Herb Wong: Visionary founder of BUSD’s jazz program

As principal of Washington Elementary School, Herb Wong, right,  invited world-class big bands to perform for students. Photo: BUSD

As principal of Washington Elementary School in the 1960s, Herb Wong, center right, seen here with Duke Ellington, invited world-class big bands to perform for students. Photo: Suzanne McCullough

By Sarah Cline, Jazz Program Director at Berkeley High School

We at Berkeley High School and in BUSD Jazz lost our founding father this Easter. Dr. Herb Wong passed early in the morning Sunday April 20. He was 88.

Wong was the visionary principal of Washington Elementary School who was responsible for hiring Phil Hardymon, Dick Wittington and Bob Chaconas to teach jazz to little kids in the Berkeley Unified School District, way back in the late 1960s. At the time, Wong was one of a very few people in the nation who believed in jazz education at the elementary school level — as music education, as a part of the civil rights movement, and as a way of propagating a truly democratic and artistic spirit among those of us in the next generation.

There was no existing jazz curriculum written for little kids, and so Wong’s newly hired teachers set about creating it. Their work showed the way to an entire nation  In the meantime, Wong brought famous jazz musicians — including Duke Ellington and Oscar Peterson — to give concerts at Washington Elementary School. Unbelievable! Talk about idealism. Talk about the 1960s. Talk about Berkeley. Talk about Herb Wong.

It was this vision of Wong’s that gave so many of us the opportunity to learn about jazz, fall in love with the music, and become the artists and people we are today. Scores of professional jazz artists are alumni of the program Wong started, nurtured, believed in, and stumped for.

BHS Jazz has been planning to honor Dr. Wong at our annual alumni concert, this year on June 1. The City of Berkeley is set to issue an award, and now, very sadly, it will have to be presented posthumously. Another giant has fallen.

Continuing Wong’s vision falls to those of us who remain. In 2009, at the BHS Jazz Ensemble Alumni All Stars Concert, Herb Wong spoke at length about the program that he developed. I had the opportunity to record his talk in a previously unreleased video. This video features one number by the 1977 to 2008 BHS Jazz Alumni Al Stars, and the words of Dr. Herb Wong, which start at the 10-minute mark.

Read more about Herb Wong in an obituary published by the Bay Area News Group

Memorial Services will be held on Tuesday May 13 at 2:00 p.m., at Menlo Presbyterian Church, 950 Santa Cruz Ave., Menlo Park.

Update, 5.14.14: Berkeley High Jazz Program alumni will honor the late Dr. Herb Wong, father of Berkeley School Jazz Programs, at the 3rd Annual Berkeley High School Jazz Alumni Concert on June 1. Some of their finest musicians, spanning decades of Berkeley High Jazz, will celebrate his life.

The concert will be held on Sunday June 1st from 2-5pm at the Coventry Grove, a private outdoor performance space in Kensington. Music director for the Berkeley High Jazz Alumni All-Stars will be Charles Hamilton, who helmed the storied BHS Jazz program from 1981 through 2009.

The show will be emceed by KCSM/Jazz 91 deejay Jesse “Chuy” Varela. While the final lineup for the Alumni All-Stars is still shaping up, performers include multi-instrumentalist Peter Apfelbaum, saxophonists Bennett Friedman and Hitomi Oba, bassonist Paul Hanson, percussionist Josh Jones, trombonist Sarah Cline, and surprise guests. The event benefits the Berkeley High Jazz Program. In addition, current Berkeley High advanced combos, one just back from performing at the Monterey Jazz Festival, will perform sets with guest alumni sitting in.

Feel free to share your messages of condolence and/or memories of Herb Wong in the comments.

Berkeleyside is always honored to publish, at no cost, obituaries of members of the Berkeley community. Please email text and photo(s) to editors@berkeleyside.com.

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  • dianarossi

    Thank you Ms. Cline for your moving and informative words. Dr. Wong’s life seems to be an example of how one person’s actions can have a profound effect on strangers, even 50 years later.

    Both of my kids have participated in the BUSD Jazz program and so have been beneficiaries of Dr. Wong’s vision. Their experience of the Jazz Program has altered, (for the better!), their view of Berkeley High and of themselves. The positive impact that this program has had and is having on their overall development is immeasurable.

    I send our family’s condolences to Dr. Wong’s family and friends. Please know that Dr. Wong’s spirit and forethought lives on in the music that my children and thousands of other jazz students make everyday. Our family is deeply grateful.

    Diana Rossi
    for Diana Rossi, Jeff Goldthorpe, Arturo and Rosa

  • Anna Marie Taylor

    Herb Wong was recently included in the exhibit organized by the McGee-Spaulding-Hardy-Historic Interest Group (MSHHIG) http://www.mshhig.com/‎ at the Berkeley Historical Society. In addition to his great contributions to jazz in the schools, Herb Wong founded the Environmental Yard at Washington Elementary School. (Today the site of the school’s organic garden.) The Environmental Yard was featured in education journals and imitated in schools throughout the country. Wong also co-wrote beautifully illustrated children’s books on zoological subjects, one of which, “The Worm,” was in our exhibit. It is important to note that the Oral History Project of the University of California’s Bancroft Library includes the following interview and photograph: Dr. Herbert H. Wong

    Teacher, Administrator, Author, Innovator: A Passion for Jazz and Science Education. 2009.

  • Kira

    Thank you for this wonderful article. My dad was an amazing person. In his eyes, music and nature were connected to each other on many levels. He loved sharing his passion for both and I never got tired of hearing his stories. I’m so happy that his enthusiasm lives on through his students and the programs that he left behind.

    His memorial will held on Tuesday, May 13th, at Menlo Presbyterian Church: 950 Santa Cruz Ave., Menlo Park, at 2:00 PM. It is open to anyone who would like to attend.