Upbeat Downtown 

Berkeley's Jazzschool defies the odds, opens impressive new space

At a time when arts organizations across the region are retrenching, scaling back plans, and hunkering down to survive the double whammy of the recession and the high-tech meltdown, the Jazzschool is celebrating the opening of its impressive new space in the basement of the historic Kress Building (2087 Addison St., Berkeley, 510-845-5373). Joining the burgeoning Downtown Berkeley Arts District, the new facility will vastly expand the school's capacity as an educational organization, with a book and music store, cafe, photography gallery featuring the work of Lee Tanner, fourteen custom-designed rooms for classes, practicing, and rehearsal, and a performance space named after the late, revered Berkeley High jazz instructor, Phil Hardymon.

"We're opening four months later than we had planned, but we're getting everything right," says pianist and Jazzschool founder Susan Muscarella during a recent walk-through punctuated by last- minute hammering.

Founded in the summer of 1997, the Jazzschool quickly turned into a major educational presence, with a faculty that includes many of the Bay Area's finest jazz musicians. The school enhanced its position on the cutting edge through a unique arrangement with UC Berkeley Extension, whereby a number of Jazzschool courses also offer credits toward a UC degree. An immediate hit, the school expanded so quickly that it outgrew its original space above La Note Cafe on Shattuck Avenue within the first year. But with the high-tech boom driving up rents and devouring all available space in Berkeley, the search for a new space took on epic proportions. Muscarella came close to signing leases a number of times only to see the deal fall through at the last minute.

In a case study of good things coming to those who wait, the Kress Building has turned into a ideal situation. The new facility has three times more space than the old one and will allow Muscarella to expand her offerings for the school's ever-growing enrollment (now more than 600). Of course the increase in space means a big increase in rent, but Muscarella is confident that the Jazzschool is ready for the move.

"When I first told people I was opening a jazz school, they'd look at me like, 'Yeah, right,'" Muscarella said. "That doesn't happen much anymore."

The old facility didn't have room for concerts, so Muscarella included a provision in the La Note lease to take over the cafe on Sunday afternoons for jazz recitals. With her new performance space, Muscarella plans to expand the Jazzschool's role as a presenter. The winter concert series starts this Sunday at 4:30 p.m. with a perfor-mance by the great Bay Area vocalist (and Jazzschool teacher) Madeline Eastman. Even though the new facility opened for business late last month, the performance is part of the school's official opening celebration. Upcoming concerts include tenor saxophonist Mike Zilber's fusion band Sons of Bitches Brew (Jan. 27), and a superb trio: pianist Art Hirahara, bassist Todd Sickafoose, and drummer Scott Amendola (Feb. 3). Zilber and the CARMA Big Band will be holding open rehearsals on Monday nights, giving Jazzschool students and interested passersby a behind-the-scenes peek at a first-rate ensemble.


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