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The JazzSchool Thrives in the Berkeley Arts District

Mills College Weekly

When Susan Muscarella dug into her own pocket, eight years ago, to invest in a school that would educate students about the practice and theories of jazz, she had complete confidence that a few people would be interested.

Little did she know that her school for jazz studies would become a hot spot for musicians, composers and afficionados of jazz music and earn prestige throughout the Bay Area.

Today, as Muscarella sits behind her office desk and pulls her soft brown hair behind her ears, the 54-year-old is proud of how The JazzSchool, now located in the Arts District of Downtown Berkeley, has succeeded and blossomed.

Muscarella decided to found a school for jazz studies in 1996. Initially, the school was solely owned by Muscarella, who took out loans to pay for the facilities and faculty. Then, about a year ago, the school shifted to a non-profit organization-now jointly owned by a Board of Directors that contributes funds to the school.

Prior to establishing The JazzSchool, Muscarella had served as Director of UC Jazz Ensembles at UC Berkeley for five years, taught at UC Berkeley, and played jazz piano professionally in ensembles and solo performances.

"I was willing for it to not work, if it wasn't meant to be, but I had a lot of confidence that there would be people interested in it," Muscarella said.

Muscarella paid for the initial building, where Berkeley restaurant La Nota is now, in 1997.

"As soon as the first students came, we realized that the building would be too small," she said.

As a result, in January 2002, the school relocated to 2087 Addison St., finding itself appropriately placed in what is now called the "Downtown Berkeley Arts District."

There, the school is nestled with the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the Aurora Theatre, Capoeira Arts, and the Art and Music Room at the Berkeley Public Library. The building looks vibrant and new. The Addison Street sidewalk leading up to The JazzSchool, and other parts of the Downtown Berkeley Arts District, is covered with poems engraved into the concrete (the project itself being funded by donors and tax payers).

Upon walking down the sidewalk and through the purple lined entrance of The JazzSchool, down a flight of stairs, one immediately locates the school's students, faculty, and facilities. Clean, modern, and-most importantly-soundproofed classrooms line the hallways. In one, a student and teacher sit side by side on a piano bench, working on a composition. A teacher Xeroxes music for members of an ensemble to play. The building is filled to the brim with a tight, anxious energy.

At The JazzSchool, the enrollment ranges from middle school students, who are first learning the ins and outs of their instruments, to musicians who are retirement age. Students can choose from classes lasting 10 weeks in the fall, winter, and spring semesters, six week summer classes, or one-day workshops that pop up throughout the year.

Examples of workshops include "Learning from the Jazz Masters," held on Dec. 5, which will give instruction on listening to jazz recordings in order to increase jazz vocabulary and develop concepts for soloing. Coming up later in the month, on Dec. 10, there is a workshop entitled "Small Group Performance" that will teach students how to play jazz in small ensembles.

Though part of a now flourishing arts community, The JazzSchool is the only one of its kind in the Bay Area, aside from ensembles and classes available to adults at local colleges.

The school has also developed programs of study, or specific aspects and genres of music that relate to jazz. When asked who develops these programs of study, Muscarella responded, "At first I determined most of it because I wanted a well-rounded program." But, as the school began to flourish and adopt more students and faculty, their interests and specialties also played a role in what classes were taught and what programs were developed.

Today the school offers a wide variety of programs and musical focuses, including African Music Studies, Rock and Pop, Literature and Music, Harmonica, and Recording and Sound.  Each program consists of several classes that eduate on aspects of the program.

Larua Evens, a senior at Mills studyiing bocal performance, has taken numerious classes at The JazzSchool.  "It's a beautiful atmosphere for people who are out for the betterment of jazz.  People really out to help each other, as well as teach," Evans said.

Of the faculty at The JazzSchool Muscarella said, " Our faculkty are very special; I awlays think of them as the heart of The JazzSchool, They are considered the best performers and educators in the Bya Area."

JazzSchool faculty who have thought workshops or full-length cources include trombonist Conrad Herwig, who was voted #1 Jazz Trobonist in the 2002 Downbeat Jazz Critics Poll and performs with the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band and Mills College vocal instructor Molly Holm.  In addition, the school has been vbisited by a considerable amount of current jazz artists such as New York-based drummer Terry Lynn Carrington, who received a full scholarship at 11 years old to study at Berkelee College of Music and has since played with jazz greeats such as Herbie Hancock, Mike Stern and Branford Marsalis.

David Belove, an electric bassist who plays in ensembles throughout the Bay Area and its an adjunct faculty member at Mills, also teaches salsa and Latin jass workshops at The JazzSchool.  " I like being able to pass on the knowledge that I've gained through years of experience," he said.  "There's a lot of aspects to playing in ensembles that arent' in any books and the only way to get that knowledge is through a teacher who's been ther and done that.  All the teachers at The JazzSchool are players on the scene and have a wealth of knowledge about the musical businessa and social aspects of being a professional musician."

Aside from hosting classes and concerts, The JazzSchool also includes a restaurant, JazzCaffe, where studetns, parents and faculty can eat and congregate, and a bookstore filled with CDs, play-along music books, and textbooks called The Bassment, as well as a photography gallery called The Jazz Image.

For any followers of jazz music, The JazzSchool is a headc=quaters not to be overlooked. "People say, 'It's one stop shopping for jazz,' for any followers of jazz music," saud Muscarella.

Upcoming concerts at The JazzSchool include the Brubeck Institute Jazz Quartet featuring upright bassist Rufus Reid on Friday, Dec.10, and John Calloway and DIASPORA- salasa dance party with an open dance floor- on Dec. 12. Tickets prices are $12 for JazzSchool students, $15 for ouside students and $`8 for general admission.