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Touching Bass with Susan Muscarella

September 15, 2009
by Martin Snapp

A jazz degree with roots in Cal.

When jazz pianist Susan Muscarella told other musicians 13 years ago about her plans for teaching America’s indigenous art form, they were more than a little skeptical. “She called me up very late one night and said, ‘Mimi, I have an idea; I want to open a jazz school,” says guitarist Mimi Fox. “I said, ‘Susan, how much wine have you had?'”

Today, more than 600 students each quarter enroll in the Jazzschool’s more than 100 classes ranging from basic bebop to advanced musical theory. The faculty of 65 working musicians is aided by a staff of 20 and dozens of interns and volunteers. The school, located in Berkeley, boasts 12 rehearsal rooms, a store offering CDs and books, a photography gallery, a 60-seat performance hall, and the popular Jazzcaffé eatery.

“I was sure it would go broke,” says Fox. “But no, she had this vision and proved everybody wrong. I was proud to be part of it from the beginning.” Trombonist Wayne Wallace, also on the faculty since day one, says, “We are blessed to have a nurturer like Susan, who is not happy unless she’s providing a beautiful platform for other people’s artistic expression.”

Muscarella is half of one of the Bay Area music scene’s most prominent power couples; her husband is Robert Cole, director of Cal Performances. “The difference between us is that I didn’t have to start the whole thing from scratch,” he says. “I was coming into something that was already functioning. She had to start from zero, which is much harder. And she created it for other people, not for herself.”

Ironically, Muscarella’s accomplishments as an administrator sometimes obscure her considerable talents as a musician. “First of all, she’s a brilliant composer,” says Fox, who has played with her for 25 years. “She’s that rare combination of a strong soloist who is also an extremely sensitive accompanist. She has really ‘big ears,’ as we say in the business.”

“She’s not one of those musicians who just kill time waiting for their solo,” Wallace adds. “She really listens to other people. The parts are cool, but she’s more concerned about the sum.”

Those singing Muscarella’s praises loudest are her students, past and present. “She’s just the most remarkable jazz piano teacher in the whole world,” says 20-year-old star pianist Julian Pollack, who began studying with her at 10.

Most Jazzschool students want to become professional musicians. To this end, in September Muscarella will inaugurate the Jazzschool Institute, a four-year music conservatory offering a bachelor’s degree in jazz.

“The curriculum is designed to provide students with courses that will help move them forward as professional musicians—and also courses that I didn’t take and wished that I had,” says Muscarella. “For example, it’s important to take business mathematics because they’ll need to know how to interpret a profit and loss balance sheet. We’re also offering a class in the legal aspects of music, taught by attorney Todd Gascon, and a class in publicity and marketing taught by Terri Hinte, who is Sonny Rollins’s publicist.”

Muscarella can pinpoint the moment she fell in love with jazz. When she was 12, she turned on the car radio and heard the Ramsey Lewis Trio playing “The In Crowd.” “I just flipped! I had never heard that kind of instrumentation before.”

She soon found a mentor in Wilbert Barranco, pianist at the Claremont Hotel, and started practicing piano up to six hours a day. She studied music composition at Berkeley, leading to her appointment in 1975 as associate director of the UC Berkeley Jazz Ensembles. After a promotion to director in 1984, a post she held until 1989, she left to concentrate on her performing career, which included stints with Sonny Rollins, Sheila E., and Marian McPartland. One day, while riding a bus on tour in Japan, Muscarella got the idea for a new way of teaching jazz. She pulled out her notebook and began scribbling furiously.

As soon as she got back to Berkeley she mortgaged her house, pulled her life savings out of the bank, and opened the Jazzschool upstairs from La Note restaurant on Shattuck Avenue. The initial enrollment of 130 mushroomed, and in 2003 the school moved to its present site in the heart of the downtown Berkeley Arts District.

But there was one last bit of unfinished business in Muscarella’s life, and last spring she finally finished it.

“I dropped out of Cal with only one class left before graduation because I was so busy with the UC Berkeley Jazz Ensembles,” she says. “So last year I went back and completed it. I figured that as long as I’m about to start handing out bachelor of music degrees, I might as well get one myself.”

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