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‘Jazz is the perfect thing’: Student musicians perform at Downtown Berkeley Plaza

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Student musicians continue to value jazz as art through performances at Downtown Berkeley Plaza.


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MARCH 22, 2023

The Sheldon Alexander Quartet performed at the Downtown Berkeley Plaza on Wednesday, attracting a small crowd and capturing the attention of passerby.

The performance was one of six weekly jazz lunches organized by the Downtown Berkeley Association, or DBA, and the California Jazz Conservatory, or CJC, to energize the plaza and showcase the talent of the student musicians at the CJC, according to Matthew Jervis, vitality and marketing director at the DBA.

“It brings music and culture — something exciting — for the people of Berkeley on their lunch hour to experience music, to experience live jazz,” said Jeff Denson, dean of instruction at the CJC. “That’s a great thing for our students too … it gets them to perform the music they’re working on in school, out in front of an audience.”

Jazz is “built off of” improvisation and interactions, making live performances crucial for training musicians, according to Denson.

Jazz musicians have a framework for the music they play and improvise off of that framework, communicating with each other and responding to the dynamics of the crowd and in-the-moment emotions, said Sheldon Alexander, who graduated from the CJC last year and played the drums for Wednesday’s jazz lunch.

“What we played today, we’ll never play that again — it’s always gonna be different, always gonna be something new,” Alexander said.

Alexander noted that playing on the plaza offers not just the opportunity to perform live, but freedom within that performance. Musicians may be faced with more restraints in other settings, such as being employed to play in a restaurant, and the jazz lunches enable young musicians to express themselves “to the fullest amount,” he said.

High schoolers on spring break, parents with their young children and people enjoying coffee or sandwiches stopped to enjoy Wednesday’s jazz lunch. Alexander was joined by the bass player Jonny Kaminek, guitarist Zach Gamble and tenor saxophone player Mario Ramirez, all students at the CJC.

“So many people, including the high school employees that work downtown, when the weather is nice, the plaza is a popular spot for people to chill and have their lunch,” Jervis said. “Jazz is the perfect thing.”

Jazz is considered to be the “original (American) art form,” originating from the Black American community and experience, Denson said.

CJC, which offers bachelor and associate’s degrees, is the only educational institution in the country fully dedicated to jazz music, according to Alexander. Many students there intend to become working musicians and educators, while others become producers or go into other musical genres, he noted.

“It’s a living art form,” Denson said. “It’s a spontaneous music that constantly is evolving and constantly being inspired by what’s happening in the world, what’s happening in culture.”


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MARCH 22, 2023