casting judgment. It was a cutthroat process: This year, for instance, more than sixty kids showed up for the Lab II band (the intermediate band that ranks below the jazz ensemble). About half of them got in. Even with alternate players (which Hamilton added because of the increasing demand), this year's jazz band only had 26 slots.

Despite his initial stumblings, Hamilton developed a very rigorous teaching methodology. He now has each section work with professional musicians every Tuesday and Thursday. He chooses a repertoire that seems more arcane and sophisticated than what you'd normally find at the high school band level: Right now, for instance, BHS Jazz Ensemble is playing two Sonny Rollins pieces, Monk's "Ruby My Dear," and Eddie Harris' "Freedom Jazz Dance." If Hamilton hears something on a CD or on KCSM and can't find it in a catalog, he'll go straight to the source, cold-calling musicians and asking for their unpublished material. At band rehearsals he'll isolate specific sections and work through them until the band gets it exactly right. He'll call people out if they need to go home and practice.

"He has a really good knack for just keeping the class flowing," said student teacher Ari Gorman, who played bass for the ensemble two decades ago, and is currently getting his credential at SF State. "My steepest learning curve in trying to become a teacher is if someone needs help with something, or needs to learn a certain chord, you have to find a way of helping them but also keep the class going. I think that's the secret to what makes the ensemble so good."

But Hamilton also leads by example. "He's a killer trombone player and trumpet player," said Akinmusire. "It was inspiring because you'd hear him in the back of the room on trombone shedding on some real bad shit." In 1997 Akinmusire (then a freshman) and Hamilton both got hired to play a gig in Holland with percussionist Juma Santos. The show featured a sprawling, 22-minute second-line number (now immortalized on YouTube) with West African percussion and horn solos that got all kinds of funky. Akinmusire was in thrall. "I got to see him just really, really kill it."


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