Arts Listings

Arts: Fourth Street Swings With Jazz on Sunday

By Ira Steingroot
Friday May 19, 2006

If ticket shock is the only thing stopping you from going to live jazz in clubs and concerts, you will not want to miss hearing the top-rated artists who will be performing al fresco and for free at the Jazz on 4th Street Festival this Sunday. 

The Bill Bell Quartet, the Big Belly Blues Band, the John Santos Quintet, and the Berkeley High Jazz Orchestra plus two of its combos will all be on hand to entertain you and to give you a taste of what can come from top-flight musical pedagogy.  

Public school jazz education began in Berkeley in 1966 when Herb Wong, the principal at Washington Elementary, offered a jazz class to his music students. It was not long before every school in the district had a jazz band. 

When Phil Hardymon, who had worked with Wong at the grade school level, became band director at Berkeley High in 1975, he parlayed all the work that had gone on in the lower grades into the top-rated high school jazz education program in the country. 

Berkeley High jazz bands and members regularly win state and national competitions and scholarships and have performed at the Monterey, North Sea and Montreux Jazz Festivals—and why not when their alumni include such stellar players as David Murray, Craig Handy, Josh Redman, Benny Green and Peter Apfelbaum? 

What Herb Wong began has become a multi-generational community of teachers, alumni and students that gives the Berkeley jazz community a depth and resonance often lacking elsewhere. Unfortunately, major budget cuts are threatening this innovative and successful program. 

The proceeds from this Tenth Annual Festival, sponsored by KCSM/Jazz 91, Yoshi’s and 4th Street Merchants, will benefit Berkeley High School Performing Arts to help ensure that the jazz program is able to continue. 

Appropriately, the featured musician at this year’s festival is pianist, composer, arranger and revered music educator Bill Bell, known to many as the Jazz Professor. Bell has taught in colleges and universities for over three decades. 

Although he just retired, he still holds adjunct professor positions in jazz at both UC Berkeley and Stanford University. From 1991 to 2001, he was the chairman of the College of Alameda’s music department. Trumpeter Jon Faddis, pianists Benny Green and Michael Wolfe and drummer Will Kennedy are just the most well-known of the thousands of players who have benefited from his instruction. 

For all his work as a teacher, Bell made his name as a performing artist. He toured as musical director and accompanist for vocalist Carmen McRae and provided the same solid backing for other vocalists like Joe Williams, Anita O’Day, Nancy Wilson, Lou Rawls and the Supremes. He always knows what chords to play underneath a lyric to give just the right support to a jazz singer. 

That same ability to feed a soloist the most stimulating changes made him a favorite with instrumentalists like Benny Carter, Louie Bellson, Milt Jackson, Clark Terry, Art Farmer and Kenny Burrell. One of his most impressive gigs was as choir director for a 1967 Duke Ellington Sacred Concert at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.  

It has long been known to both fans and visiting jazz stars that having Bill Bell accompanying you means having the best. His latest album, Just Swing Baby, indicates that Bell is just as sensitive, creative, swinging and virtuosic as ever. 

Two other excellent bands with strong connections in the Bay Area complete the lineup. Like Bill Bell, Afro-Latin percussionist John Santos is an educator and scholar as well as a major performer who has worked with Latin stars like Yma Sumac, Tito Puente, Patato Valdés, Armando Peraza, Lalo Schifrin, Santana, Cachao and Omar Sosa as well as jazz masters like Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Art Farmer, Bobby Hutcherson, McCoy Tyner and John Faddis. His knowledge and experience of Afro-Latin percussion traditions, rooted in family, community, tradition, study, practice and meditation is profound. 

The Big Belly Blues Band is a mid-size orchestra with a large sound that brings together horns, keyboards, bass, guitar and percussion plus vocalists to explore the affinities shared by jazz, blues, rhythm and blues and hip hop. Various combinations of the highly esteemed Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble will open and close the festivities.  


The Bill Bell Quartet (1:15-2 p.m.), the Big Belly Blues Band (2:15–3 p.m.), the John Santos Quintet (3:10-4 p.m.), and the Berkeley High Jazz Orchestra and two combos (noon–1:15 p.m. and 4–5 p.m.) perform at the Tenth Annual Jazz on Fourth Street Festival, Sunday, May 21, noon-5 p.m., on Fourth Street in Berkeley, between Hearst Avenue and Virginia Street. For more information call 526-6294.