Berkeley’s JazzGirls Day empowers with 7th annual workshop for young musicians

Berkeley High School/Courtesy

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When asked to list off the greats of jazz, names that come to mind are legends such as John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie or Thelonious Monk. All great musicians; all men. It’s not uncommon to step into the world of jazz and notice an absence of female musicians and composers.

Sarah Cline, who teaches jazz classes at Berkeley High School, or BHS, witnessed this firsthand as a musician and teacher. From the time she herself played in the jazz band at BHS to her eventual return as a teacher there, she routinely saw the slim representation of girls in jazz. Seven years ago, Cline took a stand against this and started what would become the annual JazzGirls Day — a day in Berkeley devoted to free jazz activities for girls ages 10 to 14.

After following a series of 8.5-by-11-inch flyers taped up around BHS, the open back door of the Berkeley Community Theater welcomed girls to this year’s JazzGirls Day. The wall-to-ceiling radiators buzzed as girls piled in to the theater. Framed by a massive pile of instrument cases, a couple dozen girls sat in a circle, waiting for JazzGirls Day to begin.

Before going into her official welcome speech, Cline spoke spoke about the relationship between jazz music and jazz dance to the girls. In honor of the two art forms, the day kicked off with a fast-paced jitterbug, led by the blaring of jazz over the theater speakers and lively BHS student volunteers.

Out of breath and giggling, the girls ended the dance by sitting at the edge of the stage. Cline, also shaking out a laugh from the jitterbug, gave the girls a warm welcome. She smiled as she walked the girls through the history of this event and the itinerary for the day. Before exiting the stage, she welcomed the women who would be leading the jam sessions of the day. As they introduced themselves, the musicians talked about the instruments they specialized in, how they got into music and what they would be teaching in their break-off groups.

A common theme the jazz artists spoke about was the adversity faced in male-dominated fields and especially within jazz. Nevertheless, despite all the talk about men excelling in jazz, one of the women faced the eagerly awaiting young musicians in her introduction and said, “The girls who do succeed in music are the ones that don’t quit.”

In the break-off groups, the girls arranged themselves by skill level. There were groups ranging from those who had never played jazz before to those who were seasoned experts. In the intermediate group of Nancy Boyles, the jazz band director at Kings Middle School, the girls arranged themselves in a semicircle by instrument. The student volunteers handed out several pieces of sheet music and settled themselves to play among the workshoppers. Boyles led the girls in a few scales and warm-ups, then jumped right into improvising. She called on a few of her current students to improvise in the breaks between music, but most of the girls were too shy to volunteer.  

When the piece stopped, Boyles looked to Mabel, one of the BHS volunteers who sat among the girls with her trombone. Boyles said, “Mabel, when I taught you in middle school — how many times did you improv in class?”

Mabel grinned and held up a zero with her hand. Boyles turned to look at her class and said, “See, I wish I forced her to improv more!” before going on to sing Mabel’s praise as a musician in her senior year of high school.

The event came to an end with a panel of more than a dozen musicians and volunteers. They squeezed the girls onto the stage with the experienced jazz musicians, who then shared their experiences and journeys as women, musicians and artists. They wrapped up the show with group performances — two all-female jazz ensembles from the high school and an improvised blues piece from all of the guest musicians.

After a full day of workshops, music and empowerment, the lively blues tones all produced by female musicians filled the theater, conjuring the sound of a powerful future for jazz.

Annalise Kamegawa covers music. Contact her at [email protected].