History of the Berkeley High Jazz Program

Bob Lutt

1950′s “Lab Band” at BHS

In 1954, Bob Lutt became the Director of Bands at Berkeley High School, and during his 20 year tenure his bands played in the Winter Olympic Games at Squaw Valley, the Seattle World’s Fair, and the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Besides being invited to play at Disneyland 10 times these bands had 15 straight years of ‘Superior’ ratings at California music educators festivals. One of the groups Bill Lutt directed was called the ‘Lab Band,’ and they played Jazz.

HerbWong-HISTORYJazz Takes Root In BUSD

In 1966, Dr.Herb Wong, jazz aficionado, DJ and innovative educator became principal of Washington Elementary, then a Laboratory School for the University of California. Wong began his work at Washington School with the specific intent of having science and jazz as two of the curriculum, research and development areas. At that time there was no actual jazz curriculum in the classroom or in the instrumental music programs in the Berkeley elementary or middle schools. In 1967, Wong hired professional musician and teacher Phil Hardymon as an elementary school instrumental music teacher and reassigned Dick Whittington, professional pianist, as a ‘music resource teacher’ where he visited each 4th, 5th and 6th grade classroom one period a week. Because no one had tried to teach jazz to such young students, Hardymon and Whittington had to develop their own materials for students to play. Whittington taught sight singing, ear training, jazz improvisation and appreciation; using recorders and song bells. Before the first year was out, all of his students were able to play improvised chorus of the “blues” on the song bells and recorders, using at least 5 notes (later known as the “blues scale”). The students who were also in the instrumental program, began exploring jazz on their instruments. Together, Whittington and Hardymon started an after school jazz workshop Then 2nd grade drummer, Peter Apfelbaum and 4th grade pianist, Rodney Franklin, formed a solid rhythm section for the next 3-4 years. Hardymon started writing charts that were challenging, but manageable for 9-11 year olds, which, at the same time, sounded beautiful. And, most important, the kids were motivated to play them. Whittington taught improvisation, ear training, sketched out simple tunes as improv vehicles, and worked with the rhythm section. The administration encouraged what they did, but it was all on our own time with no compensation.

Dr. Wong’s friendship with Oscar Peterson led to an unprecedented visit to Washington elementary school’s auditorium, where the group played for two assemblies. Each thoughtfully integrated into Wong’s program of curriculum enrichment, culminating with the trio taking suggested notes from the kids and “co-composing” a tune to be improvised and fleshed out on the spot. In the years that followed, Wong coordinated school visits from Rahsan Roland Kirk and his quintet, Vi Redd, Phil Woods, Martha Young, Duke Ellington and others, experiences cited by future professional jazz players as key moments of inspiration. Wong personally contracted Duke Ellington to perform in Berkeley High School Community Theater. This Duke Ellington concert was a celebration of desegregation.

When the Schools desegregated in 1968, Wong coordinated with the district administration to have Whittington and Hardymon take the jazz program to Longfellow School (grades 4-6) where it grew into a 25 piece band. The next year the district realized that it had the integrated music program that was especially relevant to African-American students and Hardymon and Whittington were re-assigned to develop jazz bands in all the 4-6 schools and both Middle schools and Bob Chacona was hired to teach with them. For the next 3 years, the Longfellow School bands traveled all over the Bay Area, playing and giving clinics for schools and music educators. The inspired collaboration worked, and by the early 70′s, all schools in Berkeley had jazz bands.

In 2014 BHS Jazz alumni, from many years, came together to perform a concert to honor the the life of Herb Wong. At that concert, Herb Wong was recognized (posthumously) by the City of Berkeley for his work in the Berkeley schools.

Read more about Herb Wong here.

Phil Hardymon-HISTORYBHS Jazz Goes National

When Phil Hardymon became the band director at Berkeley High School in 1975, he established the jazz band as the culmination for students who had gained the basics in their elementary and middle schools. Under Hardymon’s leadership, the band began winning state-wide jazz competitions and often earned a spot at the Monterey Jazz Festival. The Berkeley Jazz Program thus developed into a national model of instrumental education. Hardymon’s arrangements for elementary and junior high school jazz bands are still in print and used in schools across the country.

As Phil Hardymon put it: “Just the discipline it takes to play with other people, to get your notes to the same place where the other people are–boy, it’s hard. There’s no letup; the pressure is on from here to the end of the piece. It demands full concentration, full intellectual use of your brain. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the strongest discipline in the world.’”(S.F. Bay Guardian)

Below you can listen to the KJAZ broadcast of Jimmy Lyons introducing Herb Wong, who is in turn presenting an award to Phil Hardymon. This was recorded in 1979 after the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble won the High School Competition at the Monterey Jazz Festival.

Jimmy Lyons introducing Herb Wong: Lyons/Wong/Hardymon Monterey 1979

Charles Hamilton-HistoryJazz Inspirations Launched from BHS

Charles Hamilton (http://charleshamilton.net/) took over leadership of the Jazz program in 1981 and the jazz program continued to thrive and develop some of the best musicians in the jazz world. In his 28 years as director, Charles Hamilton inspired some of the world’s most sought after musicians, in jazz as well as hip hop and rock. Charles Hamilton retired from his position as director in 2009.

Read more about Charles Hamilton’s tenure at Berkeley High School over at: Berkeley Daily Planet  and at the East Bay Express

To celebrate Charles Hamilton’s directorship, many BHS Jazz Alumni performed together at a memorable All Star BHS Jazz Alumni Concert

After Charles Hamilton’s retirement, Scott Dailey taught jazz and vocal music 2009-2011.

Cline3a-BHSJ-HistoryIn 2011, Sarah Cline, herself a BHS Jazz alumna and professional trombonist, became the Director of the Berkeley High Jazz Program, beginning a new era in the history of jazz at Berkeley High School.

Community and Parent Support Sustains Music Education

The band’s existence as the “indisputable jewel in Berkeley’s musical crown” [S.F. Bay Guardian] was jeopardized in 1994 when the Berkeley Unified School District, faced with an overwhelming deficit, voted to eliminate the elementary instrumental program. It was clear that the blossoming program at Berkeley High could not survive without its roots in the elementary school program. In six months time, support from community and parents raised over $300,000 to continue the elementary and middle school music program! Soon thereafter, Berkeley voters added music education to the programs funded by the supplemental property parcel tax measure known as BSEP – the Berkeley Schools Excellence Project.

In the 1990s, parents of several Berkeley High School Jazz Ensemble students formed a group to support the Jazz Program. In 2004, this parent group became a 501(c)(3) organization called the Berkeley High Jazz Association. This organization of parents continues to raise money and provide logistical support for the program. Check out more info about the Berkeley High Jazz Parent Association.

BHS Jazz Ensemble Around The World

The Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble has performed in venues large and small. In 1997, they performed by invitation at the Montreux and North Sea Jazz Festivals. In the summer of 1999, the Ensemble toured Japan and began the 1999-2000 school year with an appearance at the Monterey Jazz Festival. In 2013 and in 2014 the Ensemble traveled to Cuba. 


Over the many years, numerous BHSJ students have won individual and Jazz Combo awards at Jazz festivals and have been award music scholarships to the best music schools in the nation. In both 2012 and 2013, the top BHS Jazz Combos won first place at the Next Generation Jazz Festival in Monterey earning them a slot at the Monterey Jazz Festival. In 2012 and in 2013, two different top BHS Jazz Combos were named High School Combo of the Year by Downbeat Magazine. In 2015 the top BHS Jazz Combo was invited to participate in the Mingus Jazz Festival in New York City where they won the top combo award.

Jazz Alumni Are Saying ….

To learn more about our alumni click here.

“As great and visionary as the jazz program was, it has to be said that the entire BUSD music program was incredibly rich in the ’70′s. Each elementary and junior high had a band, orchestra, jazz band, and choir, with individual instrument classes (trumpet, clarinet, etc.) starting in fourth grade! BHS – in addition to TWO full jazz bands – offered jazz combos, concert band, chamber winds ensemble, orchestra, two choirs, pep band, music theory, and piano classes! Not to mention Cazadero Music Camp, which as a City of Berkeley camp was completely coordinated with the district’s music program and kept the learning going over the summer. Mind boggling, how much music was available to Berkeley kids then.” Peck Allmond ’80

“The Jazz education and music culture was nurtured here in the very early 70′s, led by the big three: Herb Wong, Dick Whittington and Phil Hardymon. Because of the lack of published Jazz material for grade school level kids, Hardymon wrote his own scores of simple jazz material for students to perform and learn to improvise. As a former trumpet player himself, Phil did everything he could to educate young musicians; gave them albums, cassettes to bring home, had listening sessions and created numerous opportunities to rehearse and play together. By the time the kids got to Berkeley High School they were aware of the music of Charlie Parker, Ellington, Basie and other Jazz musicians. One thing I realize now in retrospect was that no matter how proficient a young soloist was on their instrument, they always tried to create their own individual style. This was organically the most important aspect of musicians coming through and moving on from the Berkeley High Jazz program.” Robbie Kwock ’76

“One of the cool things about being in the band, for me–and this is true for everybody, I’m sure–is that it’s one of the only things at Berkeley High that truly has people from all over the place. You don’t get that in the other departments.” Abe Katz-Milder ’99.

“BHS Jazz has helped birth some of the most creative musicians of the last 30 years, regardless of style/genre. One night at Juniors in Brooklyn, before an Ellington Nutcracker concert at BAM, I was sitting with the legendary Jerome Richardson (BHS 1939), he turned to me and said “Yellowjackets”…we have a LONG history at BHS… Keep arts alive in the schools…creativity spurs innovation!” Steven Bernstein ’79

“The music program at BHS helped our music awareness and helped shape so many musicians careers to this day. I still speak proudly about our music culture to many musicians around the country to this day.” Robbie Kwock ’76

“The foment of creativity was palpable, and the diligence of music students – contagious. The friendships forged in that fire are lifelong.” Jessica Jones ’77

“The Berkeley High Jazz program opened up opportunities for me to be a leader and compose music that people would hear and appreciate. It was a turning point for me.” Peter Hargreaves ‘04

“Jazz combos are built around the values of individual expression within an environment of intricate, sensitive group interaction and cooperation. For BHS to produce so many outstanding combo musicians for decades in a row does not mean there is “something in the water up there in Berkeley,” as some journalists like to suggest. Rather, it means we come from a community that shares and supports these values. There are tons of examples of student creativity and voice and cooperative art-making bursting out of the seams of the Berkeley High School campus, as well as the community at large. Berkeley was named one of the best communities nationwide for music education, in large part because our population has voted for parcel taxes specifically to provide opportunities for our young people for just the kind of creative growth and expression exemplified by our jazz combos.” Sarah Cline ’81

More about BHS Jazz history:
Berkeley High Still Swings