A Life in Jazz: Remembering Dr. Herb Wong, 1926-2014

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Duke Ellington arrives with Dr. Herb Wong (in sunglasses) to perform for Berkeley schoolchildren in 1969 (Oakland Tribune archives)

On Easter Sunday, I ran into jazz saxophone great Joshua Redman in the unlikeliest of places: on the baseball field in Oakland, after the A’s game, where we were both running the bases with our kids. He was going home afterward to pack for a performance in London, and after our chance meeting, I went home and put on the first track of his album Moodswing. At the first notes out of Redman’s saxophone, I felt that all-too-familiar sense of wonder when listening to great jazz: Where did this come from?

It’s not a stretch to suggest that for Redman — and many, many other jazz artists — “this” came from Dr. Herb Wong. A passionate writer, educator, radio host, and lifelong jazz fan, Wong founded the Berkeley Unified School District’s jazz program, of which Redman eventually became a high-profile graduate. “I wouldn’t be playing music today if it weren’t for the Berkeley jazz program and Berkeley High,” Redman told the SF Classical Voice in 2011.

What neither I nor Redman knew at the A’s game last Sunday was that Wong, at age 88, had passed away that very morning.

As a passionate ambassador for jazz, Herb Wong lived a life as one behind the scenes, and yet he was always shaping the scene. You can see these figures across history, those who turn their love of a subject into lifelong missionary work—pioneers like Branch Rickey in baseball, Jane Goodall in primatology, or Warren Hellman in bluegrass. Wong attained a similar stature, and his seeds of influence only grew over time. Just as Bill Graham served as the go-to for Bay Area rock, such was Wong at the Bay Area center of all things jazz.

Good jazz is a music consisting of discovery, surprise, and, as some might suggest, happy accidents. All three convened to introduce Herb Wong to the music when he was a child -- born in Oakland in 1926, Wong moved as a child with his family to Stockton. There, a package of jazz albums meant to be delivered to the previous resident showed up at the family home, including those by Woody Herman and Duke Ellington. Wong and his brother played the unexpected albums over and over, giddily dropping the needle, and quizzing each other on artists, song titles and even individual soloists.


But that’s where the happy accidents stopped. From that point, inspired further by long journeys on trains to Oakland’s jazz clubs, Wong remained determined to spread the word of jazz and to plant its roots in East Bay schools. Against all reasonable odds, he brought the Oscar Peterson trio, the Phil Woods quartet and the Rahsaan Roland Kirk quintet to appear in Berkeley classrooms. When he famously booked the Duke Ellington Orchestra to perform for Berkeley school children in 1969, Wong paid the band out of his own pocket, because the school district wouldn’t fund their appearance.

“I was in the third grade when I saw Duke Ellington’s band play,” recalls Steven Bernstein, the famed trumpeter who graduated from Berkeley and now works in New York. “I remember three things: he taught us to snap our fingers (on two and four, to be ‘hip’), he invited a bunch of kids onstage to dance the funky chicken, and at some point there was a slideshow with a photo of Duke with our school principal.” In the 11th grade, Wong told Bernstein that his playing style reminded him of Harry “Sweets” Edison, a star of the Count Basie band. That was a “big compliment for an 11th grader.... for anyone,” says Bernstein. "He was just a hip and beautiful person."

In addition to Redman and Bernstein, Wong helped recruit jazz luminaries like Craig Handy, David Murray, Ambrose Akinmusire, Benny Green, Peter Apfelbaum, Will Bernard and hundreds of others into the genre.

When I heard about Wong’s death, and read that he once hosted the Oscar Peterson trio at an elementary school, I pulled a random Oscar Peterson record off the shelf to play — Eloquence, from 1965. Wong had written the liner notes.

Dr. Herb Wong
Dr. Herb Wong in recent years ( Jack Hutcheson)

“He used to be able to give me the exact number of liner notes that he’d done,” says Rick Ballard, the jazz distributor and owner of Groove Yard Records in Oakland. “It was in the hundreds — 300-400 liner notes that he’d done in his career.”

But Wong’s career doesn’t stop there. First, he had 36 years at KJAZ, where he hosted “Jazz Perspectives.” He also founded record labels such as Palo Alto Jazz Records and Blackhawk Records, through which Wong released albums by the likes of Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, Abdullah Ibrahim and Sonny Stitt. He even authored several books and taught 75 different jazz history courses over the course of 25 years.

It was that educational element that permeated throughout his work, and, indeed, his warm personality. Despite his vast knowledge, Wong was no music snob -- he cited as his favorite album Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, the best-selling jazz album of all time. Rather, he delighted in sharing, instead of lecturing, says celebrated tenor saxophonist, trumpeter and longtime friend Chico Freeman.

“He was connected with the record company people, the radio people, the really die hard jazz fans,” says Freeman, speaking via phone from Switzerland, “and he didn’t turn his nose up to anyone or any group that was involved with jazz. He was a force for bringing people together.”

Those people included alumni such as saxophonist and composer Peter Apfelbaum, who remained close with Wong after graduating.

"Dr. Wong was unfailingly positive and supportive of those of us who'd come through the program and gone on to become professional musicians," says Apfelbaum. "For me, he was just a pleasure to be around, and judging from his longstanding friendships with countless musicians -- including Duke Ellington, Woody Herman (whose repertoire included a tune called "Dr. Wong's Bag"), Louis Armstrong, Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck and others -- there were many, many more who felt the same way."

Even in the industry, Wong was well-loved. As Blue Note Records publicity director Cem Kurosman testifies, "Herb Wong will be greatly missed, both as the kind man that he was and also as a great advocate for jazz. His lifelong passion and enthusiasm for the music was inspiring to everyone whose life he touched."

Former director of marketing for the Monterey Jazz Festival, Paul S. Fingerote spent the past three months sitting down one-on-one in Wong’s home to collect his memories for an anthology of liner notes, articles and more, due to be released by McFarland Books. By his estimation, almost all Wong’s memories were good ones.

“Every time I asked him about an artist, or a tune, or a composer, he would kind of lean forward a little bit, and close his eyes,” says Fingerote. “And at one point, in my notes, I happened to write down, ‘Herb is reliving the moment.’ Throughout the three months or so I was able to spend with him, I watched him again and again, and he seemed to be reliving the moments, with great joy.”

Like many jazz fans, plenty of my own joyful moments result from Wong’s dogged persistence in forming the Berkeley schools jazz program. Sneaking underage into the old Yoshi’s to see Benny Green with Ray Brown, basking in the playing of David Murray at Birdland in New York City, watching Craig Handy live up to the band name “The Cookers” in Healdsburg, and yes, dropping the needle on those first beautiful opening notes of Redman’s Moodswing — all in part products of Wong’s vision, all those years ago, to teach jazz.

And though he wasn’t one to boast about it, there is a satisfaction in the fact that Herb Wong left this life knowing exactly how much he’d inspired others.

“I think he had a very good sense,” says Fingerote, “of how much he brought to the world."


A memorial service for Dr. Herb Wong takes place at 2pm on Tuesday, May 13, at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, 950 Santa Cruz Ave., Menlo Park.