Scientific swing, Dr. Herb Wong and BUSD jazz

Herb Wong had one condition before he took over as Principal of BUSD’s Washington Elementary School in the early 1960s. He insisted on infusing the curriculum with music education starting in kindergarten, including a generous helping of jazz, an initiative that led directly to Berkeley High’s emergence the following decade as the nation’s foremost proving ground for brilliant young improvisers.

Paul Fingerote got to know Wong during his three-decade run as publicist for the Monterey Jazz Festival, where Wong was a regular on-stage presence as an interviewer and emcee. He’ll be sharing stories about the pioneering educator, who died at the age of 88 in 2014, at 8 p.m. Saturday at the California Jazz Conservatory. The recollections will be drawn from the book he compiled with Wong Jazz on My Mind: Liner Notes, Anecdotes and Conversations from the 1940s to the 2000s, starting with the time that Wong brought the entire Duke Ellington Orchestra to Berkeley High for a student performance.

A musical and multi-media production, Fingerote’s presentation includes cover art of albums that Wong produced for the two labels he founded, Palo Alto and Black Hawk Records, photos, and stories interspersed with standards performed by Jamie Zimmer (aka Jamie Zee), a gifted young singer studying at the CJC. Beyond his work in the BUSD, “Herb had strong connections to Berkeley, starting when he got his PhD in zoology at Cal,” notes Fingerote, who recently signed on as the CJC’s director of marketing and public relations.

“He became a science educator, which is what made him so attractive to BUSD. He was a different kind of teacher. He had kids doing hands-on experiments, and the story was that they called his classroom Dr. Wong’s Laundry because of all the experiments hanging from the ceiling. He agreed to take gig at Washington if they allowed him to teach kids jazz as well as science. When Herb brought in the Ellington Orchestra he involved ‘Take the A Train’ in every level of study, all relating back to this jazz tune.”


Ellington wasn’t the only jazz legend who spent time with BUSD students. As a long-time deejay on the Bay Area jazz station KJAZZ and a scholar often hired to write album liner notes, Wong had become good friends with many musicians, and he coaxed numerous stars to visit Berkeley schools, including Oscar Peterson, Rashaan Roland Kirk, Vi Redd, and Phil Woods, while designing coursework for each grade so that teachers incorporated the concerts into their lesson plans.

One reason that Wong’s initiative was so successful is that he had a remarkable group of teachers who were also highly regarded musicians, including trumpeter Phil Hardymon, reed player Richard Hadlock, pianist Dick Whittington, and saxophonist George Yoshida (the presence of three male kindergarten teachers at Washington was so exceptional that a newspaper wrote a feature about them). They were able to put musical meat on the bones of Wong’s curriculum, teaching musical principles, bringing in their colleagues to play, and encouraging kids to try out different instruments.

At the time, Washington was a laboratory campus linked to UC Berkeley, which meant Wong had much more latitude to experiment. He was able to fund the program partly through funding from the National Science Foundation (which also helped support an environmental studies program decades ahead of its time, but that’s another story). By the late 1960s, a group of precociously talented young musicians from Washington, such as pianist Rodney Franklin and saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum, started performing their original compositions around the region, often in the company of professional players. And as they moved through the school system, from Washington to Longfellow to Berkeley High, Wong made sure that Hardymon moved with them, so by the early 1970s Berkeley High suddenly emerged with one of the most explosively talented jazz bands in the country.

The results speak for themselves. Over the past 40 years no high school in the United States has produced more world-class jazz talent than Berkeley High. The contemporary jazz scene would sound much different today without the contributions of visionary BUSD alumni such as multi-instrumentalist Peter Apfelbaum, trumpeters Steve Bernstein, Ambrose Akinmusire, Jonathan Finlayson, and Billy Buss, guitarists Will Bernard and Charles Altura, flutist Elena Pinderhughes, drummer Justin Brown, saxophonists Craig Handy, Dayna Stephens, and Jessica Jones, pianist Benny Green and many others.

This prodigious track record would be remarkable for any institution, but in the case of Berkeley High, it takes places against a backdrop of declining support for the arts in California public school post-Proposition 13. Even more impressive is the fact that Berkeley High isn’t an arts magnet, unlike other public school programs that have produced an impressive roster of jazz alumni, like Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

While Wong ended up resigning his position at Washington in the late 1970s and the campus soon ended its laboratory school status, Berkeley High’s jazz program was well entrenched. When health problems forced Hardymon to retire, the respected brass player Charles Hamilton took over, and he led the program for 23 years, nurturing successive generations of aspiring improvisers.

Fingerote got to know Hamilton via the Monterey Jazz Festival’s California High School Jazz Competition (now called the Next Generation Festival), where Berkeley High triumphed so often “we used to joke we should just fill in name before we started,” he says. “Charles Hamilton impressed me from the get go. He was a strong proponent who kept it going, winning year after year. What Wong, Hardymon and Charles created is monumental. I don’t think there was anything like it.”

Vocalist Jamie Zimmer, who recently placed second in the Jazz Search West competition, performs Saturday as part of Paul Fingerote’s presentation about Dr. Herb Wong, the father of the BUSD jazz program. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Berkeley High’s program continues to train exceptional young musicians under the direction of trombonist Sarah Cline, herself an alumnus of the program. In recent years many of those players also take classes at the CJC, and with Fingerote joining the school’s staff the institution announced in March a three-year sponsorship agreement with Monterey’s Next Generation Festival. As he delves into the next chapter of his life in jazz, Fingerote is enjoying all of the interconnections, like “doing this presentation in the CJC’s hall named after Phil Hardymon, who was Herb’s partner in introducing jazz ed to the world.

“His scientific background is one reason why he lasted 70 years in this music and became such a prominent figure so closely associated with all the great names. He had this way of talking and asking questions and was this great interviewer. The thread of this show is really Herb’s stories about the artists, but the real hit of this show is Jamie Zimmer, who’s such a talented young lady. She was a runner up in Jazz Search West, and she’ll be singing some tunes associated with artists in the book. I’ll read excepts from the book, but she turns it into a show.