By Hilary Costa
For the Contra Costa Times
PITTSBURG — When some of East Contra Costa's premier student jazz musicians play their opening notes at Los Medanos College's year-end all-star jazz concert Saturday, they'll be in good company.
The concert, showcasing the jazz ensembles from Los Medanos and Brentwood's Heritage High School, also will feature four internationally acclaimed jazz artists who call the Bay Area home.
The guests are bassist Marcus Shelby, guitarist Mimi Fox, pianist and founder/director of Berkeley's Jazzschool Susan Muscarella and vocalist Jamie Davis, who may be best known for singing with the Count Basie Orchestra.
"It's going to be incredible," said Michael Zilber, director of the Los Medanos jazz program and conductor of the 25-member ensemble.
The students agree. Steve Ernest, who conducts the 23-member Heritage jazz ensemble, said his students' "eyes got big" when they heard the news, and they immediately went into preparation mode.
Most of the region's high school jazz ensembles have been invited to play with LMC's over the years. This time around, Heritage's availability best fit the schedule.
"It's very cool," Ernest said. "One of my guitar players said, 'Mimi Fox is going to be there?' and she had a huge smile on her face."
Fox, who heads the guitar department at the Jazzschool in Berkeley and is an adjunct professor at New York University, said she embraces the chance to mentor young musicians, particularly girls.
Fox said she grew up at a time when women were largely limited to singing jazz, not playing instruments, and she didn't have many female role models to look up to.
"As the years have gone on, (mentoring) has become something that really is important to me," said Fox, who also conducts college workshops when she goes on tour. "Obviously, I like spreading the gospel of jazz; I like seeing kids turned on to the music."
Bringing professional musicians to LMC has become more common in the past few years, Zilber said. That's when the program's emphasis shifted significantly toward hiring player-teachers as part-time faculty. Today, the jazz program has six part-time professors and one working full time, Zilber.
And because many of the music faculty members are active in the Bay Area jazz scene, they have the connections to bring musicians like Saturday's guests to campus. So far, Zilber estimated that 10 professional musicians have played concerts with LMC students and faculty members.
At a time when budget cuts at all levels of education have put the arts on the chopping block, Zilber said it's more important than ever to recognize the lifelong benefits music can have for youths.
"The evidence is overwhelming that students who play musical instruments far outperform students who don't at every level of school," Zilber said. "It helps with language, math, teamwork, teaches you to get along with people. Many of the desirable traits that we want in our society, you learn through music."
And then there's the impact jazz, in particular, has had on culture around the world, he added.
"Many music and art professors say jazz is the single most important contribution the United States has made in the world. Our influence on the world has been felt more strongly through jazz and blues and rock 'n' roll than anything else we have done," he said.
IF YOU GO
- WHAT: Year-end all-star jazz concert featuring the Heritage High School Jazz Ensemble and Los Medanos College Jazz Ensemble
- WHEN: 7-10 p.m. Saturday, May 15, 2010
- WHERE: Los Medanos College, 2700 E. Leland Road, Pittsburg
- COST: $10 general admission; $5 students and seniors. For details and tickets, call 925-439-0200 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
- SPECIAL GUESTS: Marcus Shelby, Susan Muscarella, Jamie Davis, Mimi Fox