The ambitious second annual Downtown Berkeley Jazz Festival, produced by the Jazzschool, begins this Wednesday. Over the course of five days, 45 musical events will be presented at 15 venues all over downtown Berkeley.
Besides every genre of jazz, there will be films at the Gaia Arts Center and poetry at the Berkeley Public Library and Half Price Books. Many of these events are free and provide an opportunity to check out the great cuisine of Berkeley’s restaurants, read the poems inscribed in the sidewalk on Addison Street and find out what kind of jazz is being played locally and what kind you like.
One of the best groups being featured at the Festival is John Schott’s Dream Kitchen.
I first became aware of John Schott while trying to fill holes in my collection of pre-Louis Armstrong recordings by African-Americans. Someone at Down Home Records told me he would be helpful and knowledgeable. That was an understatement. His way of learning about a subject is both broad and deep, scholarly, yet passionate, and he is obsessive about getting the details right. He is also generous in sharing the results of his research.
Far from being theoretical though, his scholarly approach is eminently practical. The 40-year-old Schott not only knows the early compositions and recordings of Scott Joplin, W.C. Handy, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and Bix Beiderbecke, but makes them the repertoire of his trio, Dream Kitchen. The trio will be playing some of these pieces at a free performance this Friday evening at Jupiter as part of the Downtown Berkeley Jazz Fest.
If you know the originals, do not be surprised if Dream Kitchen’s versions approach them in an oblique manner, at once original yet uncannily familiar. Schott brushes this material against the grain to reveal the inner strength of the compositions as compositions. He knows that this is early American chamber music that has not yet exhausted its potential for freeing the imagination.
He puts it well when he describes the music as, “Blues, stomps and hot jazz from the ‘20s played like it was written last week.”
Schott’s musical taste and interests do not stop with early jazz though. He is equally at home with the work of Billie Holiday and Lester Young, beboppers Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and Tad Dameron, and avant gardists Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman. He likes blues players from Robert Johnson through Muddy Waters to B.B. King.
His classical interests range from Rubinstein’s recordings of Chopin’s Nocturnes to Arnold Schoenberg, Elliot Carter and John Cage. In fact, part of his reason for leaving Seattle and moving to Berkeley in 1988 was to hear all of the Bay Area concerts celebrating Carter’s music around his 80th birthday.
He has played in Western swing groups; was one of the three guitarists, along with Charlie Hunter and Will Bernard, in the jazz-funk band T.J. Kirk; recorded post-modern klezmer albums on John Zorn’s Tsadik label; worked with the Rova Saxophone Quartet to create musical backgrounds for the underground films of Stan Brakhage; and written music to accompany the poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch.
One of the more interesting projects Schott has conceived was a marathon guitar performance last year from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. on the Jewish pilgrimage festival of Shavuot (Festival of Weeks, Pentecost or Whitsunday to gentiles). There is a tradition of staying up all night and studying until sunrise. Often the beginning and ending passages of every portion of the Torah, opening passages of every book of the rest of the Bible, and the opening of each of the 63 tractates of the Mishnah, along with passages from the Kabbalistic masterwork, the Zohar, are read during the night as a way of contemplating, celebrating and encompassing the vastness of Jewish studies. Schott transformed this into an eight hour meditative guitar piece.
Dream Kitchen brings that same kind of intensity, lateral thinking and freshness to the brilliant compositions of early ragtime and jazz.