January 01, 2024 | CJC in the News

San Francisco Chronicle Datebook

by Zara Irshad 

he Bay Area’s jazz community is experiencing a period of transition, with new leadership taking root at several organizations.

In September, Darin Atwater was named the new artistic director of Monterey Jazz Festival, the third in its history, and in June, as SFJazz celebrated its 40th anniversary, the organization  announced Terence Blanchard as its next executive artistic director, only the second to lead the institution after the retirement of founder Randall Kline.

Now the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley is following suit with a renewed focus on providing students with a dual education in both jazz music and the jazz music industry, reflecting a shift spurred by lessons learned during the pandemic. With CJC’s appointment of musician and educator Nick Phillips as president last fall, the institution is continuing to prepare the next generation of industry leaders.

“We’re all in a phase of rebuilding right now, post-COVID,” Phillips said.


Phillips, who previously ran his own music production and jazz consulting company called Nick Phillips Music, is the latest addition to CJC’s faculty of jazz professionals and has plans to strengthen the institution’s mission to “admit musicians and graduate artists.” On Oct. 23, he took over from founding President Susan Muscarella, who has returned to teaching, working with students at the CJC as well as those at her private practice in Berkeley. Phillips is now only the second person to step into the role since the institution was established in 1997.

He said he has been infatuated with jazz since he started playing trumpet in elementary school in Sonoma County. Obsessed with the music of jazz legends like Miles Davis, Clifford Brown and Max Roach, he studied music at the University of the Pacific in Stockton.

Phillips landed his first professional jazz gig straight out of college at Concord Jazz, a small yet highly regarded Bay Area jazz label. There, Phillips produced a number of Grammy-nominated projects and, in a full-circle moment, worked on a jazz reissue featuring Miles Davis.

“Jazz has been a thread that has not only run through my professional career for the last 35-plus years, but my life,” Phillips said. “I’m so energized by being here.”


His vision for CJC, the only privately accredited conservatory in the country devoted to the study and performance of jazz, builds upon the professional development aspect of the educational experience so that students are equipped with the musical tools they need to fine-tune their craft, as well as the technical skills they can use to support themselves professionally after they graduate.

He already has plans to partner with the Recording Academy San Francisco chapter’s Grammy Youth Program and is working on an internal California Jazz Conservatory record label, which he said will release and distribute original recording projects and curate jazz playlists in early 2024.

“We’re not only nurturing and teaching and developing future world-class artists, but we’re also equipping them with the education and the tools and the resources to succeed professionally as jazz professionals,” Phillips said.


Muscarella launched CJC in the late ’90s, offering a community program aimed at making basic jazz education accessible to all ages and abilities. Now called the Jazz School, CJC’s community programs feature a variety of adult and youth classes, workshops and camps. The conservatory also hosts a number of concerts featuring world-class jazz musicians, many that also showcase CJC student talent.

In 2009, the organization added its college program, which offers bachelor’s and associate’s degrees, and next year it will expand to include a master’s degree program. Courses on music technology, public speaking and other skills beyond the realm of musical ability are already part of its bachelor’s degree curriculum, but Phillips plans to expand the curriculum.

By ensuring CJC teaches students how to promote their music and book gigs among other technical skills, Phillips hopes to provide a well-rounded music education that will help cement CJC as the primary jazz institution on the West Coast.


Given its plethora of resources for jazz musicians of all ages and levels and its personalized student approach, that goal doesn’t seem too far off. Most faculty members, including CJC Dean of Instruction Jeff Denson, Muscarella and Phillips, are working musicians. Denson said that such artist educators are intentionally chosen to join the institution so that students can have the most enriched and immersive educational opportunities.

“For students that choose to come here, what we really focus on is the concept of mentorship,” Denson said. “We’re a small school by design, which means that we get to know all of our students and we know their strengths and weaknesses. We work as a team to get them to achieve their goals.”

See original article: datebook.sfchronicle.com/music/california-jazz-conservatory-nick-phillips-18525106