Dr. HERB WONG
March, 18,1926 ~ April 20, 2014
Berkeley Unified School District’s jazz program lost one of its founding fathers when Dr. Herb Wong passed away April 20th, 2014 at the age of 88.
Dr. Wong was the visionary principal of Washington Elementary School responsible for hiring Phil Hardymon, Dick Whittington, Bob Chacona and others to teach jazz, back in the late 1960s, at a time when few people in the nation believed in jazz education at the elementary school level. In the words of current BHS Jazz Director Sarah Cline, herself a BHS alum: “This vision gave so many of us the opportunity to learn about jazz, fall in love with the music, and become the artists and people that we are today. Scores of professional jazz artists are alumni of the program Dr. Wong started, nurtured, believed in, and stumped for.”
Raised in Oakland and Stockton, Wong served in World War II before pursuing his twin passions of jazz and science. Though he had a master’s degree from San Jose State University and a doctorate from UC Berkeley in zoology, Wong was not content just to be a leader in revamping science education in the post-Sputnik era: he nurtured his lifelong passion for jazz as a KJAZ host for almost four decades, and as a writer who contributed hundreds of liner notes as well as articles for Down Beat and Jazz Educators Journal. As a teacher and later an administrator in Oakland and Berkeley schools, he was an innovator who recruited hardworking colleagues willing to break out of conventional molds and cross boundaries, to challenge themselves and their students.
His work as a DJ and as a judge at school music competitions positioned him to identify the qualities of musical commitment beyond mere technical excellence, and his acumen as a critic and producer led to successful pioneering collaborations between performers and teachers. His intuition as an administrator guided him to spot talented musicians who would become top-flight music educators, and he tirelessly worked to augment his faculty and steer the curriculum at Washington Elementary, then a Laboratory School for the University of California.
Dr. Wong’s friendship with Oscar Peterson led to an unprecedented 1965 visit to Washington Elementary’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, Berkeley schools saw visits from Rahsan Roland Kirk and his quintet, Vi Redd, Phil Woods, Duke Ellington and others, experiences cited by future professional jazz players as key moments of inspiration.
In Sarah Cline’s words: “Another giant has fallen. Continuing to carry out Dr. Wong’s vision falls to those of us who remain”
More about Dr. Herb Wong:
Memorial from KQED on Dr. Wong:
In 2009 at the BHS Jazz Ensemble Alumni All Stars Concert, Dr. Wong spoke at length about the program that he developed. This video features one number by the 1977 to 2008 BHS Jazz Alumni All Stars and the words of Dr. Herb Wong.
Dr. Wong’s Oral History in the UCB archives, 1998 (includes a discussion with Peter Apfelbaum, BHS Jazz alum)
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.
Below is a great document of the beginnings of the jazz program in the Berkeley public schools, the brainchild of Dr. Herb Wong, who speaks in the first video. It was one of the first school jazz programs in the country – possibly THE first in elementary school!
The kids’ performance is a testament to the masterful teaching skills of Hardymon & Whittington, as well to their own talent. And, it didn’t hurt having a rhythm section with 5th-grader Rodney Franklin (keyboards) & a 4th-grade Peter Apfelbaum (drums).
And lastly, it is proof of what a high level music in the schools can rise to when there is a full music program, with kids learning their instruments starting in 4th grade. This band plays so beautifully!
Listen to Dr. Wong talking at the Reno Jazz Festival about the Longfellow elementary jazz program in 1970:
At that link there are also 9 more sound files of the Longfellow jazz band performing at the Reno Festival that day.