All That Jazz: Conservatory Is Nation’s First Independent Degree-Granting Institute Devoted to Jazz

By Andrew Gilbert

Some early New Orleans jazz trumpeters performed with a handkerchief draped over their fingers, to prevent anyone from stealing their hottest licks. Other musicians more generously shared their hard-won knowledge, but for most of the music’s history, aspiring jazz players picked up information wherever they could, observing more experienced players at work on the bandstand and memorizing solos by wearing out the grooves on treasured recordings.

The old-school oral tradition was still very much a factor during pianist Susan Muscarella’s formative years at Cal in the early 1970s, when the jazz education movement was in its infancy. In a sense, the educator and the movement have developed together, though she still places a premium on pairing students with working musicians. Muscarela credits her tenure as director of the UC Jazz Ensembles with preparing her to eventually found the private, Berkeley-based California Jazz Conservatory.

This year the institution received a groundbreaking accreditation by the National Association of Schools of Music—making it the only independent degree-granting institute in the United States solely devoted to jazz. To celebrate, the school, founded as the Jazzschool in 1997, was rechristened as the CJC in February. In addition to the CJC’s four-year bachelor of music degree in jazz studies, the institute continues to offer classes in its non-degree-granting academy, now known as the Jazzschool Community Music School at the California Jazz Conservatory.

A prodigiously gifted pianist, Muscarella was a composition major at Cal when her involvement in the UC Jazz Ensembles reignited her teenage interest in jazz. The program’s founder, Dave Tucker, recruited her as associate director in 1975, and she quickly set about creating a rigorous syllabus, even though most of the students considered the program an extra-curricular pursuit. She took over as director in 1984 and held the position until 1989.

“All along I had my heart set on creating a formal program of study. That’s what I envisioned from day one,” Muscarella says from the office in the basement of the historic Kress Building, where the CJC helped anchor the Addison Street Arts District in 2002 after quickly outgrowing its original digs above La Note Café on Shattuck. “I was the first one to really design any kind of curriculum at UC Jazz. Even though there was a performance ensemble, there was no brochure describing a course of study, nothing that talked about anything but performance.”

Muscarella experienced that essential “frission” between the stage and the classroom herself with the UC Jazz Ensembles. Most memorably, her trio opened for the Bill Evans Trio at Zellerbach Hall, one of the last performances by the piano legend who died in 1980. The opportunity to interact with one of her musical heroes was as profound as the nuts and bolts skills she acquired.

“All those experiences provided a real-time guide to run what I’m doing now,” Muscarella says. “Each area informs the other. The administrative experience really helped me with personnel issues. But if I wasn’t a performer I wouldn’t have a sense of who to hire or who to book. It all came together in designing a synergistic program of study.”

One measure of the CJC’s success is the stellar roster of musicians on faculty, such as bassist/composer Jeff Denson, who tours and performs with alto sax great Lee Konitz. The CJC’s vocal institute regularly attracts some of the most creative singers in jazz, like German-born New York improviser Theo Bleckmann. And as part of the unveiling of the CJC, the school announced Berkeley pianist Benny Green as the first artist in residence. As a player whose jazz education took place on the bandstand, first with Berkeley jazz and blues vocalist Faye Carol and then in New York with powerhouse vocalist and talent scout Betty Carter, he brings a decidedly old-school perspective to the classroom.

“There’s one key ingredient I feel is missing from jazz education these days in a school environment: listening sessions, musicians getting together and listening to music to discuss what they’re hearing.” Green says. “When I do this it’s often astounding what the students notice. Then I want to bring these elements we’re noticing to the situation of playing and interacting together, de-emphasizing what’s written.”

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