Arts Listings

Berkeley High Jazz All-Stars Honor Longtime Band Director

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Wednesday March 11, 2009 - 07:29:00 PM

The Berkeley High School Alumni Jazz All-Stars, featuring musical director Peter Apfelbaum, will perform Sunday afternoon in almost 20 different groups to honor band director and teacher Charles Hamilton’s 27 years of service. 

The event, emceed by radio personality Greg Bridges, is a truly stellar gathering of more than 30 musicians who played with the Berkeley High School Jazz Ensemble over the past 40 years, many of whom were students in the jazz program started in Berkeley schools by Dr. Herb Wong in 1966. 

Hamilton, who will close the concert by conducting the current ensemble, took over the group in 1981 when Phil Hardymon, its original leader, stepped down. Hamilton, who was the recipient of the NFAA Distinguished Teacher of the Year Award, has led the ensemble in venues around the world, including the Montreux and North Sea Jazz Festivals in 1997, a tour of Japan in the summer of 1999 and an appearance at the Monterey Jazz Festival at the beginning of the 1999-2000 school year. 

Multi-instrumentalist and composer Peter Apfelbaum (class of ’78), musical director of the event, leader of the New York Hieroglyphics, talked about how it all came about: “Several months ago, it came to light Charles Hamilton—who’s been threatening for a few years now—would be retiring, so there was the idea to throw him a surprise party, and several of us from past bands agreed to play and a date was set. Of course, Hamilton was going to find out about it—and he did. Sooner, not later. When they asked me to be musical director, I sat down and made a list. In the space of 10 minutes I came up with 35 people I knew who came through the program and are professional musicians. Some of it spread through word of mouth. I called a few, in particular Rodney Franklin, who I wanted to talk with. I hadn’t, in a long time. It was great to reconnect. Rodney and I started in the program in 1967; I was in second grade, he was in the fourth—and had the good luck to be in it all the way through school.. We all collectively realized it was a great reason to bring a lot of people together who had gone together through the program.” 

Apfelbaum talked about the musicians gathering this Sunday and the ensemble and program in the schools over the years. “I’m still working with people who came through the program, like [slide trumpet player, composer-arranger] Steve Bernstein and [tenor saxophonist/pianist] Jessica Jones, who is herself important in jazz education and setting up jazz camps. Most of us are approaching 50 now, but some have surfaced who I didn’t know, from different times, as early as the 1960s. And there’ll be a young rock band, Thirst Busters, playing, who are all currently in the Ensemble. [Pianist/singer/rapper/composer] Kito Gamble—Sistah Kee—will play with her band. And Dayna Stephens, a great young saxophonist who also plays bass, who like me lives in New York now, but continues to play out here.” 

Apfelbaum played in the ensemble under Phil Hardymon, but “kept close ties; when the ensemble toured Japan under Charles Hamilton, I went along as guest soloist and director. They brought in a piece of mine, too, and I sat in with them. Then, in 2006, they commissioned a whole suite. I came out and rehearsed it with them for four weeks; we premiered it at Yoshi’s. 

“What’s a great thing about the way the show’s taking shape for Sunday,” Apfelbaum continued, “is there’s lots of variety. It all somehow fits under the umbrella of jazz. The program always celebrated diversity. That’s what it did so beautifully, what Herb Wong managed to do, with Phil Hardymon and Charles Hamilton: tap into kids’ natural creativity. Rather than learning a particular style, we were encouraged to improvise, to create, to develop as a musician. It harnessed our natural curiosity; most of us became composers, improvisers—involved with the creation of music.” 

Dr. Herb Wong, founder of the jazz program in the schools, KJAZ radio personality for 36 years and founder of the Palo Alto Jazz Alliance, called Sunday’s show “a keystone event which points back to the genesis of the program in ’66.” He recalled how they “got the trail started” in great part with a grant from the National Science Foundation—and how he brought in pianist Oscar Peterson for a concert “and Rodney Franklin, then in grade school, tugged at my sport jacket, pointed up to Oscar and said, ‘That’s what I want to do!’ I put my arms around him and said, ‘If that’s what you want to do, I’ll help you.’ When Rahsaan Roland Kirk played for us with three horns simultaneously, Peter Apfelbaum—another of my earliest—looked at Rahsaan and wound up doing it with two saxophones at only 12 years old. We had the entire Ellington Orchestra here. When I drove Duke from the airport to the playground where a thousand kids were waiting for him, and a little girl said, ‘Mr. Ellington, I know you’re very old, but your music’s so young,’ Duke started saying, ‘Nirvana! Nirvana!’ And like the Ellington band’s music, the program is holistic, not only for musicians or to teach instrumental playing. 

“But there’s no question in my mind that Charles needs to be celebrated; his incredible capability to carry on the torch lit by Phil, me, Dick Whittington and others. It’s rare to find somebody to do this. They’ve played a lot of festivals I’ve adjudicated; I knew what the results were going to be! It’s buoyed my spirit each time, knowing Charles is carrying the torch.” 

Other performing alumni, spanning over 30 years of BHS graduates, include: Mike Aalberg, Ravi Abcarian, Mariel Austin, Andrew Baltazar, Cale Brandley, Billy Buss, Sarah Cline, Phillip Coffin, Dave Ellis, Jonathan Finlayson, Peter Hargreaves, Toby Hargreaves, Colin Hogan, Whitney Jacobson, Erik Jekabson, Josh Jones, Yanos Lustig (aka Johnny Bones), Mariana Martinez, Dave McFarlane, Hitomi Oba, Rafa Postel and Howard Wiley. 



3 p.m. Sunday (doors open at 2) at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School Auditorium, 1781 Rose St. Tickets throuch Freight & Salvage Box Office (cash or check), 1111 Addison St., or online at Adults $24.50; students 18 and under, $12.50. Proceeds benefit Berkeley Schools Jazz Program.