Guitarist Eric Thompson has been the heart and soul of Berkeley’s old-time and American roots music scene since the mid-1960s, but he got his start down the peninsula in Palo Alto as the youngest member of the Black Mountain Boys, a bluegrass trio featuring Jerry Garcia on five-string banjo and David Nelson on mandolin. A short-lived combo that never recorded — though there’s a bootleg or two floating around — the Black Mountain Boys are regrouping for a performance Friday as part of Ashkenaz’s 40th anniversary celebration (which kicks off tonight with a talent-laden band led by Garcia’s future Grateful Dead bandmate Mickey Hart).
Good bass players are rarely in want of work, but since arriving in the Bay Area two years ago to teach at the Jazzschool Institute, Jeff Denson has been keeping a fairly low profile. Over the past two years he’s generally been too busy teaching or performing internationally with the cooperative trio Minsarah or the octogenarian alto sax legend Lee Konitz to forge ties with Bay Area players, but Sunday afternoon’s Jazzschool gig with saxophonist Mike Zilber offers an opportunity to witness some promising musical relationships taking shape.
Discussions about race and jazz can get heated pretty quickly, like the recent row over New Orleans trumpeter Nicholas Payton’s campaign to rechristen jazz as Black American Music (BAM). A few years back, the Jazzschool and Yoshi’s became embroiled in a controversy over a perceived dearth of black representation, a conversation that aired concerns much bigger than the two local institutions.
Whether she’s caressing an American Songbook standard, reinterpreting a contemporary pop tune, introducing a poetic original, or launching into a high-wire free improvisation, Andrea Wolper is a musical explorer who unfailingly seeks the same destination.
The Berkeley High jazz program is the gift that keeps on giving. Hardly a year goes by without at least a handful of excellent young musicians emerging from its ranks, and, while many head east to attend elite conservatories and music schools, Berkeley’s oversized gravitational pull often brings them back home.
Noam Lemish had been in Bhutan for a few months when he discovered that his efforts to bring new musical currents to the Himalayan kingdom had won a powerful ally. Hired in 2009 to launch a music school in the capital, Thimphu, the Israeli-American jazz pianist dedicated some of his spare time to spinning discs at a radio station, focusing on jazz, Western classical and international music from beyond the borders of the long isolated Buddhist nation.
When Guillermo Garcia moved to the Bay Area in the mid-90s, he was an accomplished tango guitarist whose career path had left little time for performing. Born and raised in Argentina and trained as a sound engineer in Paris at the Pompidou Center’s cutting edge research arm IRCAM, he relocated to Berkeley in 1996 to take a job developing audio technology at the Gibson Guitar facility on 9th Street (a location that Gibson closed years ago).
The word is out on the musicians’ grapevine. When it comes to vocals, the Jazzschool has become an invaluable forum for transmitting the tradition and presenting many of the most creative singers on the scene.
Trumpeter Ellen Seeling and saxophonist Jean Fineberg have never been the types to sit around and moan about injustice. When they got frustrated by the dearth of opportunities for women in Bay Area jazz orchestras, they went ahead and launched their own rip-roaring combo, the Montclair Women’s Big Band, which has earned a devoted following on the strength of its tight ensemble work and improvisational firepower.
Just about every city has a first-call jazz drummer, the player that heavyweight out-of-towners hire when they’re traveling without their own rhythm section. From 1968 until his death last September at 73, Eddie Marshall was the cat who got the call.
If Berkeley had a hall of fame for musicians, pianist Dick Whittington would be inducted as part of the inaugural class. As an educator, presenter, and ebulliently swinging player, he left an indelible mark on the city’s jazz before decamping for the Monterey Peninsula in the mid-1990s.
As the mother of seven daughters who started going through high school in the 1960s, Merrilee Trost thought she had hit on a foolproof plan to help keep the kids away from drugs. Born on the eve of the 1929 stock market crash, she herself had grown up in Kansas City, Mo. soaking up the riffing, rollicking blues of the Count Basie Orchestra while nursing a cola.
In the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, the glorious harmonies on stage flow directly from the harmonious vibe off the bandstand.