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  • Susan Muscarella (2002)

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    You could say that the Jazzschool was inspired by a torrential downpour. Years before the downtown Berkeley institution took shape and started inculcating aspiring musicians into the mysteries of swing, improvisation and group interplay, Susan Muscarella was brooding about the lack of educational and performance opportunities for young players. She had already made her mark in music education, having spent the second half of the 1980s as head of U.C. Berkeley’s jazz program, but she had given up the position because it left her no time to focus on her own career as a pianist.

    Like many jazz musicians, however, she partly supported herself by giving music lessons even after leaving U.C. Berkeley. As California’s economy reeled from the post–Cold War recession, Muscarella watched with dismay as public schools slashed music and arts programs, leaving her students with few outlets through which they could hone their craft. “Either their music program was cut or there were too many kids in one band and there wasn’t enough room for them. For one reason or another, they weren’t getting the opportunities that I thought they should have,” says Muscarella.

    Sitting in her Jazzschool office, a small windowless rectangular room decorated with jazz festival posters and photos of musicians famous and obscure, Muscarella projects a maternal air, with none of the affect one might expect from an improviser who cut her teeth in one of the most celebrated Bay Area jazz combos of the late 1970s and ’80s. As she recalls the epiphany that launched her seemingly quixotic campaign to found a new school devoted to teaching jazz, it’s easy to understand how the plight of her students moved her to action.

    “There was one day when the storm of all storms swept through, and my student Abe Katz-Milder had to take the bus, and then walk from the bus stop to my house,” she says. “When he got there he was just drenched. I said, ‘Abe, we can’t do the lesson like this.’ But he was so into the music, he was determined to get to the lesson, come hell or high water, literally. I thought to myself, I want to start a school so he’ll have all the opportunities he should have to go on to become a professional musician. My whole idea for the Jazzschool is to combine study with performance opportunity.”

    It took several years of planning and plotting, but in the summer of 1997 Muscarella launched the Jazzschool in an 1880s Victorian on Shattuck Avenue, above La Note Café. Filling a long-underserved niche, the school quickly turned into a major educational presence in the Bay Area, with a faculty drawn from the region’s finest musicians, including drummer Eddie Marshall, trombonist Wayne Wallace, guitarist Mimi Fox and bassist Bill Douglass. A Sunday afternoon concert series in La Note filled another gaping void, offering resident players and traveling artists a precious performance venue that combined an intimate concert vibe with a cozy café setting. Her efforts received an official stamp of approval in 2000, when the Jazzschool formed a partnership with U.C. Berkeley’s Extension program to offer accredited classes in jazz. By the time the school had outgrown its original digs in 2001, it was attracting some 600 students per quarter.

    In the fall of 2002, the Jazzschool moved to its present location in the Downtown Berkeley Arts District. It was hardly an auspicious moment to triple the school’s size. If a rainstorm provided the initial inspiration for the Jazzschool, the institution opened its second chapter in the midst of an economic whirlwind, with the Bay Area still reeling from the double whammy of the dot-com meltdown and the post-9/11 downturn. Arts groups across Northern California were retrenching and scaling back plans, hoping to ride out the economic tempest, but Muscarella jumped at the chance to expand the school’s services.
    Pick Artist Album Song Label
    # 1 Miles Davis Miles at Antibes (LP) Joshua (Columbia)
    # 2 Bill Evans Last Waltz: The Final Recordings Live Spring Is Here (Milestone)
    # 3 Keith Jarrett Still Live When I Fall in Love (ECM)
    # 4 Herbie Hancock New Standard Thieves in the Temple (Verve)
    # 5 J.S. Bach Keith Jarrett, "Well Tempered Clavier, Book 1" Prelude No. 222 in B-flat Minor, BWV 891 (ECM)
    # 6 Richard Wagner N/A Overture to "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg", WWV 96 N/A
    # 7 Keith Jarrett Standards in Norway All of You (ECM)
    # 8 Keith Jarrett My Song My Song (ECM)
    Book Deepak Chopra, "The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success"
    Luxury Item Peet's coffee, Italian Roast, No. 4 Grind
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