Arts Listings

How to Sample the East Bay Jazz Scene

By Ira Steingroot
Tuesday August 21, 2007

For jazz fans new to the Bay Area, Berkeley is a unique jazz scene. In Manhattan, in any given week, two or three major jazz musicians will be appearing in various clubs all over the island. When I was last there in December 2005, we managed to catch avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor uptown at the Iridium and hardbop trombonist Curtis Fuller at a downtown hotel in the same week. In the Bay Area, internationally famous jazz musicians are rarer, but the local jazz scene is vigorous.  

The lynchpin for much of Berkeley’s jazz activity is the JazzSchool, headed by pianist Susan Muscarella, which offers classes and workshops, shopping, and live performances in a restaurant/nightclub setting. The school is the producer of the upcoming Downtown Berkeley Jazz Festival featuring 45 events in 15 venues over five days. These performances are free and all of them will give you an idea of the range of jazz going on locally as well as a sense of the kinds of clubs that feature jazz in Berkeley. 

Among the best are Anna’s Jazz Island which is aggressive about booking jazz and has featured such well-known players as Steve Turré during the last year; the JazzSchool’s own Jazzcaffé, which also has an active jazz booking policy featuring instructors and students as well as guest musicians like Wallace Roney on occasion; and the sponsor of this year’s festival, Jupiter, which presented an excellent set from John Schott’s Dream Kitchen at last year’s festival. 

In May, Berkeley has a free festival on Fourth Street that usually features a star or two and the best of Berkeley High School’s award-winning jazz orchestras and combos. The proceeds go to benefit the Berkeley public school jazz program which, over the years, has produced David Murray, Benny Green, Peter Apfelbaum and Joshua Redman.  

If you really want to keep up with the Bay Area jazz scene, you will need to stop by, phone or e-mail Rick Ballard’s Groove Yard Jazz Shop. Rick sends out a more or less monthly e-newsletter that covers jazz appearances at all local venues, jam sessions, new recordings, jazz on the radio and more. If you go into the store, at 5555 Claremont in Oakland, you can also find a wide range of jazz LPs and CDs, both new and used. You can find jazz recordings at most record stores, but the Groove Yard is devoted to jazz only and Rick is both knowledgeable and passionate about this music. 

The top jazz club in the Bay Area is Yoshi’s, 510 Embarcadero West in Oakland’s Jack London Square. To give some idea of the quality of music to be heard there, during the last two years, Yoshi’s has presented vibist Gary Burton featuring guitarist Julian Lage (who was back at Yoshi’s on Aug. 7 with Anton Schwartz); pianist and Oakland native Carla Bley with longtime musical compatriot, bassist Steve Swallow; a Clifford Brown 75th birthday memorial celebration featuring tenor saxophonist Benny Golson, pianist Mulgrew Miller and four virtuosic trumpeters; another Oakland native, violinist Regina Carter; a second visit from Golson; a thrilling quintet led by pianist Cedar Walton and featuring trombonist Steve Turre and tenor saxophonist Vincent Herring; jazz composer and pianist Randy Weston with tenor sax great Billy Harper; and NPR radio personality and classic pianist Marian McPartland. This weel Yoshi’s is featuring reed giant James Carter.  

The only other time and place that the Bay Area gets to hear jazz of that caliber is during the San Francisco Jazz Festival which has both an autumn and a spring edition. The festival takes place in various clubs and halls throughout the Bay Area, occasionally jumping across our little pond to play Oakland’s Paramount Theatre. Over the last two years the Festival has featured the World Saxophone Quartet playing the music of Jimi Hendrix at the Great American Music Hall; Don Byron returning to his klezmer roots at the Palace of Fine Arts; Broadway great Barbara Cook singing Berlin, Arlen, Rodgers, Bernstein and Sondheim at Davies Hall; Ornette Coleman giving a magnificently lyrical performance at the Masonic Auditorium; septuagenarian tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins finding renewed inspiration, again at the Masonic; Tootie and Jimmy Heath, the two surviving Heath Brothers, playing brilliantly at Herbst Theatre; Andrew Hill, since deceased, along with trumpeter Charles Tolliver giving a touching final concert at Herbst; pianist, harpist, organist Alice Coltrane, sadly, also since deceased, with marvelous support from bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Roy Haynes, giving what was to be her farewell concert at the Masonic; and trombonist Roswell Rudd along with Mongolian musicians and throat singers in a remarkable concert at the Legion of Honor. Watch for saxophonists Ornette Coleman, Pharaoh Sanders and Paquito D’Rivera at this fall’s festival starting in September. 

As you can see, Berkeley may not be Manhattan, but we are by no means starved for great jazz here in the Bay Area. 


For more information on the Groove Yard Jazz Shop call 655-8400 or email For more information on Yoshi’s call 238-9200 or go to www.yoshi’ For more information on the SFJazz Festival call 866-920-5299 or go to For more information on the Downtown Berkeley Jazz Festival call the JazzSchool at 845-5373 or go to