By ANDREW GILBERT
You could say that the Jazzschool was inspired by a torrential downpour. Years before the downtown Berkeley institution took shape and started inculcating aspiring musicians into the mysteries of swing, improvisation and group interplay, Susan Muscarella was brooding about the lack of educational and performance opportunities for young players. She had already made her mark in music education, having spent the second half of the 1980s as head of U.C. Berkeley’s jazz program, but she had given up the position because it left her no time to focus on her own career as a pianist.
Like many jazz musicians, however, she partly supported herself by giving music lessons even after leaving U.C. Berkeley. As California’s economy reeled from the post–Cold War recession, Muscarella watched with dismay as public schools slashed music and arts programs, leaving her students with few outlets through which they could hone their craft. “Either their music program was cut or there were too many kids in one band and there wasn’t enough room for them. For one reason or another, they weren’t getting the opportunities that I thought they should have,” says Muscarella.
Sitting in her Jazzschool office, a small windowless rectangular room decorated with jazz festival posters and photos of musicians famous and obscure, Muscarella projects a maternal air, with none of the affect one might expect from an improviser who cut her teeth in one of the most celebrated Bay Area jazz combos of the late 1970s and ’80s. As she recalls the epiphany that launched her seemingly quixotic campaign to found a new school devoted to teaching jazz, it’s easy to understand how the plight of her students moved her to action.
“There was one day when the storm of all storms swept through, and my student Abe Katz-Milder had to take the bus, and then walk from the bus stop to my house,” she says. “When he got there he was just drenched. I said, ‘Abe, we can’t do the lesson like this.’ But he was so into the music, he was determined to get to the lesson, come hell or high water, literally. I thought to myself, I want to start a school so he’ll have all the opportunities he should have to go on to become a professional musician. My whole idea for the Jazzschool is to combine study with performance opportunity.”
It took several years of planning and plotting, but in the summer of 1997 Muscarella launched the Jazzschool in an 1880s Victorian on Shattuck Avenue, above La Note Café. Filling a long-underserved niche, the school quickly turned into a major educational presence in the Bay Area, with a faculty drawn from the region’s finest musicians, including drummer Eddie Marshall, trombonist Wayne Wallace, guitarist Mimi Fox and bassist Bill Douglass. A Sunday afternoon concert series in La Note filled another gaping void, offering resident players and traveling artists a precious performance venue that combined an intimate concert vibe with a cozy café setting. Her efforts received an official stamp of approval in 2000, when the Jazzschool formed a partnership with U.C. Berkeley’s Extension program to offer accredited classes in jazz. By the time the school had outgrown its original digs in 2001, it was attracting some 600 students per quarter.
In the fall of 2002, the Jazzschool moved to its present location in the Downtown Berkeley Arts District. It was hardly an auspicious moment to triple the school’s size. If a rainstorm provided the initial inspiration for the Jazzschool, the institution opened its second chapter in the midst of an economic whirlwind, with the Bay Area still reeling from the double whammy of the dot-com meltdown and the post-9/11 downturn. Arts groups across Northern California were retrenching and scaling back plans, hoping to ride out the economic tempest, but Muscarella jumped at the chance to expand the school’s services.
Spending an afternoon hanging around the Jazzschool is to watch the synergistic dream of the Downtown Berkeley Arts District come to life. On a recent Thursday afternoon, the muffled sounds of a guitar class seep through one of the 14 classrooms, providing a steady background hum in Hardymon Hall, the compact performance space named after the late, revered Berkeley High jazz instructor Phil Hardymon. The subterranean space in the basement of the historic Kress Building on the corner of Shattuck and Addison also contains a book and music store and a café that’s frequented in the evenings by patrons of the neighboring Aurora Theatre and Berkeley Rep. Looking up at the windows lining the top of the Addison Street wall, the disembodied legs of pedestrians float by, while the curious face of an occasional toddler peeks down to see what’s happening below.
Students bustle in and out carrying their instruments, stopping to compare notes with each other or confer with a teacher after class. The majority looks high-school age, but there’s a generous helping of musicians whose high-school years are far behind them. Friday through Sunday, Hardymon Hall turns into one of the hippest venues in the region, with performances by a dazzling array of artists (the summer concert series showcases Jazzschool students, some of whom are already making their own marks on the scene).
“I don’t know exactly when I realized that it had became an integral part of the community, not just a school. It was embraced by so many different factions,” says Wayne Wallace, a San Francisco native who has distinguished himself as a player, arranger, producer and educator. Refusing to be pigeonholed, his music embraces jazz, funk and Afro-Caribbean rhythms, and he’s played a key role in the Pete Escovedo Orchestra and John Santos’s Machete Ensemble. More recently he founded a new label, Patois, which has released a series of vivid, genre-bending albums by his own bands and vocalists Kat Parra and Alexa Weber Morales. He joined the Jazzschool faculty the first year, and has been teaching there ever since.
“You have to understand just how difficult it is to do what the Jazzschool has done,” Wallace says. “The parallel is to keeping a jazz club afloat. Not many make it. To persevere in this culture, where the government doesn’t embrace the arts, is really swimming against the tide. With all due respect, let someone else try to do it. I don’t know if Susan has flourished, but she’s survived. I knew Susan before she started the school, and she’s a very giving person. It’s amazing that she can run a business this tough and still be such a sweet person.”
Born in Oakland and raised in Walnut Creek in a solid, lower-middle-class family, Muscarella started taking piano lessons at age 8. While her teacher, Myra Tagg, focused on the European classical tradition, she had worked accompanying silent films as a young woman, and she encouraged her student’s love of improvisation. As Muscarella entered her teenage years, however, her interest turned to tennis and she considered giving up the piano. Tagg decided to take drastic measures and suggested that Muscarella start studying with jazz pianist Wilbert Baranco at Sherman Clay.
“My mom took me to Oakland to meet with this guy, and it was love at first listen,” Muscarella says. “I thought, OK, that’s it for tennis. I’m going to do jazz. From then on, I never looked back. I remember hearing Ramsey Lewis’s ‘The In Crowd’ and falling in love with piano trios. Everybody was listening to the Beatles, which was fine, but I was crazy about the piano, bass and drums format.”
In an era when Tower Records is bankrupt and the death of the CD seems nigh, it sounds like wild-eyed fiction when Muscarella talks about feeding her juvenile jazz habit by visiting the local hardware store. Hoarding the allowance she earned from cleaning the bathroom, she’d take her $5 and sift through the record bins at Simon Hardware in downtown Walnut Creek, where the store had an employee responsible for keeping the jazz section stocked with new releases. “I remember one of the albums was I Talk With the Spirits by Rahsaan Roland Kirk,” Muscarella says. “Another was Stan Getz’s Getz A Go Go. I bought a Terry Gibbs album and I didn’t even know who Terry Gibbs was! I just kept trying all these new things. Every week that’s what I would do with my allowance. Of course, I went on to listen to Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and when I heard McCoy Tyner I thought I was going to die.”
By the time she graduated from Las Lomas High School in 1968, Muscarella was working around Contra Costa County with her own band. Not that she had a one-track mind. Her musical palette had expanded far beyond jazz into the realm of contemporary classical music, as she explored the sounds of Alban Berg, Schoenberg, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Earle Brown and Xenakis. While she wanted to enroll in a conservatory, her parents persuaded her to pursue a bachelor of arts degree, so she ended up attending Diablo Valley College for several years, where she studied with composer Gordon Keddington. Eventually she transferred to U.C. Berkeley and got into the composition program with Andrew Imbrie. Berkeley offered little in the way of jazz instruction at the time, but Muscarella found plenty to keep her busy off campus. Before she had a chance to complete her degree, she dropped out to concentrate on developing her skills as a player.
By the late 1970s, she had joined forces with powerhouse saxophonist Mel Martin, who was leading a highly inventive band called Listen. An early version of the combo had introduced a complex, rock-influenced sound to the Bay Area, featuring rising stars such as steel drum master Andy Narell, Miles Davis guitarist Dave Creamer and drummer George Marsh. Muscarella came on board as the group’s sound was in transition, though it maintained its high profile with gigs at the Monterey Jazz Festival, the old Berkeley Jazz Festival at the Greek Theatre and opening for piano legend Bill Evans at Zellerbach Hall. Martin was so impressed with Muscarella’s playing and composing that he ended up producing her first album, 1979’s Rainflowers (Pacific Coast Jazz).
“I had met Susan at Berkeley, and she was already a very talented pianist at the time,” Martin recalls. “When she joined Listen, it had these really singular players, and when someone left, you couldn’t just go find another steel drummer. . . . Susan has a style that combined a classical element, and that came through in her compositions. There weren’t that many females added to male bands at that time. It was interesting for people to see that. Jazz doesn’t have a quota system; it’s based on talent. There were always select female instrumentalists who are so great, they’re the equal of anything going on, and that was Susan.”
No instrument has been more open to female players in jazz than the piano. Dating back at least to Lil Hardin Armstrong, who played and recorded with some of the seminal bands led by her husband, jazz fountainhead Louis Armstrong in late-1920s Chicago, women have bucked the jazz fraternity and held their own on the ivories. Pianists Mary Lou Williams, Marian McPartland, Hazel Scott, Toshiko Akiyoshi and Joanne Brackeen all made important contributions and helped pave the way for the much larger wave of women who started gaining recognition in the 1980s and ’90s. But like many female instrumentalists who came of age before then, Muscarella wasn’t looking to make a point. Obsessed with music, she wanted to improve as a player. While some celebrated female players describe feeling like they’ve needed to overcompensate early in their career in order to be accepted on the bandstand by men, Muscarella wasn’t concerned about developing overwhelming technique.
“I only felt that way in terms of musicality,” she says. “I remember having the opportunity to play with good musicians and I wanted to be able to complement that setting and be of value. I remember being in a rehearsal with Mel at my house, and he had recorded the session to get an idea of what the music sounded like. He played the tape back and I thought, ‘I am not going to sound like that!’ I just remember wanting to be as musical as all of those other players in that band. I completely changed my playing after I heard that tape. It’s like looking at a video of yourself and going on a diet. When it came to the female thing, I knew I was the only woman, but to be honest, it was really more an issue for other people than it was for me. I was trying to practice, play and record, and it just didn’t occur to me. I mean, what other choice did I have? In retrospect I can look back and can see where it was really an issue, but I try to look forward.”
By the time that Listen broke up in the early 1980s, Muscarella was devoting more of her time to teaching, and in 1984 she was hired to run U.C. Berkeley’s jazz program. Applying the tireless work ethic that later built the Jazzschool, Muscarella raised the national profile of Cal’s jazz studies. By the time she left in 1989, about 150 students were enrolled in the program and Berkeley’s collegiate jazz festival was one of the largest in the country. Between the all-consuming nature of the job and the university’s lack of interest in turning jazz studies into a degree-granting program, Muscarella decided to return to her neglected career as a player. She thrived for several years, but then the downpour drenched her student Abe Katz-Milder, putting her back on the road to a full-time gig in education. But this time she was running the show, and her tireless efforts blossomed into an institution unlike any other in the country.
As the Jazzschool prepared to celebrate the conclusion of its first decade this summer, Muscarella was rocked by a confluence of racially charged events that put her institution at the center of a perfect Bay Area political tempest. The first inkling that something was roiling the jazz scene surfaced in early May when e-mails started circulating about a promotional CD produced by Yoshi’s to celebrate the club’s 10th anniversary at Jack London Square. In seeking to quickly and simply compile an album of musicians recorded live at the club, Yoshi’s artistic director Peter Williams made a deal to use artists who recorded for Concord Records, which unwittingly resulted in a CD featuring no African-American bandleaders (the great tenor saxophonist George Coleman was captured in top form on two tracks as a sideman
with organist Joey DeFrancesco).
Sparked by a broadside written by KCSM DJ Greg Bridges, several African-American musicians and jazz supporters took the lead in castigating the club’s management, feeling that the CD was part of a larger revisionist trend that seeks to minimize jazz’s African-American origins. The issue exploded into public view when the San Francisco Chronicle ran a story about the controversy splashed across the front page, an odd move considering that the paper has largely ignored the local jazz scene in recent years. Seeking to make amends and quickly end the bad press, the club soon announced that it was withdrawing the album, and apologized for the offense.
While the Yoshi’s CD received the lion’s share of attention, the Chronicle article also discussed a budding controversy surrounding Muscarella’s booking of the Downtown Berkeley Jazz Festival, an event that she launched in 2005 to draw attention to the burgeoning jazz scene in the downtown area. Questions about the festival arose when Anna de Leon, a longtime pillar of the Bay Area scene as a singer and club owner who now runs Anna’s Jazz Island in downtown Berkeley, forwarded a string of e-mails she had exchanged with Muscarella to several musicians, including vocalist Rhonda Benin, best known as a member of Linda Tillery’s Grammy-nominated Cultural Heritage Choir.
De Leon had objected that the acts Muscarella suggested for her club during the four nights of the Downtown festival didn’t include any black musicians. Muscarella sought to mollify de Leon, and included the brilliant singer Kenny Washington as part of Anna’s festival programming. “My image of jazz is that it comes from at least a multi-racial or black community,” de Leon says. “It’s also true that I had personal experience more with black jazz musicians than with white. I just couldn’t have imagined that I wouldn’t have any black musicians here; that seemed like a really odd idea.”
Meanwhile, Muscarella thought she had addressed de Leon’s concerns. What’s more, she had been concentrating on the overall festival, looking to find the right acts for each space, not on the ethnic breakdown in any particular venue.
As the controversy played out, it seemed that two invaluable and very different members of the Bay Area jazz scene were having a bitter public fallout. Both women profess there was no bad blood between them, and they are hardly strangers to each other. Last year Muscarella played a regular Monday night gig at Anna’s with tenor saxophonist Mike Zilber throughout the spring, and Jazzschool teachers and alumni are featured regularly at the club. As their e-mail exchange made the rounds, the messages ended up with a subject line declaring “No Blacks at the Festival,” though Muscarella hadn’t finished booking the event yet, and she had indeed already engaged several black players for the event. But with outrage already stoked by the Yoshi’s CD, concerns over the Jazzschool snowballed, and when Benin and de Leon appeared on Doug Edwards’ KPFA show “Ear Thyme” on May 19, the discussion touched on the racial composition of the school’s faculty and students, and the players presented in the weekend concert series.
“Yoshi’s was actually more hurtful than the Jazzschool,” says Benin. “I believe it pushed people to speak up. My thought was if a new person doesn’t know a thing about jazz and they buy this CD, this becomes their idea of what jazz is, and that’s problematic. With the Downtown festival and the Jazzschool, as a performer you’re always looking at the calendars of clubs, feeling around for work, seeing who’s working, and what kind of music’s being played where. It had become alarming to me the number of African-American jazz artists who weren’t involved in the scene the way they should be. It’s been alarming to me the number of bands and musicians who call themselves jazz, blues and soul without any African- American artists in the mix. If you’re going to do the music of a certain culture, why not include people who are from that culture? We saw it as disrespectful and appropriation and the same old story. If we can get a white person to do it half as good, it’s palatable and we’ll get them. So when I got the message that one club owner is having four nights of jazz and nobody of color, we decided to say something.”
For the politically savvy de Leon, who served two terms on the Berkeley School Board and spent years as a public interest attorney, the problem was inherent in a booking process that relied on a single person. “I have been active in community politics for years, and I would say no single person in their right mind should be the only person booking a festival,” de Leon says. “I’d protect myself with a committee. I’d be more confident that that committee would reflect more diverse views. A lot of white musicians were grumbling, too.”
In many ways, the all-too-human propensity to compare one’s own lot with one’s neighbors is the nub of the issue. Every arts scene (or anywhere people congregate) is rife with cliques and various overlapping circles. One reason the Bay Area scene has been so creative over the past half-century despite the region’s limited resources for artists is that musicians from various styles and backgrounds tend to collaborate more freely here than in New York City or Los Angeles. But with limited opportunities to perform (and fewer to record), it can be difficult for musicians not to see every gig as a zero-sum game. It’s the rare well-seasoned player who doesn’t believe, often with justification, that he or she has been overlooked and underemployed. Many white musicians feel they have lost opportunities due to their race, and it’s hardly surprising that some black musicians feel the same way. It’s true that in the spring the Jazzschool’s faculty didn’t include many black musicians, but it’s also a fact that African-American musicians have taught dozens of Jazzschool classes over the years.
With the heightened scrutiny on Muscarella, even offering a gig became suspect. Widely respected saxophonist Howard Wiley, a Berkeley native who started recording as a young teenager, was quoted in the Berkeley Daily Planet saying that he turned down a gig at the Downtown Berkeley Jazz Festival, e-mailing Muscarella, “Your attempt to quickly hire me and other black musicians seems to be damage control, as you are well aware of the publicity around your racist hiring practices.”
Unfortunately, much of the media coverage surrounding Yoshi’s and the Jazzschool has fallen into the black-versus-white paradigm, portraying African-American jazz musicians united against the perceived injustice perpetuated by Yoshi’s and Muscarella. In truth, there’s a broad spectrum of opinions, with many defending Williams and Muscarella.
Robert Stewart, the acclaimed Oakland-born tenor saxophonist whose résumé reads like a jazz hall of fame, has been outspoken in countering the recent charges. But his point of view falls outside the paradigm, and his voice has been conspicuously absent from the press and airwaves. “I’m ashamed of the hostility and triviality that has been directed toward Susan Muscarella and the Yoshi’s establishment by black musicians in the Bay Area,” Stewart writes in an e-mail. “Though I do not know Susan Muscarella . . . her efforts to perpetuate the black classical music of America must be acknowledged and applauded, regardless of any personal bias against her as an individual.”
Stewart is even more forceful in pointing to the lack of support for jazz within the black community. As the debate about the Jazzschool has unfolded, many people have pointed out that the larger issue is the lack of music education in schools, so that young African Americans can become acquainted with their own cultural heritage. “Jazz was saved by jazz education, but most black kids can’t afford to go to those schools,” Wayne Wallace points out. “Of course you’re going to get more white kids at the Jazzschool. Black kids aren’t getting the background in their middle and high schools. In order to fix that problem, it’s got to start with the public schools.”
For Muscarella, who never approached jazz with an explicitly political agenda, the Jazzschool started as a purely educational venture. But she has long been concerned with making classes accessible to low-income students, and she’s initiated several programs to bring African-American students into the Jazzschool and to take the music out to kids in public schools. In the end, the Jazzschool is entering its second decade stronger than before. Many people have rallied to the school, seeking ways to help make its resources available to disadvantaged kids. For instance, Kim Nalley, the vivacious jazz and blues singer who co-owns and books San Francisco’s leading jazz venue, Jazz at Pearl’s in North Beach, walked in to Muscarella’s office and plunked down a check for a scholarship for young black musicians studying at the Jazzschool.
“I’ve gotten more support than I ever have before,” Muscarella says. “People have come forward to introduce themselves to me and offer help. I know we all have the same mission for jazz in this community. We all support diversity. Since this whole thing blew up, I’ve gotten more support in a way that’s let me move forward with my mission and vision for the school.”
Andrew Gilbert is The Monthly’s music critic.
High notes: Jazzschool founder Susan Muscarella wanted more East Bay kids to have access to music education. In her 10th year, she’s found high praise and faced some criticism.
Photo by Pat Mazzera.
Jazz islander: Anna de Leon, a champion of East Bay jazz, discussed the controversy in a KPFA interview, expressing her concern that the original festival lineup at her venue did not include African-American artists. Muscarella said she was blindsided by the public criticism. Photo Courtesy of Mark Costantini/San Francisco Chronicle.
Countering criticism: Acclaimed tenor saxophonist Robert Stewart applauds Muscarella for promoting the “black classical music of America.” Photo by Pat Mazzera.
Jazz giants: To celebrate the East Bay’s jazz community, photographers Jerry Kapler and Mark Sarfati gathered more than 75 top East Bay jazz musicians and shot a photo dubbed “The Family” for the East Bay Express in 1984. In the photo, Muscarella is pictured at the right-hand edge near Brenda Boykin, Calvin Keys, Mal Sharpe, Linda Tillery and Julius Hemphill. To view the full photo with identifying caption click here. Photo courtesy Jerry Kapler and Mark Sarfati.
Rising stars: (top) Members of the Kaz George Quintet. (Bottom) Kaz George plays the saxophone and Ariel Vento plays the trumpet at Jazzschool '07: Rising Stars Summer Series. This program features Jazzschool students from middle school through college. Photos courtesy Jazzschool.
On the horn: Jazzschool student Mariel Austin is among many girls taught to buck tradition and belt out the blues. Photo by Anna Hiatt.
Power trio: The Susan Muscarella Trio in the early ’90s included (left to right) bass player Terry Miller, pianist Muscarella and drummer Scott Morris. Photo by Sibila Savage.