An Unlikely Jazz Haven 

Contra Costa College has become home to a thriving program.

It's 6:59 on a Monday night in north Richmond. Roger Letson's Vocal Jazz class doesn't officially begin for another ten minutes, but the 66-year-old instructor already has switched off the Billie Holiday record that's been crooning throughout the high-ceilinged room. He rubs his hands together, announcing the evening's agenda. Assignments are surveyed one last time. Sheets of music are pulled from backpacks. It's time for class.

Letson's passion for teaching is matched by his musical skills: He studied trumpet and vocal jazz at the University of Montana, he's gigged with students as far away as France, and now he deftly guides his class of eleven through a round of warm-ups. Each pupil braves their audience of peers while Letson coaches them using his gentle but intense method. He stops and starts the student, rigorously combing through the material, looking for ways to augment the music-making.

"It's amazing to see the many different skills tricks he shows us," says student Sofia Ruiz. "He has a trick for almost any problem we are having with our singing, whether it's a problem with rhythm, pitch, tone, volume, or anything."

Letson's class was just added to the Contra Costa College schedule this year, but already it's garnered attention. An article in the student paper, The Advocate, lauded Letson's "internationally renowned ... magic." His class is just one of many in the Contra Costa College jazz curricula, a program gaining rapid acclaim for the strength of its talented, professional faculty.

Eight years ago, Stephanie Austin joined the music faculty and began to build a program she thought might fit the college's students and resources. "When I got hired, there was not a whole lot as far as performance in our department," said Austin, now the music department's co-chair. "I was looking for a way to involve the students. We are a very small school and so I thought maybe doing a little vocal jazz with them might be a good start."

The music department — which boasts 45 courses and 9 instructors — serves many students with minimal prior formal training, says Wayne Organ, the department's other co-chair. Many have nontraditional backgrounds, such as playing in church or a rock band, or rapping to beats made on a Motif. "This is where they learn to read music for the first time, learn to rehearse and polish a piece for public performance, and find out, perhaps for the first time, that music can be a demanding and exacting endeavor," he says.

It's in this cozy, diverse, but challenging environment that the jazz program thrives. Like with any successful academic operation, it's the faculty who artfully drive forward this machine. Along with Letson and Austin, the ensemble of teachers is filled out by pianist and jazz choir leader Greg Murai, big band conductor Warren Gale, and jazz and pop piano instructor Terence Elliot. Together, they bring decades of real-world experience to the classroom. "We're all working artists," says Austin.

The jazz curriculum focuses specifically on vocal jazz and jazz piano. "Vocal programs can be maintained more easily than instrumental programs when the student population is small and relatively unprepared for college-level musical work," says Organ. "Our jazz program reflects the realities of the type of students that come here: their preparation, their interests, and a fairly sober assessment of what they can reasonably accomplish during their time here."

That said, Organ and Austin have managed to muster up a hefty and success-filled vitae for their efforts. Since 2000, the choirs and bands have performed around the state and country an average of four times a semester, showcasing their talent in churches, elementary and high schools, and multifarious music and jazz festivals like Patnoe or De Anza.

The student musicians also have at their disposal a warren of practice rooms and a bounty of modern recording equipment. "Students can write, record, and produce their own work here on campus," says Austin. After all, the music department's mission statement promises: "[Our students] will look good on MTV."

The department isn't without its challenges, chief among them an ever-present funding crunch. Top-notch equipment, cash to tour — these things cost a pretty penny. "Because of the amount of money ... we must spend on basic skills, ESL, support for under-prepared students and so on, there is little left for programs such as ours," Organ says of the community college's budget constraints.

In fact, this week, Organ said he'd heard rumblings that the program's funding will soon dry up. "This will put the program that you are writing about in jeopardy," he said. Organ is quick to add that the administration backs their efforts; college president McKinley Williams is an accomplished electric guitar player and gospel singer.

But in the long run, the jazz program at Contra Costa College has a cadre of willing promoters — namely, the students themselves. Student Poh Soon Teng was supposed to take over his family's business in Malaysia but instead became the first in his family to attend college. Now a percussionist and a singer in Letson's Monday night class, Teng says he's become inspired to pursue a disciplined, ambitious path to become a working musician.

Teng hopes to ultimately transfer to a four-year college and, after graduation, "to be playing every night." "Jazz and drum stuff on the weeknights, classical music on the weekends, teach during the day," he says. "Surround myself with as much music as I can."

He's found the Contra Costa College jazz program. And that, it seems, offers Teng more than a running start.


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