The Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble playing Yoshi’s earlier this year. Photo: BHS Jazz

Living in Berkeley, it’s easy to take the Berkeley High jazz program for granted. Every few years, a new generation of ambitious students emerges from the jazz ensemble and heads off to music programs in New York, Boston and Los Angeles.

Since the mid 1970s, no high school in the United States has produced more world-class jazz talent than Berkeley High.

A short, and by no means complete, list of major artists who describe their BHJB experience as essential to their creative development includes multi-instrumentalist Peter Apfelbaum, trumpeters Steve Bernstein, Ambrose Akinmusire and Jonathan Finlayson, saxophonists Craig Handy, Joshua Redman, Jessica Jones and Dayna Stephens, and pianists Benny Green and Julian Pollack.

This prodigious track record would be remarkable for any institution, but in the case of Berkeley High, it takes place against a backdrop of steadily declining support for the arts in California’s public schools post-Proposition 13.

Even more impressive is the fact that Berkeley High isn’t an arts magnet, unlike other public school programs that have produced an impressive roster of jazz alumni, such as Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts or Los Angeles’ High School for the Arts.

The illustrious past and promising present of Berkeley High jazz come together on Saturday at Jupiter with a double bill. Directed by Sarah Cline, the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble kicks off the new school year with fresh faces and a returning cast of stand out players, such as flutist/vocalist Elena Pinderhughes. After their set, the high schoolers can take in a show by saxophonist Joshi Marshall and the BHS Alumni All-Stars.

A mainstay on the Bay Area music scene for more than two decades, Marshall was in the thick of the acid jazz action in the early 1990s, playing and recording with Groove Shop, Daddy Goddess, Human Flavor, The Mo’fessionals, Jungle Biskit, Alphabet Soup and Bop City. He’s probably best known as a founding member of Mingus Amungus, the rambunctious hip-hop inflected jazz combo led by bassist Miles Perkins (another BHS alum).

The double bill neatly captures the way in which the Berkeley High jazz program has become self-sustaining, with proud graduates maintaining close alma mater ties, providing information and inspiration to today’s students.

Listen to the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble playing “Blues Around the Corner” by R. Cornish, recorded at Fantasy Studios.

Andrew Gilbert lives in west Berkeley and covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and East Bay Express.

Andrew Gilbert

Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland. A Berkeley-based...

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  1. Thank you, Andrew, for covering the BHS Jazz Ensemble, and for your thoughtful and supportive comments on our program.  I would like to point out, however, that although several student musicians from the BHS Jazz Ensemble will be playing at Jupiter this weekend as a combo, the BHS Jazz Ensemble itself, which is a 20+ piece big band, will not be performing.  Music lovers who would like to hear the entire BHS Jazz Ensemble play can come to our fall concert Friday, November 18th at 7:00 p.m. at the Little Theatre at Berkeley High School.  We look forward to seeing you all there!    — Sarah Cline, Director, Berkeley High Jazz Program

  2. If attempting to explain the success of BHS Jazz Ensemble it must be pointed out that many of the past and present major artists you list also benefited from the rigorous study and training at UCB Young Musicians Program, YMP.

    Ambrose Akinmusire, Joshua Redman,  Benny Green , Elena Pinderhughes to name a just a few.

    YMP provided theory, private instruction, ensemble training, composition to many young students advancing the level of musicianship within BHS ensemble.

    Some students from BHS Jazz Ensemble ineligible for YMP due to income audit the summer program.

    My sons studied violin at YMP. I attribute some of my sons smarts and college success to their YMP experience, YMP was an antidote to their inconsistent BUSD education.