AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
A group of young musicians from the San Francisco Bay area is taking a journey to explore the roots of jazz. The Berkeley High School Jazz Ensemble is in Cuba right now. The ensemble has a long history, and a long list of all-star alumni.
Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr, of member station KDFC, spoke with some of the musicians before they left for Cuba.
JEFFREY FREYMANN-WEYR, BYLINE: Twenty eager, young musicians rehearse "Cubauza," a piece that combines be-bop with Afro-Cuban rhythms.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CUBAUZA")
HARRY MEYERSON: We're definitely trying to get more familiar with Cuban music and Afro-Cuban rhythms before we go, so that we'll have something to base our experiences off of.
FREYMANN-WEYR: Harry Meyerson is an 18-year-old drummer, a graduating senior who's played with the ensemble for three years.
MEYERSON: I think regardless, we're going to be in over our heads - and that's part of the fun of it. It's going to be really exciting.
FREYMANN-WEYR: The band's director, Sarah Cline, says she wants to expose the kids to the African and Cuban roots of the music they play.
SARAH CLINE: In the past, this band has traveled to Japan and to Europe - which have been wonderful. But when I became the director, my vision of where to take the band was more along the lines of Cuba, Rio, New Orleans.
FREYMANN-WEYR: Cline, herself, had a chance to go to Cuba several years ago.
CLINE: One of the things that I loved was, just all the jam sessions happening in people's homes; you know, homes without windows so that everyone on the street was just listening. Also, we stayed in a hotel, and it looked down on this rooftop where people were playing music all the time.
FREYMANN-WEYR: Jazz has been a part of the curriculum in Berkeley Public Schools for almost 50 years. Dick Conte is a jazz pianist and longtime host on the Bay area public radio station KCSM. He says the school jazz programs here can be traced to one man who was an educator, journalist and an avid fan.
DICK CONTE: It started way back in the '60s - Herb Wong. He was a teacher. He was the principal there. He started that jazz program.
FREYMANN-WEYR: Wong's Washington Elementary School had the first jazz class. His enthusiasm led to similar programs throughout the district. And by the mid 1970s, the Berkeley High School Jazz Ensemble was poised to produce some national talent.
CONTE: A lot of these kids ended up in New York. Bennie Green - he's a famous jazz pianist - he went through there; Joshua Redman went through there; Dave Ellis. They've had an incredible program.
FREYMANN-WEYR: The ensemble's current director, Sarah Cline, is also a product of the program. She's a trombone player. She says the rehearsals and private lessons students endure are rigorous. But they've had to really step it up to get comfortable with the Latin rhythms.
CLINE: I'm excited to take the Latin music to Cuba, and have them dissect it and tell us how we're doing everything wrong; and to help us build it back together right. Some of the kids in the band are like, no, don't even play that stuff there. Just play some straight-ahead jazz.
FREYMANN-WEYR: The young musicians are spending some time at the national music conservatory known as La ENA, the Escuela Nacional de Musica. Drummer Harry Meyerson is looking forward to that, and the extracurricular activities.
MEYERSON: We're hanging out at a conservatory there. That's going to be really exciting to see the kids who are like, 5 years old, who can play better than we can. I just really want to go out and - just experience as much as we can. I just want to go out to the salsa clubs...
FREYMANN-WEYR: Meyerson is one of 11 graduating seniors who will be leaving the group after their Cuban tour ends. He'll head to Tufts University in the fall.
CLINE: A lot of these kids are going to go on to be professional musicians. And it's the kind of experience that can change you, as a musician. And it can also change you as a person - in a good way.
FREYMANN-WEYR: Director Sarah Cline says there's a good crop of young players who will be joining the Berkeley High School Jazz Ensemble in the fall. With no plans for a big tour next year, they'll still get the chance to perform at the nationally known club Yoshi's, in Oakland; and once again take part in the Monterey Jazz Festival, in September
For NPR News, I'm Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr in San Francisco.
CORNISH: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.