On Friday, November 30, the Berkeley High School (BHS) Jazz Ensemble gave a concert in the Florence Schwimley Little Theater, the final of three performances put on by the BHS Jazz department that week. Tickets were free for students and staff, and $10 for adults.
By 7PM, almost every seat in the theater was filled with a mixture of the performers’ parents, members of the other BHS Jazz bands, and curious BHS students.
The Jazz Ensemble kicked off one of their performances with “Tin Tin Deo” by Dizzy Gillespie, arranged specifically for them by Moreira Coro. Coro is a jazz musician who worked with the ensemble on their most recent trip to Cuba in 2016, where they collaborated with the leading Cuban conservatory of music. Their second song was “Fables of Faubus,” an elegant, politically-relevant number written by Charles Mingus during the Civil Rights Era to protest the actions of Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, who sent the National Guard to Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 to prevent the integration of a public high school by excluding the Little Rock Nine for attending.
The ensemble then followed with “Parisian Thoroughfare” by Bud Powell, a bustling, energetic number that seemed to transport the audience right to a busy Parisian street. Next on the setlist was “Sea Fever” by Christine Jensen, a slinky, slower number. Their final number of set one was “Chan Chan” by Cuban musician Compay Segundo, an audience favorite that got people up and dancing in front of the stage.
After a brief intermission that gave spectators a chance to buy snacks in support of the Jazz Ensemble, the audience was treated to performances from four impressive student-lead combos. Each of these consisted of five to six students, some of whom were in the Ensemble and some of whom were in other BHS Jazz bands. The first combo was Former Combo B, who played two songs, including “Georgia on My Mind,” a sweet and smooth piece that incorporated vocals as well as flute, tenor saxophone, trumpet, piano, bass, and drums. The second combo to play was Sharp 6, composed of a trumpet, a tenor saxophone, a trombone, piano, bass, and drums, who played an easy-going number called “William.” The third combo, which was made up of three tenor saxophones, piano, bass, and drums, played an upbeat student-written song called “Homer Simpson.” The final combo, Combo A, which was made up of a trumpet, a tenor saxophone, piano, bass, and drums, played a number dedicated to the Jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove, who recently passed away.
After another short intermission, the Jazz Ensemble returned for their final set, starting off with “Airegin” by Sonny Rollins, inspired by Nigerian dancers — “Airegin” is “Nigeria” backwards. With “Fantazm” by Duke Ellington, the Ensemble slowed the pace of the performance with a swaying rhythm, which they followed with “Brotherly Shove” by Frank Foster, which had a bold, playful melody echoed in its tongue-in-cheek name and “Let’s Get This Party Started” by Tom Kubis, which features an irresistible dance beat.
The Jazz Ensemble’s last song of the evening was written by BHS class of 2018 Jazz Ensemble alum Isaiah Hammer, and featured richly textured percussion as well as an impressive soprano saxophone solo.
The Jazz Ensemble is made up of an incredibly talented group of students who are clearly dedicated to their craft. Though the Jazz Ensemble meets every day, many students practice at additional times during lunch multiple days a week, as well as spending hours working on their combo numbers outside of class. It’s also clear that being in Jazz Ensemble is an excellent opportunity for those passionate about music to improve their skills and collaborate.
Ensemble drummer Dash Goss-Post says, “I have gained a lot of musical skill and experience playing with groups, and [being in the Jazz Ensemble] has forced me to practice a lot more, which has just made me a lot better than I would have been otherwise.”
But for me, the one thing that made the biggest impression was the clear passion of the Ensemble members. Every single one of them was feeling the music: tapping their feet, nodding their heads, or even dancing while they played. You could tell that there was no place they’d rather be than on stage.