BHS Jazz must continue to  diversify, honoring jazz’s roots

Jazz music has always been an art engraved deep in several cultures, with an especially strong impact on African, Cuban, and Latin cultures. This has largely influenced this generation’s musicians, as many students idolize the well-known artists who built up the foundation of jazz. One of the most unique parts of the jazz program at Berkeley High School (BHS) is the different styles of music they play.

Throughout the year, the band directors explore different types of jazz with their students. However, the students in these classes tend to be predominantly white and male. BHS Jazz must find ways to encourage more students of diverse backgrounds to join.

The Latinx community shaped jazz into its present form through the integration of tango rhythms, bossa novas, clave rhythms, and much more. BHS Jazz leads a trip to Cuba every year, connecting and teaching students even more about the subject.

 Despite its major influence on jazz history, the Latinx community is a minority in BHS Jazz. According to Berkeley Public Schools, the student population at BHS is around 20 percent Latinx and the amount of Latinx students in jazz is far less, at around 12 percent. In the transition from middle school to high school, the amount of Latinx students enrolled in music changes from 28 percent to 8 percent. 

Another big issue is the gender ratio of the bands. According to Sarah Cline, the director of BHS Jazz, the program is currently around 30-35 percent female. Luckily, these statistics have been getting better each year. “Our biggest improvements have been with girls,” expressed Cline. “When I got here (BHS), only 10 percent of jazz students were female, but now it’s around 30, 35 percent. So that’s something we’ve worked really pointedly on.” 

Cline also notes that Black students are the most underrepresented in BHS Jazz. BHS’ student population is around 20 percent African American students, but the jazz program is only 8 percent African American. “We used to do Berkeley High Jazz auditions and we would have 160 people audition and there would be four people with African heritage,” explained Cline. “So (although) the issue is with Berkeley High Jazz, it’s also a larger issue.” 

The Berkeley Public Schools website states that everyone in the BUSD district experiences musical education in elementary school, but there are issues with students of color disproportionately dropping out in the transition to middle school. 

The progress made in the past three years can be easily seen through this year’s freshman class. Although not quite representational of the freshman population, the diversity of students engaging with music is a huge leap compared to previous years.

Rather than ignoring different perspectives on jazz music, opportunities should be created to encourage more engagement with other communities, starting with encouraging minorities in the program to form combos. There has already been a girl’s combo in previous years, and it would be exciting to see this with other groups as well. 

By giving students opportunities to listen to unfamiliar music, the bands can provide opportunities to learn a new hobby. If the program dedicated more time to inviting diverse groups of students to join BHS Jazz, they could vastly diversify the program.