Berkeley High alumnus, cancer survivor to host benefit jazz concert in Berkeley

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Jessica Doojphibulpol/Staff

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At age 19, local jazz musician and theater artist Ethan Ostrow has acquired an unusually unique set of accomplishments – he worked his way through Berkeley High School’s jazz music program as a pianist, began studying theater at the University of Minnesota and, most significantly, became a cancer survivor.

In September of 2016, just one week into his freshman year at the University of Minnesota, Ostrow was diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma, a rare form of white blood cell cancer. As a result, Ostrow was forced to take an unexpected gap year as he underwent chemotherapy, eventually winning his battle with cancer in January.

“It’s really hard to hold on to hope when you’re going through something like what I’ve been through,” Ostrow described, recalling his experiences during treatment. “It’s not easy to look at the bigger picture or what the best possibilities are. You’re in a situation where you’re just trying to make it through the day, trying to make it through all these obstacles, both medical and emotional. But one of the things that really helped me was this notion that if I made it out alive and in good health, it would be really important to try to give back and help anyone else who has the unfortunate luck of finding themselves in a similar situation.”

Ostrow’s passion for giving back to the same community that assisted him throughout his diagnosis and treatment led to his idea of using his skills in music to evoke positive change. Ostrow set forth to host a benefit jazz concert in order to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, a voluntary health organization that funds significant blood cancer research.

Earlier this year, Ostrow assembled the Ethan Ostrow Trio with fellow Berkeley High School alumni and renowned jazz musicians Max Schwartz and Matthew Stoloff. With Ostrow as pianist, Schwartz as bassist and Stoloff as drummer, the trio began rehearsing music ranging from the hits of Duke Ellington to iconic musical theater songs to Ostrow’s own original compositions, all in preparation for their concert June 26. Ostrow’s original compositions, as performed by the Ethan Ostrow Trio, are both high-spirited and refined – the band infuses a sense of purpose into Ostrow’s contemporary jazz pieces.

“It’s good to be doing so much. It’s definitely better than when I was in the hospital. This is what I was looking forward to – doing a lot with my life,” said Ostrow. “I’ve been given a certain set of skills with music, so as much as sometimes it feels like I need to stop and not be as busy as I am this soon after treatment, it also really feels like I need to be doing this. I don’t think I would forgive myself if I didn’t put on this concert and give everything I had to it.”

Ostrow has set a goal of raising $10,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society through the upcoming concert “Hat’s Off,” which will be hosted at The Freight and Salvage. The event is set to showcase guest performers alongside the Ethan Ostrow Trio, featuring notable alumni from Berkeley High School’s jazz music program as well as other professional musicians. Ostrow also hopes to share his personal journey with lymphoma by performing music that was particularly significant to him during treatment.

“There’s a song by Grace Kelly called ‘Trying to Figure It Out’ that’s a beautiful ballad,” Ostrow explained. “As my life has shown, there’s a lot of uncertainty and things that can just happen with no reason or logic.” Given the diversity of the set list, the concert’s theme suggests that there is a certain finesse to disorder.

“I think it’s really easy to get stuck in a loophole of anxiety and stress about different things in your life, and stepping back from your life and looking at what’s really deeply important to you might change your life or your perspective,” Ostrow said. “You don’t have to have cancer to do that.”

The “Hat’s Off” performance is Monday, June 26 at The Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse in Downtown Berkeley.

Manisha Ummadi covers video games. Contact her at [email protected].