May 27, 2024

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Jazz conservatory’s music still hitting its mark after 25 years: Video, Photos

Initially known as the Jazzschool, which now refers to its community music program, the CJC is an accredited institution that offers three degrees in jazz studies, from a two-year associate of arts program to a master’s degree.

In addition to Muscarella, a pianist herself, the CJC faculty boasts some of the world’s most eminent improvisers, and the synergy generated by the Arts District locale is starting to hum again. Last month, well-known vocalist Bobby McFerrin stopped by after a Freight performance and sat in on a jam session. Percussion maestro John Santos, a longtime faculty member, curates an ongoing Latin American music series at the Freight known as Raíces, and notes that CJC students often take advantage of the half-price student tickets for the club.

Susan Muscarella is founding president of the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley. Photo: Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

“The CJC is a miraculous place, thanks to Susan’s vision and perseverance,” said Santos, who is slated to perform with his quartet Sept. 15 as part of the school’s anniversary celebrations. “We’re facing the same issues that conservatories and schools are contending with, how to make it accessible to everybody. That’s always an issue, keeping the doors open and wanting to have a diverse study body.”

The silver anniversary events kick off Saturday, Sept. 10, with an all-star faculty jam session featuring Venezuelan-born pianist Edward Simon, who’s also the longest-serving member of the SFJazz Collective; bassist Jeff Denson, the CJC’s dean of instruction; saxophonist Dann Zinn; and drummer Gerald Cleaver.

Recruited from New York City, where he’d been a major force for decades, Cleaver has made an immediate impact on the Bay Area jazz scene since arriving to the school last year.

“I needed the right partner, and with Gerald here I can bring in anyone and we can make some great music,” said Denson, whose new album, “Finding Light,” with French guitarist Roman Pilon and his other favorite drummer, Brian Blade, comes out Sept. 23 on his label Ridgeway Records.

Like the CJC’s weeklong anniversary festivities, Cleaver’s position as distinguished professor and drum department chair is underwritten by the new energy-bar company JamBar, which is run by Power Bar co-founder and drummer Jennifer Maxwell, who studied at the Jazzschool. In recent months, her support has allowed the school to present jazz stars such as Chris Potter, Joe Lovano, Omar Hakim and Rachel Z in the Fiddler Annex’s intimate Rendon Hall, where Denson and Cleaver serve as the prodigious house rhythm section.

Gerald Cleaver (left) and Jeff Denson teach a class at the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley. Photo: Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

But the first out-of-town player Muscarella recruited as a professor was Denson. Since trading New York for the Bay Area in 2011, he’s released albums by fellow faculty and CJC graduates on Ridgeway, “leveraging my own contacts with musicians around the country and Europe,” he said, playing a key role in garnering international attention for the CJC.

While the conservatory presents a busy program of performances by traveling musicians, students and Bay Area artists year-round, the anniversary performances aim to showcase the school’s faculty. The concert lineup includes the CJC’s resident big band led by trumpeter Erik Jekabson, the Electric Squeezebox Orchestra (Sept. 11); vocalist Kate McGarry and guitarist Keith Gans (Sept. 12); guitarist Mimi Fox’s Organ Trio (Sept. 13); Brazilian pianist Marcos Silva’s Quartet (Sept. 14), and drummer Akira Tana and Otonowa (Sept. 16).

This month also marks the reopening of the Jazzcaffè, which, before the pandemic, was located in the north-side basement space and often attracted Berkeley Rep and Aurora theatergoers looking for a quick bite before a play. The old cafe space has been transformed into a student lounge, and the new cafe has taken over half the Fiddler Annex lobby.

Gerald Cleaver teaches a class at the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley. Photo: Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

Muscarella has often said she wants the CJC to become “the Juilliard of jazz on the West Coast,” but her vision maps onto jazz terrain much more than the classical world. The school is building a recording studio and audio production lab, as well as an online radio station run by Melanie Berzon, former KCSM operations director, and saxophonist Jayn Pettingill, a KCSM DJ and the CJC’s librarian.

“We have an amazing jazz archive,” Muscarella said. “I’d like to have a dedicated space for all these old and valuable recordings and books for students to study and listen. But I couldn’t be happier with what we have at this point.

“COVID had a terrible impact on our enrollment. We’re putting all our eggs in the recruiting basket. But the school needs more room. That’s always in the back of my mind.”

JamBar presents the California Jazz Conservatory’s 25th Anniversary Celebration: All-star faculty jam session. 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 10. Festivities through Sept. 16. $30-$40. Fiddler Annex’s Rendon Hall, 2040 Addison St., Berkeley.

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