Women making history – and music — in Berkeley in March

Susan Muscarella’s California Jazz Conservatory celebrates the opening of the Fiddler Annex with a blast of programming focusing on leading women artists. Photo: Courtesy artist

With the start of Women’s History Month it seems like a good time to point out that there are quite a few women making history right now in Berkeley. In the realm I concentrate on, music, visionary women are in the vanguard in programming and education, or both in the case of the California Jazz Conservatory’s Susan Muscarella.

As of 2014, the CJC became the only free-standing accredited university in the nation devoted solely to the study and performance of jazz. The program’s graduates have already made a powerful impact with recordings that have garnered national attention (see Negative Press Project’s Eternal Life: Jeff Buckley Songs and Sounds). As a presenter, the school was already an essential component of the Downtown Berkeley Arts District, but with last week’s christening of the Fiddler Annex, the CJC’s new space on the south side of Addison, the school expands its capacity to produce concerts with Rendon Hall, an 85-seat venue devoted exclusively to performances.

The week-long celebration marking the Fiddler Annex opening showcases women artists who have been in the trenches for decades as performers, teachers, and activists. Tonight’s concert features the Montclair Women’s Big Band, a talent-packed orchestra co-led by trumpeter Ellen Seeling and saxophonist Jean Fineberg (who also debuts a new female-centric octet JAZZphoria at Rendon Hall on March 9). Laurie Antonioli, who founded and runs the CJC’s innovative jazz vocal program, performs with special guest Theo Bleckmann on Friday. Linda Tillery and The Cultural Heritage Choir consecrate Rendon Hall with an abundance of soul on Saturday.

In what has the makings of a fruitful collaboration, Jazz In the Neighborhood, an organization devoted to creating reasonably remunerative gigs for jazz musicians, is producing a Wednesday night series in Rendon Hall, including cuatro master Jackeline Rago’s Venezuelan jazz Vnote Ensemble on March 7 and the inimitable pianist Tammy Hall and her trio with drummer Ruthie Price and bassist Ruth Davies (on a break from her regular gig with Elvin Bishop) on March 14.


Over at Ashkenaz, the venue’s executive director Brandi Brandes moves from strength to strength after a brilliant series celebrating Black History Month. She and pioneering percussionist Carolyn Brandy dubbed the venue’s March programming highlighting the contributions of extraordinary women artists Maestras, and the party kicks off Friday with a jam session/fundraiser hosted by guitarist Shelley Doty, bassist Angeline Saris, and drummer Denise Martin. On Sunday Jackeline Rago’s VNote Ensemble with flutist Donna Viscuso, bassist Dan Feiszli and percussionist Michaelle Goerlitz plays a dance concert with special guests, including Venezuelan-born vocalist Anna-Maria Violich and trombonist Mara Fox.

The ageless Cuban-born vocalist/percussionist Bobi Céspedes returns to Ashkenaz with her band on March 9, and on March 17 a powerhouse double bill pairs two duos, with East Bay jazz and blues great Faye Carol and pianist Joe Warner, and Linda Tillery with pianist Tammy Hall, the accompanist of choice for many of the region’s finest jazz vocalists.

The Maestras series closes out the month with two fundraisers for Carolyn Brandy’s Women Drummers International, the nonprofit arts organization she founded to open up the world of drumming to girls and women. March 24’s Daughters of the Drum concert features world-jazz singer Amikaeyla and Susu Pampanin and Spirit of Sultana, a women’s percussion ensemble focused on North African percussion, songs and dance. And on March 31, the West-African-inspired ensemble Sistahs of the Drum performs on a double bill with Congolese-born drummer and choreographer Mabiba Baegne with Los Angeles-based Panamanian-born percussionist Nikki Campbell as special guest.

Over at Piedmont Piano in Uptown on March 16, Berkeley pianist Laura Klein celebrates the 100th birthday of the late, beloved pianist and award-winning host of NPR’s Piano Jazz Marian McPartland. She plays with bassist Ruth Davies, drummer Kelly Fasman and saxophonist/flutist Mary Fettig, who recorded with McPartland on her 1979 album At the Festival (Concord Jazz).

And women will be raising their voices at the SheSings Vocal Festival at Freight & Salvage on March 10. The jam-packed program of a cappella ensembles includes Oakland’s MoonCandy, a group steeped in freedom songs, gospel music and ecstatic disco, and the Bay Area’s 35-member Choral Syndicate, the vocal branch of the funk and hip-hop inspired Jazz Mafia family. No group better captures the frisson of making history than Vocal Rush, the Oakland School for the Arts’ vaunted national champion a cappella ensemble, who might just steal the show.

Recommended gigs: Jedi Raz Kennedy/ Fragil Thunder

Vocal Jedi Raz Kennedy continues to reclaim the stage after decades of focusing on teaching and coaching. He’s throwing himself a birthday party Saturday at Freight & Salvage with a formidable crew including well-traveled guitarist Matthew Charles Heulitt, Berkeley bassist extraordinaire Kai Eckhardt, enviably versatile pianist/keyboardist Colin Hogan, and The Coup drummer Hassan Hurd.

Stephen Inglis interprets the music of the Grateful Dead on slack-key guitar with KPFA mainstay David Gans at the Monkey House on Wednesday. Photo: Amber Crago

In one of those ideas that seem both obvious and outlandish, Fragil Thunder brings together longtime Grateful Dead champion David Gans with Stephen Inglis, a Grammy-nominated Hawaiian slack-key guitarist who’s releasing the album, Cut the Dead Some Slack. They perform at the Monkey House on Wednesday, March 7,  infusing the Dead’s signature songs with aloha slack-key spirit.