In Memoriam Herb Wong, 1926-2014

Eulogy by John Stenzel, BHS Jazz Parent
Tuesday April 22, 2014 - 10:16:00 PM

Berkeley Unified’s music program lost one of its founding fathers when Dr. Herb Wong passed away Sunday at the age of 88. BHS Jazz was planning to honor Dr. Wong at our annual alumni concert on June 1st, with the City of Berkeley set to issue an award, but now, sadly, it will have to be presented posthumously. 

Dr. Wong was the visionary principal of Washington Elementary School, responsible for hiring Phil Hardymon, Dick Whittington, Bob Chaconas and others to teach jazz to children back in the late 1960s, when few people in the nation believed in jazz education at the elementary school level.  

In the words of current BHS Jazz Director Sarah Cline, herself a BHS alum: “This vision gave so many of us the opportunity to learn about jazz, fall in love with the music, and become the artists and people that we are today. Scores of professional jazz artists are alumni of the program Dr. Wong started, nurtured, believed in, and stumped for.” 

Raised in Oakland and Stockton, Wong served in World War II before pursuing his twin passions of jazz and science. Though he had a master's degree from San Jose State University and a doctorate from UC Berkeley in zoology, Wong was not content just to be a leader in revamping science education in the post-Sputnik era: he nurtured his lifelong passion for jazz as a KJAZ host for almost four decades, and as a writer who contributed hundreds of liner notes as well as articles for Down Beat and Jazz Educators Journal. As a teacher and later an administrator in Oakland and Berkeley schools, he was an innovator who recruited hardworking colleagues willing to break out of conventional molds and cross boundaries, to challenge themselves and their students. 

His work as a DJ and as a judge at school music competitions positioned him to identify the qualities of musical commitment beyond mere technical excellence, and his acumen as a critic and producer led to successful pioneering collaborations between performers and teachers. His intuition as an administrator guided him to spot talented musicians who would become top-flight music educators, and he tirelessly worked to augment his faculty and steer the curriculum at Washington Elementary, then a Laboratory School for the University of California. 

As principal Dr. Wong was upfront about both his pet agendas, science education and jazz, and by his persistence and prodigious effort he was able to convince his own teachers, district administrators, the University, even the National Science Foundation to support his audacious and successful vision. Before there was an Edible Schoolyard, Washington had its Environmental Yard, with teachers and programs attracting national and international recognition for their successful integration of diverse academic, social and creative initiatives. 

Dr. Wong’s friendship with Oscar Peterson led to an unprecedented 1965 visit to Washington Elementary’s auditorium, where the group played for two assemblies. Each thoughtfully integrated into Wong’s program of curriculum enrichment, culminating with the trio taking suggested notes from the kids and “co-composing” a tune to be improvised and fleshed out on the spot. In the years that followed, Berkeley schools saw visits from Rahsan Roland Kirk and his quintet, Vi Redd, Phil Woods, Duke Ellington and others, experiences cited by future professional jazz players as key moments of inspiration. 

In Sarah Cline’s words: “Another giant has fallen. Continuing to carry out Dr. Wong's vision falls to those of us who remain.” 

In 2009 at the BHS Jazz Ensemble Alumni All Stars Concert, Dr. Wong spoke at length about the program that he developed. This video features one number by the 1977 to 2008 BHS Jazz Alumni All Stars, and the story of Dr. Herb Wong’s journey in the Berkeley public schools. 

BHS Jazz Ensemble Alumni All Stars and Dr. Herb Wong: