“We were not being reflected in the world of jazz at Berkeley High, or anywhere in the world of jazz, frankly.” Sarah Cline, BHS Jazz teacher
Jazz music swept through the A Building on Saturday, March 4. Dozens of young girls and non-binary students ages ten through fourteen were learning about the art of jazz. Known as JazzGirls Day, the annual event is meant to help young girls access the music and know that they have a place in Berkeley High Jazz once they reach high school. The program makes a point to not use pre-registration, and accept any and every student that shows up on the day of.
The day started by welcoming the young attendees in a circle of nearly a hundred people, playing rhythm games with older high school mentors. Girls and non-binary students in Berkeley High Jazz attended the event as mentors, bridging the gap between the young kids and the professional adults.
Professional musicians, known as clinicians, ran the small groups in two different sessions. They began by teaching categories separated by instrument, honing kids’ abilities to play by ear in usual jazz fashion. “Today we’re not going to play written down. We’re going to play by ear and find a direct connection with our instrument,” said Darya Johnson, a professional drummer and clinician at JazzGirls day.
Sarah Cline, the jazz teacher at Berkeley High School and creator of JazzGirls day, explained her intention behind the event. When she graduated in 1981, Cline was one of two girls in the Jazz ensemble. “When I came back in 2011, there were two girls in the jazz band. 30 years later,” Cline said. “I felt like women had made some significant gains in the world in those 30 years. We were not being reflected in the world of jazz at Berkeley High, or anywhere in the world of jazz, frankly.”
From 1981 to 2011, just 10 percent of Berkeley High Jazz musicians were girls. Cline wanted all girls in music to know that they have a place in the jazz band, and could flourish there. JazzGirls Day holds this as a central sentiment. In the past 12 years, the program has tripled the amount of girls in the BHS jazz program.
“At its core, jazz is about your own voice in community,” Cline said. “We call it taking a solo when someone stands up and plays a solo, but it’s not a solo, because you’re playing with the rhythm section. You’re playing with a community of people … We all need to learn how to speak our own truth with community support. Women and girls, our voices have been silenced for too long. We need to put our voices out there and learn how to support each other, be community for each other, and learn how to really come into our full voices.”
Johnson has played music all her life, and was one of three girls in her high school band. “All these young girls … It makes me very happy,” she said. “At the same time, it makes me a little envious … because I didn’t have this when I was a kid.”
Being a girl in a jazz band was difficult for Johnson. “It’s just great to see how much support and how much love and availability is being afforded to these young ladies. It’s fantastic.” As clinician at JazzGirls Day, Johnson works to create the community she didn’t have in high school.
“I wanted more experience around people like (these professional female musicians) who play jazz,” said Ro Hebert, a freshman at BHS, who participated in the event as a student. She learned about new jazz tunes and how to play by ear, and plans to audition next year.
Marly White, a freshman who started in jazz band this year, joined after hearing about JazzGirls Day from her middle school band director and attending for the past few years. “I saw girls playing big instruments in third grade and wanted to be one of them,” White said.
JazzGirls Day is funded through a grant from the Bill Graham Foundation for the Arts. For anyone wanting to donate or fund the event, donations are accepted at https://www.bhsjazz.org/.
The day wrapped up with closing announcements and a drawing for scholarships to band camps around the Bay Area. The clinicians and Cline performed for the girls, improvising, to show just what it’s like to be a woman in jazz.