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History of the Berkeley High Jazz Program

Did you know that Duke Ellington played a concert at the Berkeley High School Community Theater as a celebration of school desegregation? Read on to learn more about the fascinating history of BHS Jazz, from the 1950s to today.

“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.” -- Phil Hardymon

1950's “Lab Band” at BHS


In 1954, Bob Lutt became the Director of Bands at Berkeley High School. 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 Lutt directed was called the “Lab Band,” and they played Jazz.


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 an improvised chorus of the “blues” on the song bells and recorders, using at least five notes (later known as the “blues scale”). The students who were also in the instrumental program began exploring jazz on their instruments. 


Jazz 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 areas of the curriculum, research, and development.

Together, Whittington and Hardymon started an after-school jazz workshop. Then second grade drummer, Peter Apfelbaum and fourth 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 the teachers' 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. Bob Chacona was hired to teach with them. For the next three 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 life of Herb Wong. At that concert, Herb Wong was recognized (posthumously) by the City of Berkeley for his work in the Berkeley schools.


BHS Jazz Goes National


When Phil Hardymon became the band director at Berkeley High School in 1975, he established the jazz band as a culminating experience for students who had gained the basics in their elementary and middle schools. Under Hardymon’s leadership, the band began winning statewide 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.


Jazz Inspirations Launched From BHS


Charles Hamilton took over leadership of the Jazz Program in 1981 and the 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 from 2009-2011.

BHS Jazz Sarah Cline Director (1).jpeg

In 2011, Sarah Cline, herself a BHS Jazz alum 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.

During her time at Berkeley High, she has led multiple travel study tours to Cuba, collaborating with La Escuela Nacional de Arte (La ENA) in Havana. Sarah is the founder of JazzGirls Day, an event that is now spreading to communities across the U.S. that encourages young women to see a place for themselves in the world of jazz. In addition to her teaching duties, Sarah is an in-demand professional trombonist in the San Francisco Bay Area in both jazz and salsa bands.  

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