There is a lot of pride and a lot of history involved in the Berkeley High School Jazz Ensemble.
“So many good musicians come out of Berkeley High. I like being a part of the Berkeley jazz band, having such a well-known name,” says trumpet player Mark Michel-Ruddy. “People respect us and feel like we know what we’re doing. Being from Berkeley, I feel proud of saying that’s where I’m from.”
Vibraphone player Sam Ferguson expands on this theme: “Berkeley High is a unique environment. It breeds creativity.”
Of course the parents of these musicians are proud of their kids. And it is easy to tell that band leader and teacher, Charles Hamilton, is proud as well.
Members of the ensemble say the program has profoundly enriched their lives. It has served as a kind of beacon for many budding musicians who have practiced their instruments with dedication for many years in order to pass the audition and play in the highly esteemed band.
There is a long list of successful professional musicians who learned much of their craft at Berkeley High.
“So many great players have come through Berkeley High. It’s a great feeling to be a part of this legacy,” said saxophonist Liam Reilly.
Part of the legacy is the players’ continued dedication and development. Many seniors graduate from the jazz ensemble with a clear sense of direction, a goal of learning more and constantly improving their musicianship.
In the fall, trumpet player Justin James will begin the next phase of his education at San Jose State University, continuing his music studies. “When I first saw the group, I was inspired. When I first heard the trumpet section, I couldn’t believe that I’d ever be able to play like that.”
James credits Hamilton, whom students affectionately call “Ham,” for helping him develop his technique and expressiveness. “I love Ham. He might not know it, but I love him.”
The students appreciate Hamilton’s dedication. They say they love the music and the man who teaches it to them. Through the study of jazz, James said he has learned the value of self-discipline, and offers advice for young musicians. “It might be tedious or boring to practice, but just stick with it.”
Hamilton knows how to motivate. He challenges the students with difficult music. “When it’s a challenge, they’re into it. You have to find music that sparks their interest.”
Hamilton recognizes that attitudes have changed through the years. “When I was in high school, educators were still debating whether jazz was worth being taught. Now everybody’s on fire about these guys like Monk and Mingus. People have come to realize that it is good stuff. The acceptance of jazz has evolved.”
Saxophonist Hitomi Oba said he has been influenced by the school district’s music program, having begun to learn his instrument in the fourth grade. “All through middle school, it was my big goal to get into the jazz ensemble,” he said. “A lot of younger kids tell me how much they want to get in, and how much they’re going to practice.”
Many of these students have been exposed to jazz for many years.
“It’s a real big deal to me,” says drummer Justin Brown. “I remember seeing the Berkeley High jazz band when I was in the fifth grade.”
The band’s influence has not been limited to music. The jazz program caused Brown to perform better academically as well.“Freshman year I got pulled out of the band. I was doing bad with my grades, so my dad pulled me out. My grades have been back up, so I got back in the band.”
A Friday concert, the last of the year, will include a set from the Lab band, a sort of junior varsity squad that already displays some serious talent. A pair of small combos made up of members of the Ensemble will each play a short set, perhaps featuring some original compositions.
Last year was a great year for the band, which earned a flood of rave reviews and won several competitions. When nine seniors graduated, some folks worried that the quality of playing might decline. Brown reflected on the turnover. “We were pretty nervous this year, because so many good players left. But it worked out really good: I’ve been surprised. I think the band is better this year. We’re tighter. We play dynamics better.”
In July, the Ensemble will spend two weeks in Europe, playing at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in Switzerland and the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy.
Oba says he is excited about the upcoming tour. “We might have something to share with European audiences that they might not have heard. There definitely is a ‘Berkeley sound,’ a lot of energy.”
Bass player Tom Altura sees the tour as a chance to learn: “I’m looking forward to seeing the great players. We’ll get to see so much great jazz in one place.”
Saxophonist Brenden Millstein said the tour will broaden his horizons. “It’s a great way to meet lots of people and learn lots of things. We get to experience other cultures. When we went to Japan, we stayed with Japanese families. That was fascinating, a great cultural experience.”
Hamilton is also looking forward to the tour. “We’re putting the kids on a world stage for an audience that’s enthusiastic about the music. You put an audience like that with players like this, and it adds up to one thing: total excitement.”