California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley, CA Celebrates 20th Anniversary, Opens New Addition in Fall 2017
California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley, CA Celebrates 20th Anniversary, Opens New Addition in Fall 2017
January 05, 2017 | Announcements

2017 marks the 20th anniversary of the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley, CA. Founded by jazz pianist and educator Susan Muscarella, the California Jazz Conservatory – originally “the Jazzschool” – opened in fall of 1997 and attracted 142 students enrolled in 195 classes that first quarter.  Muscarella realized right away that the school had already outgrown the building and, in 2002, moved to a new facility in the Downtown Berkeley Arts District, not far from the U.C. Berkeley campus.

Today, the California Jazz Conservatory, which was awarded institutional accreditation by the National Association of Schools of Music in 2013, serves more than 600 students each quarter/semester, taught by 65 professional jazz artists and educators.

With the addition of the degree program, it became apparent that an expansion to the campus was needed, and a search was begun for additional space.  Fortunately, 5,500 sq. ft. became available in a building directly across the street. That addition, which will contain classrooms, practice rooms, offices, a performance area, and café, will be opened in 2017 as part of the CJC’s 20th anniversary celebration.

The CJC now enjoys a growing national and international reputation as America’s only independent, accredited music conservatory devoted solely to jazz and its offshoots.

Below is The Story of the California Jazz Conservatory.


In the early 90s, jazz pianist and educator Susan Muscarella had a vision.  She wanted to build a school where students of all ages and levels of achievement could study and play jazz – a school for students who wanted to learn more about the music, and for teachers who were inspired to teach them.

Her dream was to find the very best faculty – those working musicians whose reputations were built on their work as artists and educators and who found joy in sharing their knowledge of music with others.  At that time, resources for music students were waning.  Music programs were being cut in public and private elementary, middle and high schools, and there were almost no programs for adults who wanted to learn about/play jazz. Highlights throughout the twenty years include:

Despite the fact that many around her humored her, Muscarella decided to make her dream a reality.  She found an 1890s Victorian on Shattuck Avenue in downtown Berkeley, refinanced her home to buy it, and began renovations. It took almost an entire year.

Deciding on a name for the new school was a challenge until bassist John Wiitala suggested she call it just what is was: a jazz school. She combined the two words into one and the “Jazzschool” was born.

On September 21, 1997, a concert celebrating the opening of the Jazzschool was sold out.  The next day classes began.  In that first quarter, there were 142 students enrolled in 195 classes and workshops, a surprising number even to Muscarella, because they had done almost no marketing or advertising.  It was all accomplished by word of mouth. “I remember keeping my fingers crossed,” she says, “that if we built it they would come.”  And they did.

It was at this point that she realized that they had already outgrown their current building and began the search for a larger space.

In just four years, as she searched for new quarters, student enrollment rose to 481 students in 595 classes and workshops.  She finally found the perfect location: the entire basement floor of the Kress Building right in the heart of the developing Downtown Berkeley Arts District, just blocks from the UC Berkeley campus.  Once more she took a second mortgage on her home and began renovations on the new 7,500 sq. ft. space. She designed a fundraiser to assist with the transition to the new quarters, which took the form of an oversized metal sculpture of Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite.” The size of each contribution corresponded to the length of each note of this Parker classic, which was said to be inspired by Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite.” The first note that was claimed was a whole note, the longest and most valuable note on the sculpture, by one of the School’s own students – retired Kaiser surgeon and jazz drummer Vaughan Johnson. She took it as a sign.

The Honorable Mayor Shirley Dean cut the ribbon at the Grand Opening of the Jazzschool’s new home at 2087 Addison Street in January of 2002.  People were lined up for more than a block to help celebrate.  The new building was both beautiful and functional, with soundproofed classrooms and practice rooms, offices, a bookstore, a café, and a performance space. Latin jazz trombonist and composer Wayne Wallace always referred to it as “One stop shopping for jazz.” At one point, there were more than 800 students enrolled each quarter, taught by 65 professional jazz artists and educators.

Inclusion of a performance space has always been very important to Muscarella who believes performing before an audience is essential to students’ education. It was also important to her to feature the faculty so that students had the opportunity to hear and be inspired by their own teachers.  Taking it one step further, regular concerts were held in the School’s performance space by professional jazz musicians.  Over the years, internationally known artists such as Christian McBride, Kurt Elling, Dave Liebman, Geoffrey Keezer, Ron Carter, Peter Erskine, Bobby McFerrin, Kenny Werner, Michael Wolff, Sheila Jordan, Jovino Santos Neto, Russell Ferrante, Ambrose Akinmusire, Chico Pinheiro, and Taylor Eigsti have performed there and/or presented workshops.

In order to strengthen the financial stability of the School, it became a nonprofit organization and, under the generous guidance of now secretary Richard Lyons, a Board of Directors was formed.

Danny Scher, former vice President of Bill Graham Presents and a drum student at the Jazzzschool, offered his backyard amphitheater, Coventry Grove, for a fundraiser.  Benny Green, an admirer of Muscarella, donated his services for the sold out concert.  He even coaxed Muscarella up on the stage to play a couple of duets with him.  She proved her chops were still in excellent working order.

The Jazzschool formed its own record label “Jazzschool Records” and debuted its first release titled “Live at the Jazzschool: Dave Liebman and Mike Zilber.”

A second sold-out benefit was held at Coventry Grove in 2004, featuring the Heath Brothers.

Visiting artists included: Ledisi, Bob Sheppard, Pete Escovedo, Geoffrey Keezer, Joe Locke, Janis Siegel, Jovino Santo Neto and Mike Clark.

The Jazzschool began a collaboration with the Brubeck Institute, which brought their students to Berkeley on Fridays to study and perform.

The reputation of the School was growing to the point where one of its students, jazz pianist Barry Robertson declared: “You don’t have to go to New York anymore (to hear jazz) – it’s right here in our own backyard!”

The school originated the Downtown Berkeley Jazz Festival (DBJF), a weeklong festival designed to both feature Bay Area artists and promote Berkeley businesses. The DBJF ran for three consecutive years.

Opera star and ardent jazz fan Frederica von Stade headlined a sold-out benefit concert, together with pianist Taylor Eigsti.

That same year, Keith Johnson founded the multi-year award-winning Jazzschool Studio Band and was hired to head the Jazzschool Young Musicians Program.

Muscarella’s dream grew larger. In addition to the community education program, she began the process of designing a 4-year Bachelor of Music degree in Jazz Studies and applying for institutional accreditation.

The Jazzschool celebrated its 10th anniversary on October 9, 2007 with a star-studded benefit concerts at Yoshi’s in Oakland. Performers included Madeline Eastman, Randy Porter, John Santos, Wayne Wallace, Michael Spiro, Paul van Wageningen, Ron Stallings, Akira Tana and John Wiitala.

The School began accepting applications for its new Bachelor of Music in Jazz Studies degree program.  Eligibility for accreditation with the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM) involved meeting standards in the areas of administration, finance, curriculum, faculty, facilities and more. They were required to graduate at least three students from the program to be eligible for accreditation, a requirement that proved to be no small task.

Thirty-four students (instrumentalists and vocalists) enrolled in the baccalaureate degree program in the fall of 2009, beginning their journey toward earning a Bachelor of Music in Jazz Studies, and strengthening the School’s journey toward gaining accreditation.

Launch of the first weeklong, all-day Vocal Intensive under the direction of Laurie Antonioli and artist-in-residence Theo Bleckmann. The Vocal Intensive attracts students from throughout the world. Students have the opportunity to work on technique and style with Bleckmann and Antonioli and a world-class rhythm section in an intimate setting. The Intensive culminates with a concert open to the public.

The Manhattan Transfer headlined a sold out fundraiser at Scher’s Coventry Grove amphitheater.

With the addition of the degree program, it became apparent that an expansion to the campus was needed, and a search was begun for additional space.  Fortunately, 5,500 sq. ft. became available in a building directly across the street at 2040 Addison. This addition, which will contain classrooms, practice rooms, offices, a café, and performance area, will open in 2017 as part of the CJC’s 20th anniversary celebration.

The first three students graduated from the new program, making the school eligible for accreditation.

Dave Brubeck served on the Board of Advisors until his passing in 2012.

The Jazzschool Institute was awarded accreditation from the National Association of Schools of Music, becoming a four-year music conservatory with the rights and privileges to grant a Bachelor of Music degree in Jazz Studies. The institution took this opportunity to rebrand itself from “Jazzschool” to “California Jazz Conservatory.” The degree-granting program became the “California Jazz Conservatory,” or “CJC”; the non-degree-granting program became the “Jazzschool Community Music School at CJC.”

“The School intentionally chose to offer a broad-based “jazz studies” major rather than a more focused degree such as “performance” or “composition,” for example. This decision was based on the fact that most musicians must wear more than one hat to make a living in music. That is, it’s quite common for musicians to combine a performance career with a career in teaching, for example. Providing students with a broad-based foundation at the postsecondary level gives them a greater range of employment opportunities and/or opportunities to pursue a higher, more specialized degree upon graduation.”

Marian McPartland was a member of the Board of Advisors until she passed in 2013.

Two students, Kathi Rendon and her husband John Kainlauri, bestowed a  $500,000 grant on the CJC.  This gift represents the largest single gift the School has ever received, and was made even more special because it was from two of the School’s own students.

Pianist Benny Green became the first on-site Artist in Residence.

The institution signed a long-term lease on 2040 Addison, expanding their current facility by 5,500 square feet.

The CJC was approved to offer government sponsored financial aid and U.S. Visa programs, enabling more students to participate and opening the door for students from other countries.  At this point, 38% of the students are receiving financial aid, 25% are on scholarships, and students have matriculated from Columbia, Japan and Sweden.

Two new areas of study were approved by NASM: a Bachelor of Music in Jazz Studies with a concentration in Brazilian Jazz and a Bachelor of Music in Jazz Studies with a concentration in Audio Production in conjunction with the renowned Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, CA.

A concentration in North American Roots Music and an Associate of Arts degree in Jazz Studies are pending approval by NASM.  Muscarella is currently designing a Masters of Music: The Performer/Composer.

This will be a landmark year for the California Jazz Conservatory, celebrating its 20thanniversary and the move into the additional campus, close to doubling its current size.

The CJC now enjoys a growing national and international reputation as America’s only independent, accredited music conservatory devoted solely to jazz and its offshoots.


“I’ve watched Susan’s pure labor of love grow year after year, with great admiration and respect.” – Pianist Benny Green

“…the Jazzschool has become a place where would-be pros can obtain a bachelor’s degree in jazz studies, where jazz buffs of any age can get their bebop on through the Community Music School, where you might hear the next Coltrane or Gillespie on a Sunday afternoon for the price of a latte, and where seasoned pros can polish their technique. Factor in the food at the tiny jewel-box Jazzcaffè, the extraordinary collection of CDs and sheet music on sale at the closet-size books and records store, the jazz photo exhibition by Lee Tanner and the unique energy that ripples through the place from early morning until the last class ends at night and you have an idea of why the Jazzschool counts in the jazz world…a warren of soundproofed classrooms, students of all ages and a jazz education program that has put the Jazzschool on the map as one of the most vital centers of jazz education in the West.” – David Weigand, SFGate

“I truly enjoy teaching at the CJC because the students are engaged and take the subject material seriously. They mostly want to become competent performers in a challenging but immensely rewarding art form, and I appreciate their earnest efforts in my classroom and beyond. In fact, they, the students are why I prefer teaching at the CJC as opposed to anywhere else.” – Dr. Anthony Brown, Leader of the Asian American Jazz Orchestra and Professor at CJC

“You have to understand just how difficult it is to do what the Jazzschool has done. The parallel is to keeping a jazz club afloat. Not many make it. To persevere in this culture, where the government doesn’t embrace the arts, is really swimming against the tide.”
– Wayne Wallace, Trombonist, Bandleader and owner of Patois Records

“It’s small. It’s intimate. It’s very family-like. It feels very comfortable here. And it feels homey.  It doesn’t feel like a lot of other schools that are very sterile.” ­– John Santos, Percussionist and Bandleader

“I find the professors here to be really generous with their time and really invested in the learning of their students.  My fellow students here are so supportive and the community here is so supportive.” – Hannah Levy, Voice Student at CJC

Quotes from the CJC Board of Directors

“Walk into the CJC and you can feel the vibrant energy and see its rich diversity.  It’s a musical community that is a treasure for the Bay Area. It provides a place for musicians and audiences of all ages to study and listen to jazz in a supportive and compassionate environment.” – Dr. Susan Brand, Chair

“When I went to college in the early 70’s my father and my uncle gave me Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Gene Krupa and Stan Kenton albums. The hope was that I would mature as a person and jazz would be part of that maturation. While in college I went to hear Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn playing with big jazz bands in Toronto. Maynard Ferguson came to my college for a concert… I was hooked. As I got older I kept looking for young jazz players. Over the years I got to see very young Wynton Marsalis, Dave Koz and Diana Krall gigs at small NYC venues like the Village Vanguard and Blue Note. I was concerned this great American art form would die off if jazz was not picked up by young musicians and supported by the public.  That is why I support the CJC! – Neil Rudolph, Treasurer

“Nothing gives me greater pleasure, as a jazz musician myself, to troll through the CJC aka Jazz School and observe the wonderful variety of student musicians of all ages, races, and skills, playing the classic instruments of jazz.  The intensity and focus of these students, not to mention their often well-practiced musical skills can bring tears to my eyes.  If only there had been a school like this in my younger life, what a pleasure that would have been.” – Michael Yovino-Young, CJC Board of Directors

“On September 21, 1997, our opening day, I remember wondering whether or not we’d even get through that first year – was as it really possible to sustain a jazz school? That is, so many people didn’t even know what jazz was – they didn’t even listen to it let alone play it. Then there was the problem that so many people thought the name “Jazzschool” was a school for jazz dance, so I had to add the tagline: “For music study and performance,” so it was clear it was a school for jazz music.

As with most nonprofits, there is never an overabundance of money, and our fledgling organization was no different. I think back to one of the faculty (Tim Volpicella) who stopped me in the School’s hallway that first quarter to tell me he thought starting a school for jazz was a terrific idea and predicted that I was going to get rich! It comes as no surprise that Tim’s prediction, in terms of becoming financially well off, never materialized – not that that was ever even a consideration. It wasn’t.  However, I did get rich in a different sense: building the school over these past twenty years has been the most fulfilling experience of my professional life.”